Thursday, April 30, 2009

John Thain vs. Ken Lewis vs. Hank Paulson vs. Ben Bernanke

There's something highly annoying about watching the blame game playing out over the last week, first with Ken Lewis blaming Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke and, this morning, with John Thain getting in some licks against the guy who saved his firm from a Lehman-like outcome.

The press and shareholders often complain about the size of executive compensation (as well they should), but the truth is that execs and most notably CEOs (not unlike politicians) are driven by a more powerful motivation (especially towards the end of their careers): preservation and enhancement of their reputation and legacy.

What prompted Ken Lewis last week to point the finger at the US government for Bank of America's (BAC) troubles is the fact that he'll be facing the music this week at his shareholders' meeting. There will be a large number of highly respected shareholders voting against him and he might well follow Terry Semel's lead and resign a few days afterwards, if the votes against are large enough.

In Lewis' mind, his life's work (building up BAC into the world's largest financial supermarket -- no longer a positive -- buying FleetBoston, MBNA, Countrywide, and Merrill) is about to go by the boards with a negative vote. That would be even more devastating to him than losing his job or a paycheck.

Lewis is putting up his last defense in striking out at Paulson and Bernanke. Nothing personal guys, business is business.

For Thain, the situation is different. This is a guy that should have another good 15 years in front of him as a major financial services CEO. Now, that's in question since he decided to move up the Merrill bonuses last year and the whole office deco-gate.

In my view, neither man is coming off well with their latest accusations and both will have to spend more time in the penalty box. For Lewis, that might include a large mark is his career accomplishments after this week's vote.

Position: None.

Originally published in RealMoney on 4/27/2009 7:39 AM EDT.

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