William Cohan, author of House of Cards, writes in an op-ed in today's NYT:
Can it possibly be true that veteran Wall Street executives like Messrs. Cayne, Schwartz and Fuld — who were paid an estimated $128 million, $117 million and at least $350 million, respectively, in the five years before their businesses imploded — got all that money but were clueless about the risks they had exposed their firms to in the process?
In fact, although they have not chosen to admit it, many of these top bankers, as well as Stan O’Neal, the former chief executive of Merrill Lynch (who was handed $161.5 million when he “retired” in late 2007) made decision after decision, year after year, that turned their firms into houses of cards.
Could these Wall Street executives have made other, less risky choices? Of course they could have, if they had been motivated by something other than absolute greed. Many smaller firms — including Evercore Partners, Greenhill and Lazard — took one look at those risky securities and decided to steer clear. When I worked at Lazard in the 1990s, people tried to convince the firm’s patriarchs — André Meyer, Michel David-Weill and Felix Rohatyn — that they must expand into riskier lines of business to keep pace with the big boys. The answer was always a firm no.
Even the venerable if obscure Brown Brothers Harriman — the private partnership where Prescott Bush, the father and grandfather of two presidents, made his fortune — has remained consistently profitable since 1818. None of these smaller firms manufactured a single mortgage-backed security — and none has taken a penny of taxpayer money during this crisis.
So enough already with the charade of Wall Street executives pretending not to know what really happened and why. They know precisely why their banks either crashed or are alive only thanks to taxpayer-provided life support.