Even after Merrill Lynch had announced a $5.1 billion loss ($5.56 per diluted share) for the third quarter of 2008, Thain was insisting on a cash bonus of $40 million. Fleming and McCann were to get $25 million, while two other senior managers would get $15 million a piece. Thain subsequently admitted that a $20 million cash bonus for himself would be more "realistic." Given Merrill's losses in 2008 and the fact that the bank had to be sold, it is crazy that any cash bonuses would be paid for any senior manager. Thain's suggestion to the board's compensation committee that the bonuses be viewed as "success fees" for the top managers' efforts in putting together the sale of Merrill to Bank of America is nothing less than bizarre, if not comical. Failure as successs? What planet was Thain from? That a man like him ever got to be the CEO of a major bank (one too big to fail!) suggests that major flaws exist in how business practitioners view and value leadership and in how corporate governance is designed and operates.
When times were good, the finance crowd had lauded Thain as a “superman” for modernizing the NYSE. The business world tends to invent “superheroes”--even calling them rockstars!--while ignoring the more ignoble underbellies of its idols. In other words, leadership is worshipped without any clear grasp of the leaders' real contributions, while failure at the top is generally underplayed or ignored, at least financially speaking. This lack of proportion and balance is not by accident, as it is fully in the financial interests of the so-called "leaders." As for the followers and bystanders, these incredulous groupies--retarded court jesters wearing grizzled suits--happily allow themselves to get played as fools. They are dominated, not led, for the weak can dominate but not lead the herd animals.
See Part I Executive Compensation: Systemic Risk
Gred Farrell, Crash of the Titans (New York: Crown Business, 2010). On Thain's bonus, see chapter 16.