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Feb. 8 2010 - 12:54 am | 510 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

John Thain lands at CIT. CIT board, what are you thinking?

John Thain, CEO of the New York Stock Exchange...

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John Thain, the man who orchestrated Merrill Lynch’s transition from Wall Street star to Supernova to huge drag on Bank of America’s bottom line — all the while making sure his people got $3.6 billion in bonuses for their part in that sorry ride — has been named the new CEO of CIT Group.


To hear CIT tell it, it’s almost as though the Merrill debacle is an inconsequential blip on his resume.

Prior to Merrill, Thain served as CEO of the New York Stock Exchange and president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs. A CIT spokesman said Thain’s role at the NYSE, where he modernized the exchange and better positioned it to compete in the global marketplace, was one of the accomplishments that most impressed CIT’s board.

I don’t know whether that praise is warranted (wasn’t that one of the things the NYSE board cited in justifying Richard Grasso’s $139 million compensation package?), but maybe it is. But that was several jobs ago.

From what I can tell, he did a masterful job of persuading Bank of America to buy Merrill Lynch, which was going down the tubes, big time.

Actually, I’m not being sarcastic here — Ken Lewis and the other BofA people have been charged with withholding news of Merrill’s huge losses from BofA shareholders, but no one has said Thain lied to them about it. And he sure got a good deal for his people.

But the fact remains, Thain was unable to save Merrill from financial implosion, he’s part of the huge-bonus culture, he’s a member of the Goldman old boys club — and let’s not forget his million-dollar renovation of his office. Does CIT really want to be led by someone who seems to have modeled his spending habits after Tyco’s (now-imprisoned) Dennis Kozlowski?

CIT has cost the taxpayer plenty (with little hope of repayment). But it really seems to have made great strides in solving its own problems. And most important (at least to me) this 100-year-old company seems to be one of the few (only?) bailed out financial firms that really is pumping money back into the economy, rather than just into its executives pockets:

The company moved through bankruptcy in just six weeks because its key bondholders had already approved a reorganization plan. It was able to cut its total debt by $10.5 billion and deferred debt maturities for three years. The same month it emerged from Chapter 11 it made plans to start lending again, committing to fund $500 million in new government-guaranteed loans to small business customers in 2010.

CIT is going back to its roots, which makes hiring a high-profile failure like Thain seem absolutely boneheaded. I’ll bet there are executives at regional banks, people who steered their institutions through the financial storms, who would be honored to run CIT as a conservative, fiscally sound lending institution.

But while I’m baffled at CIT’s choice, I’m not despairing. Thain is getting paid $500,000, with I think a bonus potential of less than $2 million.  For folks like me, that’s a small fortune; for folks like Thain, it’s chump change.  Wall Street pundits say that one of the main reasons he wanted the job was to repair his reputation.  If that is indeed his goal, he has every incentive to manage CIT conservatively and profitably, with an eye toward societal good.

Otherwise, all he’s done is failed upward.  The American way.


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  1. collapse expand

    In all fairness, John Thain was only at Merrill Lynch a little over 1 year. Yes, his ‘redecorating’ was hugely inappropriate, the person to blame for the firms downfall is Stan O’Neal. He was the one that completely screwed the company (how about a 2.2 billion loss on his exit). By then, the damage was done pretty much. Now if they hired O’Neal…that would be more deserving. Quoting Wikipedia:

    “During August and September 2007, as the sub-prime crisis swept through the global financial market, Merrill Lynch announced losses of $8 billion. O’Neal is largely credited with having steered Merrill Lynch into the disastrous sub-prime arena, and responsible for the losses. As the crisis worsened, O’Neal approached Wachovia Bank without the approval of Merrill’s Board of Directors, which led to his ouster. O’Neal walked away with a golden parachute compensation package that included Merrill stock and options valued at $161.5 million at the time.”

    Talk about stupid…pay the guy who wrecked the company 161.5 million

  2. collapse expand

    You might want to check out the wisdom of Alcoa…which is where O’Neal is now. They are the ones who have serious questions to answer for ‘what were you thinking’ moments

  3. collapse expand

    So, do you think it’s worth $2.5 million to the board of CIT to say “screw you” to the American people? I do.
    And, I have a hard time praising CIT for their small business loans when they are guaranteed by the American tax payer. What interest rates are they charging?
    There is no excuse for Wall Street.

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    I graduated from Cornell with a degree in child psychology, enough years ago so that all you needed to break into journalism was willingness to starve. I went into business journalism because, in the 60s, the business press was the crusading press, the ones that wrote about environment, race relations, etc. Since then I have worked for Business Week, Chemical Week and, from 1984 through May 2008, BizDay at the New York Times. I remain bored by and ignorant of esoteric financial instruments; I remain fascinated and pretty knowledgeable about management, marketing, environment, all the non-financial aspects of business. But my true passions? Tennis, both playing and watching, and food, both cooking and eating.

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