With this week’s anniversary, all sorts of analysts will be telling us why they think Lehman Bros. went under. Why should I be left out?
My theory is simple: It was Richard Fuld‘s face. Fuld himself is said to harbor deep resentment (and he’s got a face built for it) that the gummint bailed out all the other kids on the block, but not him. I think it’s because the various officials involved in such a decision knew they’d have to draw the line somewhere, and Fuld’s perpetually glowering, arrogant, self-important visage was the deciding factor.
For the year or so leading up to last year’s collapse, I saw the image at right in The Wall Street Journal a lot, and in my mind, this one face had come to symbolize the very worst of the Wall Street “Master of the Universe” mentality. I suggest that I was not alone in this. If the bailout gravy train had to be stopped somewhere, there was no way this guy was going to get a helping hand to be the last one aboard. (There’s something a bit off about that metaphor, but I’m going to stick with it, because that’s what I think Richard Fuld would do, even if it meant running his entire thesis into the ground.)
Yeah, I know, people who understand a lot more about this situation than I do (such as people who, for instance, have a clue what in the heck people who worked at Lehman Bros. did for a living) can probably explain in detail why I’m wrong, citing all sorts of facts and figures and graphics with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, demonstrating conclusively that there were all sorts of objective reasons why Lehman was allowed to fail while others were not. I acknowledge that. But I’m pretty sure that one could also find a bunch of other knowledgeable analysts who could prove that the opposite was true.
What I’m saying is that, given all the highly complex variables involved, there was a point at which intangibles came into play. And I think the people making the final call were sick of this guy looking down his nose at them and the rest of the world — or they understood at least that if you had to pick a fall guy, Central Casting couldn’t have come up with one less likely to excite widespread public sympathy than this guy.
That made the decision a lot simpler than it would have been otherwise.
This is not a new theory for me; I’ve just refined it over the past year, and this seemed a good time to trot it out so you could admire it. Here’s what I said about the best-known image of Fuld’s face last year:
It was the sort of picture that no sane company publicist would ever have distributed, unless it wanted its CEO to be hated. And you knew this was a CEO; the picture just radiated, “I’m the kind of guy who thinks he’s really hot stuff because I’m so absurdly overcompensated.” And you know, I seldom think that when I look at people. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt (something that drives some of y’all crazy, because you’re always wanting me to join you in despising somebody, and I just don’t feel like it — not necessarily because I’m a nice guy; I just don’t feel like it). But this picture INSISTED that you not like the guy. If a psychologist included this photo in a Thematic Apperception Test, I suspect there would be a surprising uniformity in the stories the subjects would tell.