Paid to Fail

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.

Most importantly, the firms’ top executives regularly unloaded shares and options, and thus were able to cash out a lot of their equity before the stock price of their firm plummeted. Indeed, the top five executives unloaded more shares during the years prior to their firms’ meltdown than they held when disaster came in 2008. Altogether, during 2000-2008, the top executive teams at Bear Stearns and Lehman cashed out about $1.1 billion and $850 million (in 2009 dollars), respectively.