Paid to Fail

In a report just filed with the US court that is overseeing the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, a court-appointed examiner described how the firms' executives deliberately pursued an aggressive investment strategy, took on greater risks, and substantially increased leverage. In this way, they literally destroyed the company - but, worse still, they were paid to do so.

CAMBRIDGE – In a report just filed with the United States court that is overseeing the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, a court-appointed examiner described how Lehman’s executives made deliberate decisions to pursue an aggressive investment strategy, take on greater risks, and substantially increase leverage. Were these decisions the result of hubris and errors in judgment or the product of flawed incentives?

After Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers melted down, ushering in a worldwide crisis, media reports largely assumed that the wealth of these firms’ executives was wiped out, together with that of the firms they navigated into disaster. This “standard narrative” led commentators to downplay the role of flawed compensation arrangements and the importance of reforming the structures of executive pay.

In our study, “The Wages of Failure: Executive Compensation at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers 2000-2008,” we examine this standard narrative and find it to be incorrect. We piece together the cash flows derived by the firms’ top five executives using data from Securities and Exchange Commission filings. We find that, notwithstanding the 2008 collapse of the firms, the bottom lines of those executives for the period 2000-2008 were positive and substantial.

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