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Putting an end to Wall Street's 'I'll be gone, you'll be gone' bonuses

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Consider:

- Lehman Brothers Chairman and CEO Richard Fuld Jr. made nearly a half-billion - $490 million - from selling Lehman stock in the years before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

- Countrywide Financial (now owned by Bank of America) founder and CEO Angelo Mozilo cashed in $122 million in stock options in 2007; His total take is estimated at more than $400 million dollars.

- Stanley O'Neal, who steered Merrill Lynch into financial collapse before it was taken over in a shotgun wedding with Bank of America in 2008, was given a package of $160 million when he retired.

- Bear Stearns former chairman Jimmy Cayne, rescued by a $29 billion Fed shotgun wedding to JPMorgan Chase, received $60 million when he was replaced;

- Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd received $11.6 million in 2007. His counterpart at Freddie Mac, Richard Syron, brought in $18 million. In 2008, the two were forced into government conservatorship.

Add to this list Washington Mutual, Wachovia, IndyMac and other bankrupted firms whose senior management took a boatload of money and ran.

Nice work if you can get it - and still live with yourself.

Blame game

How did this happen? Some people blame excessive greed; others say crony capitalism is at fault. I believe we can sum it up in one word: liability.

In recent years, there was no legal liability for extreme recklessness. Take a healthy company, roll the dice and if it comes up snake eyes, all you lose are your unvested stock options. Most management does not have significant capital at risk.

The cost for pushing a healthy firm into insolvency by excessive risk-taking is some snickering at the golf course. In terms of lost monies, it is minimal.

You might be surprised to learn that it was not always this way. Before these firms went public in the 1970s and 1980s, bank management had full liability for their firm's losses. During the era of Wall Street partnerships, if employees were so reckless as to lose billions of dollars, the partners were on the hook for the full amount. This meant that after the firm was liquidated to pay its debts, the partners' personal assets were next on the auction block: Houses, cars, boats, even watches were sold to satisfy the debt.


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