Sheila Bair Rates Wall Street’s CEOs

Courtesy of Larry Doyle.

Few people had as much interaction in the heat of battle with financial CEOs than former FDIC chair Sheila Bair. What does Ms. Bair think of both past and current chief executives on Wall Street?

American Banker provides a riveting review of the good, the bad, and the ugly according to Ms. Bair in writing, What Sheila Bair Really Thinks of Big Bank Execs,

Former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair was always known for speaking her mind, even when she ran the agency from 2006 to 2011. 

But in her new book “Bull by the Horns,” an excerpt of which was featured on Fortune last week, Bair offers a very candid commentary about what she actually thought of the executives running the nation’s largest banks during the financial crisis.

Vikram Pandit, C
itigroup

The CEO of Citigroup, Bair said: “Frankly, I doubted that he was up to the job. He had been brought in to clean up the mess at Citi… I thought Pandit had been a poor choice. He was a hedge fund manager by occupation and one with a mixed record at that. He had no experience as a commercial banker, yet now he was heading one of the biggest banks in the country.”

Ken Lewis, Bank of America

Bair described the views other bank CEOs had of Ken Lewis, the then leader of Bank of America. Bair said Lewis “never really fit in with this crowd. He was viewed somewhat as a country bumpkin by the CEOs of the big New York banks, and not completely without justification. He was a decent traditional banker, but as a dealmaker his skills were clearly wanting.”

Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase

Bair thought highly of Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, describing him as the “smartest” executive in the room. “Dimon was a towering figure in height as well as leadership ability. He had forewarned of deteriorating conditions in the subprime market in 2006 and had taken preemptive measures to protect his bank before the crisis hit. As a consequence, while other institutions were reeling, mighty J.P. Morgan Chase had scooped up weaker institutions at bargain prices,” she wrote.

Richard Kovacevich, Wells Fargo

Bair describes Richard Kovacevich, the then CEO of Wells Fargo, as eager to discuss the bank’s acquisition of failing Wachovia. “Kovacevich could be rude and abrupt, but he and his bank were very good at managing their business and executing on deals.”

Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs

Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, had a “puckish charm and quick wit” that “belied a reputation for tough, if not ruthless, business acumen,” Bair wrote.

John Thain, Merrill Lynch

Tellingly, Bair describes John Thain, the last CEO of Merrill Lynch, as standing outside the perimeter of a conversation between Dimon and Blankfein “trying to listen in.” She also criticizes him for immediately asking about potential restrictions on executive compensation if banks accepted Tarp money. “I couldn’t believe it. Where were the guy’s priorities?” she wondered.

Way to go John Thain. Showing the true colors there. Nicely done, buddy. Wow. Talk about pathetic.

I have often thought and stated publicly that truly outstanding managers on Wall Street were in very short supply. Thus, I would venture to say that Thain is representative of Wall Street management in general. Mr. Dimon is certainly far from perfect but I never witnessed an individual with such command of details, the recent fiasco with “the London whale” notwithstanding.

While Wall Street management may be weak, who and what are even weaker? Wall Street’s boards of directors who are charged with overseeing management and operations. Little of this ineptitude has really changed since the fall 2008 meltdown. Why? Because who is the weakest of all? Wall Street’s regulators and Washington’s legislators.

Unlike the pressure brought to bear upon Barclays  CEO Bob Diamond to step down a few months back, our nation’s regulators and legislators take the prize when measuring degrees of weakness. Sadly little to nothing has changed on that front either despite the trillions of dollars in bailouts and taxpayer support.

We can only hope that some real leaders develop and that financial historians capture these realities appropriately so that down the road future generations do not have to suffer a similar fate.

Navigate accordingly.

Larry Doyle

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