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Opinion:Thain's Undoing Was Thinking He's Worth It

1. He decided to move up Merrill's bonuses which are typically paid in January to December, prior to the closing of the merger with BofA. The payouts amounted to $15 billion, only a 6% drop from last year. Bank of America sought an additional $20 billion from the Treasury days later.

2. He did not come to BofA CEO Ken Lewis immediately to disclose Merrill's fourth-quarter loss after a sharp erosion of Merrill's book of business.

3. He left New York to go on a family ski vacation in Vail at the time news broke about the Merrill bonuses.

4. He planned to attend the upcoming Davos meeting, even though the financial industry is once again under extreme strain and BofA has advised against it.

5. He reportedly ordered an expensive redecoration of the Merrill corporate offices using his personal decorator in early 2008 at the same time he was preaching cost cuts to his new employees. (Among the expenses reported: $87,000 for an area rug, $11,000 for a "Roman shade" and $243,000 in salary and bonuses for Thain's driver last year.)

The last detail prompted short-seller Doug Kass to draw comparisons with now-imprisoned former CEO of Tyco (TYC - Get Report), Dennis Kozlowski, who famously approved a $6,000 shower curtain for the corporate apartment he stayed at in New York. (Kozlowski actually looks frugal compared to Thain.)

What's interesting about to the comparison between Thain and Kozlowski is that both were highly regarded prior to these scandals. At the time of his hiring, new Merrill CFO Nelson Chai complemented Thain's intelligence: "When you're the smartest guy in the room, which he typically is, you come at things from a different altitude."

How could someone so smart, make these poor decisions? And if it can happen to Thain, who will be the next golden CEO to drop? How can you spot the next smart executive to fail?

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