'Fred the Shred' Puts Face on British Banking Crisis
Saturday, February 28, 2009
LONDON, Feb. 27 -- In the British popular imagination, the global financial crisis now has a name, and it is Fred.
As in Fred Goodwin, former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, known as Sir Fred to more decorous Britons, and "Fred the Shred" to the less charitable.
Goodwin, who until recently was a bona fide Master of the Universe, a crisp and toned bank shogun with the deeply contented look of a private-jet flier, has suddenly emerged as the chief punching bag for Britons furious about their crumbling economy.
Two disclosures on Thursday hit Goodwin like a jab and an uppercut. RBS, which Goodwin led for a decade, lost $34.2 billion last year -- a staggering national record. And the British learned that when Goodwin, 50, was forced out last fall he engineered a pension of more than $980,000 a year -- for life -- to be paid largely by British taxpayers.
This struck many as a grossly inappropriate reward for failure. "Obscene!" screamed the headline in the Daily Express.
The government, eager to stay on the good side of an increasingly teed-off electorate, very publicly asked Goodwin to recognize the political winds and forgo some of the bounty.
Goodwin declined. In a public letter that bristled with defiance and indignation, he said he had earned his pension and any reduction was "not warranted."
Fairly or unfairly, by Friday morning in the headlines and on the airwaves Goodwin had been all but fitted with a black cowboy hat and a Snidely Whiplash mustache.
Several newspapers ran pictures of a smiling Goodwin, practically begging cash-strapped readers to imagine his wallet bulging with their tax money. For life.
"I'm Keeping Every Penny," raged the Daily Mail.
The headlines reflected sentiment on the streets of London, where Goodwin is suddenly a household name and Caz Brill, 62, called him a "naughty man."
"It's not like he's going to the poorhouse anytime soon," she said, rolling her eyes. "He's a different breed. I don't know what wavelength he's on."