Why give Ken Lewis a break?

By Felix Salmon
October 3, 2009
Tom Lindmark says I should give Ken Lewis a break:

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Tom Lindmark says I should give Ken Lewis a break:

Felix Salmon made a good point in a post yesterday when he said that running a mega bank was not something that any individual was capable of doing…

While Felix thinks that bank CEO’s cannot positively influence the outcome of their institutions, he seems perfectly willing to assert that they can destroy the bank. This makes no sense logically but it does typify the sort of disparagement that has been dealt out to Lewis and others.

I do think that the importance of CEOs is often overrated, but of course Ken Lewis is and was entirely capable of destroying shareholder value. One of the ways he did that was by growing Nationsbank, by acquisition, into a bank which is now too big to manage or effectively run. Another way he did that was by buying Countrywide and Merrill Lynch.

Conversely, there are ways for bank CEOs to protect shareholder value. In an interest-rate environment like the one we have right now, banks will be steadily and highly profitable on a week-to-week basis. The job of senior management is to keep an eye on the risk book, and make sure that no one is taking outsize risks which can’t be managed. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are both very good at this. Ken Lewis was always very bad at that aspect of the job: when things started heading south in the housing market, he decided the best thing to do was to redouble his housing bets by buying Countrywide.

Lindmark suggests that the disparagement of Lewis is snobbish NYC elitism:

Lewis’s real problem was never about his ability to run a bank but rather about his looks, demeanor, background and geographic location. He isn’t Jamie Dimon smooth and he looks like a man either in a permanent state of confusion or one about to rip out a subordinates throat. He never made any bones about his middle class background nor about his strong desire to succeed and running a bank based in Charlotte automatically knocks you down a lot of pegs in the viewpoint of the New York crowd.

Jamie Dimon bought Bear Stearns and got a sweetheart deal from the government to make it work. Ken Lewis bought Merrill Lynch and went back after the fact to get their backing. Little is said of Dimon’s deal while Lewis is vilified for everything connected with the Merrill acquisition.

This is ridiculous. People hate Lewis because he’s middle class? Er, no. Because he’s ambitious? (And Dimon isn’t?) Because he’s based in Charlotte? Come on. They hated on Stan O’Neal and Dick Fuld and Jimmy Cayne and Chuck Prince just as much, and they were based in New York.

As for Ken Lewis getting more grief for buying Merrill than Dimon has got for buying Bear, well, yes. Lewis overpaid massively for his failing investment bank, while Dimon got the Federal Reserve to subsidize his purchase to the tune of $29 billion. Both CEOs are ambitious, but only one let his ambition get the better of him. And he’s the one who just resigned.

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