The Wall Street amnesty program: Just give back the money

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In Thursday’s FT, John Gapper does a very nice job of threading the needle on The Great Bob Rubin Question:

Mr Rubin needs to find a way to make up for his part in Citi’s downfall. My suggestion is that, in addition to giving up his bonus for this year and last, he returns, or gives to a good cause, the bonuses he got in 2005 and 2006, the years when Citi’s risk-taking ratcheted up.

His point is that Rubin is clearly partly culpable for Citi’s troubles. You can’t get paid $115 million by a company over nine years and not take some responsibility for its fate. But Rubin is also a smart, public-spirited, useful member of our society. There’s nothing to be gained from making a pariah of him. So let him hand over $30 million or so (two years of bonuses), and then we can all move on.

I think this approach can have broader applications. There’s a sad, sad cover story in the latest New York about former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld, who apparently feels terribly bitter about his current predicament. I sympathize a bit with the man, who was no more culpable than lots of other people on Wall Street for what came to pass. In fact, I would say that he was less culpable than Jimmy Cayne or Stan O’Neill or Chuck Prince or Martin Sullivan, none of whom has been subjected the kind of calumny that Fuld has. But then, as the article makes very clear, Fuld still has lots of money–and five houses. So howzabout he just hands over every penny he made over and above his base salary over the past two or three (or four) years, and then we all forgive him and move on?

This could be the makings of a general Wall Street amnesty program. It’s not that I think Wall Street is solely to blame for the current financial crisis. I’m sure Barney Frank is a little bit to blame for pushing affordable housing. Millions of borrowers are to blame for biting off more than they could chew. George Bush and Alan Greenspan are to blame for being asleep at the wheel when lending went bonkers. Hell, I’m to blame for failing to see that the bursting of a U.S. housing bubble could cause a global financial breakdown (I did do okay on warning that the housing bubble would burst, as did a lot of other financial journalists). But here’s something important that Barney Frank and those subprime and Alt-A borrowers and George Bush and Alan Greenspan and I all share: We didn’t make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars off our failure to assess risk properly. (Yes, Greenspan cashed in after leaving the Fed; but I would bet his speaking fee has gone down lately.)

Meanwhile, lots of people on Wall Street did make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars by misassessing risk. So how about this: If any of the executives or former executives of institutions that have subsequently failed or had to be backstopped by the taxpayers ever wants to be taken seriously again, they can just give up every penny they made above and beyond their base salaries in 2005 and 2006. Or, better yet, from 2004 (the first full year of the craziness) through 2007. Deal?

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