In times of great troubles, it is natural to look for a savior, someone who can get us out of trouble with a wave of the hand and a confident smile.
The business media is like that. It is never ceases to look for—and find!—saviors of corporations, investment banks, even the entire financial system, despite the fact that these dear leaders, one by one, invariably, inevitably, fail. In this, they remind us of members of certain Hasidic sects, who, impatient for the coming of the Messiah, are given to chanting: “We want Moshiach NOW!”
The birth and death of false idols in the business press is a strange and important phenomenon. Strange because it keeps happening. Important because it is a symptom of a serious weakness in coverage. It reflects the fact that the press is clinging to an old narrative, built around Wall Street Masters of the Universe.
This narrative persists despite the fact that recent events have demonstrated that the system suffers from fundamental flaws no lone individual can fix. And thus, while never ideal, this habit is now especially pernicious. To think that any one person can right a corporation as drenched in subprime as Merrill is to fundamentally misunderstand the financial crisis.
The saga of Hank Paulson is a particularly blatant example of hero-worship gone wrong, but there are other fallen idols. Another obvious example is Lehman’s Dick Fuld. We recently focused on his demonization, but could have done an equally lengthy look at his rise.
Which brings us to the story of the latest collapse, John Thain: the erstwhile “Mr. Fix-It” who not only couldn’t fix the unfixable Merrill but now can’t even fix his own career.
In an effort to trace Thain’s transformation from golden boy to golden calf, we undertook to scour the archives. The short of it is that Thain courted the press from the beginning, with great success, and the press responded with an enthusiasm that betrayed a lack of understanding that the damage Merrill caused to others and itself was far, far beyond repair. For this, the press only has itself to blame.
As for the long of it: It’s actually a useful lesson in how easy it is for someone in power to develop a “character” that doesn’t actually exist for a narrative that never quite fits the facts. So let’s start.
Named Merrill CEO in November 2007, Thain took over the corner office December 1. The media immediately offered him the mantle of authority, based in large part on his transformation of the New York Stock Exchange—a performance from which traces of problems were scrubbed, so that when they occasionally surfaced later, they came as a surprise.
The Wall Street Journal’s lengthy front-page piece November 15 struck a typically hopeful tone. The language echoes Chinese Communist paeans to the Great Helmsman during the Mao era:
Merrill Lynch & Co.’s choice of John Thain, head of NYSE Euronext, as Merrill’s new chief executive signals that after years of inner turmoil and risky expansion, the beleaguered financial giant wants a pair of steady hands at the helm.
For Wall Street at large, the message in the elevation of the low-key financial veteran is clear. After an era of go-go growth that led firms into profitable but chancy areas like mortgage securities, the industry is moving toward the kind of leader who gets down into the nitty-gritty of risk management.
And the nitty gritty of interior decorating. The piece went on to observe:
It’s no coincidence, say Wall Street executives, that the firms that haven’t been damaged as badly are led by executives with extensive operational experience. ‘You look at a Dick Fuld or a Jamie Dimon, and they have dirt under their fingernails,’ said a person close to Citi’s board.
Dick Fuld? Whoops!—last year’s false messiah. As it happens, Thain’s management style turned also out to be a problem, despite the fact that readers wouldn’t find that out for more than a year. We’ll get to the specifics further down, but for now just note it as one of the assumptions that never had sufficient backing.
And quite frankly, the WSJ, which in a separate piece offered the prescient suggestion that Bank of America was the most suited to buy Merrill, doesn’t look as silly in hindsight as many of the other observers.
Like The Globe and Mail, which resurrects Thain’s Goldman Sachs nickname “Thain the Humane.”
BusinessWeek was one of several outlets that went with the Superman metaphor (because hey, when you’ve got a Clark Kent look alike, what else is there to do?). Meanwhile, the FT’s Lex column asks us: “Why is John Thain the right person to fix Merrill Lynch’s woes?” And then goes on to answer itself.