Monday, January 26, 2009

The Audacity of greed

'These are extraordinary times and they call for swift and extraordinary action' Man of the moment, Barack Obama made this statement this morning at the White House, while discussing the need for energy independence. America is now on the threshold of being the leader of energy thrift going forward. As a person watching the economic crisis from the sidelines, albeit apprehensive, that the rapidly unfolding mess, which shows no signs of having been completely unraveled, I can only watch, and watch with hope that the measures being taken by various economic superpowers to try and extricate the world from depressed gloom might actually work.

But every now and then, there are reports of how the top management of big firms squandered precious money, and how these excesses would have practically gone unnoticed, had it not been for the economic crisis.

Topping the list is John Thain - Merill Lynch CEO, who spent $1.2 million to redecorate his new office. His splurges include - $2,700 for six wall sconces, $5,000 for a mirror in his private dining room, $11,000 for fabric for a "Roman Shade”, $13,000 for a chandelier in the private dining room, $15,000 for a sofa, $16,000 for a "custom coffee table", $18,000 for a “George IV Desk", $25,000 for a "mahogany pedestal table", $28,000 for four pairs of curtains, $35,000 for something called a "commode on legs", $37,000 for six chairs in his private dining room, $68,000 for a "19th Century Credenza" in his office, $87,000 for a pair of guest chairs, $87,000 for an area rug in Thain's conference room and another area rug for $44,000, $230,000 to his driver for one year’s work, $800,000 to hire celebrity designer Michael Smith, who is currently redesigning the White House for the Obama family for just $100,000.

He apparently signed off on a check for $3000 for labor for replacing the light bulbs on those sconces! It is appalling, since Thain (ex-director of NYSE and former Goldman Sachs employee) was the man appointed to turn Merill's futures around. Yup, turnaround alright! From bad to non-existent! Hurried bonuses for top executives, not disclosing the full measure of the rot to Bank of America before the buyout, and grossly stupid excesses define the Bank of America - Merill Lynch union!

This is just one case. Just before the Street came crashing down, at the start of 2007, Todd Thomson was ousted as head of wealth management at Citigroup since tough times called for cost-cutting and Todd's excesses came out into the open! Apparently the office boardroom, which was almost exclusively used by Thomson, had marble flooring and polished wood cabinets. His main office had a house for Flipper, which is fine, except that it was a tropical fish-tank. The office took on a more Forrester Creations look with Persian rugs and a giant wood-burning fireplace. Mr Thomson also ruffled angry feathers with his use of the corporate jet, relegating other executives to 'cheaper' transport, (which I am sure would have been nothing short of First Class on some high priced airline) for the return leg of a visit to China so he could travel alone with CNBC's Mario Bartiromo. Excesses indeed!!!

Next - AIG. CDS took AIG under. And while AIG went sputtering, gasping for help, 70 employees had been rewarded with a week-long stay at the luxury St Regis Resort in California. The bill? $440,000. And look at the audacity of greed (good title for a new book... I stake my claim on that title) , a week later, it came out into the open that the company was planning another trip – but executives cancelled that one.

Finally (hopefully) - Bear Stearns. This story just is the crown jewel of the excesses saga. Jimmy Cayne, long standing chairman of Bear Stearns, wanted to be Tiger Woods one day! He stressed more on Golf practice, and seldom ever came to work on Fridays. When I hear about investment banking jobs from my friends, I get the picture of 20 hour workdays, ears stuck to the phone, fingers glued to the blackberry, divorces, what not! But 'let the company go to hell while I play golf', seems like a fun occupation for earning 8 figure salaries! Even working days called for golf. Manhattan traffic? well, there's no one up in the sky! Helicopter rides to the green - well, golf was an addiction indeed. Nero fiddled while Rome burnt. Well, Cayne putted when BS went under. Apparently when two of his flagship hedge funds toppled, Mr Cayne was very much on course, I mean the Golf course! And when BS finally said goodbye, he was at Detroit at the North American Bridge Championship. Much like the case of old man Thain. While Bank of America implored Congress for additional taxpayer bailout, with Ken Lewis working overtime to resolve the mess, each day discovering new black holes, which Mr Thain had never mentioned, Thain was busy skiing in Aspen Colorado!

India is seeing its worst disgrace ever. Satyam, one of India's largest IT services provider has been embroiled in a dirty fraud. Latest news says 2 PWC partners in India have been put behind bars along with the perpetrators - B Ramalinga Raju and his brother Rama Raju. The fraud? Siphoning funds from the publicly listed Satyam (shareholders' money) into Ramalinga Raju's son's firm Maytas, while falsely depicting augmented cash and reduced debts. Sounds Thainy to you? Very much indeed, except that Mr Raju unfortunately has a prison loo at his disposal.

Extraordinary times bring out extraordinary stories indeed.....

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