We are not the only ones to wonder at the tone of this coverage. In mid-September, Dow Jones’s Jon Friedman wrote:
I cringed as I watched the press conference for Ken Lewis of Bank of America and John Thain of Merrill Lynch on Monday. The two gathered to discuss B of A’s proposed acquisition of Merrill.
The event should have been regarded as a sorry state of affairs, yet another glaring sign of greed, stupidity and mismanagement on Wall Street. Why else would Merrill Lynch, Wall Street’s most acclaimed ambassador to Main Street, among other verities, be forced to sell itself in such an inglorious way?
With all the carnage, you might expect to see a pinstripe lynch mob of sorts encounter the two chief executives. But the media were so polite and deferential to the two CEOs, they behaved as if the press conference were a victory lap for the financial services industry.
If you want a more appropriate tone, try this mid-September BusinessWeek piece. And we can’t help but point out the impressive Gretchen Morgenson at the Times, who offered us an excellent early November piece in which she traced Merrill’s years-old subprime strategy and subsequent fall. Thain doesn’t figure prominently here, and he shouldn’t. Morgenson pulls us away from the hero/antihero narrative and gets us back to looking at systematic problems. The difference is clear. And yet the business press never learns this lesson.
December 2008 was a pivotal month for Thain, when Merrill’s cracks became so wide that his carefully crafted persona was impossible to sustain.
The first week brought no major damage. December 5, shareholders of the two companies approved the sale despite doubts. Thain still looked pretty good.
But then came the bonus issue.
The WSJ broke the story December 8 that Thain had requested a $10 million bonus, and furor ensued. (Credit must be given the Journal’s Susanne Craig, who is perhaps the best-sourced reporter on Wall Street.) Both the New York attorney general and the Senate majority leader condemned the (ultimately failed) request. As did pretty much everyone else.
Finally, something that really pierced Thain’s armor. But still, the focus here is on the man and not the institution. The bonus came to serve as a proxy for the real outrage: the crap that Merrill and all of Wall Street held and how it came to hold it. Outrage was the right response to the bonus request, but where was all of the skepticism earlier?
Pieces like the WSJ’s “Mr. Fix-It Failed to Take Measure of Mess” observed, “Thain Proved Unable to Repair Merrill or get B of A Backing, and Underestimated Depth of Financial Crisis.” And suddenly those old complaints about Thain’s NYSE tenure come out of the woodwork. Now you tell us!
The FT, meanwhile, told us, “Mr. Fix-It Masterstroke Comes Unstuck.” And took aim even at Thain’s main claim to success, selling Merrill:
As for his masterstroke, the sale of Merrill to BofA, even that wasn’t his idea, according to several people involved in the matter. Mr Thain’s top lieutenant, Greg Fleming, urged him to approach BofA in the days leading up to Lehman’s September collapse. But according to several witnesses who were with Mr Thain at the New York Federal Reserve on the weekend of the deal, Mr Thain called Mr Lewis to initiate talks only after being urged to do so by his former Goldman boss, the then-US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson.
A feeding frenzy!
These stories really point to the biggest problem with creating narratives around individuals: The story doesn’t remain as flexible as it should be. The hero narrative divides the world into good and bad. And so angels like Thain become demons— like Thain.