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O'Neal Skates With $160 Million

Makes you wonder what Merrill would pay for a really good CEO.

What's the price for failure on Wall Street these days?

If you're Stanley O'Neal, it's, oh, about $160 million.

The ousted

Merrill Lynch


CEO is walking away with about that much following this week's palace coup.

Sources confirm that O'Neal leaves with about $90 million in stock, $40 million in options and another $30 million in pension and other goodies. The finer points are still being worked out. And the values change with the company's share price.

Not bad for years of alleged "underperformance." Makes you wonder what Merrill would pay for a really good CEO.

A spokesman for Merrill said O'Neal gets no special severance package, but he does get to keep shares and options that had not yet vested.

And he gets to say that he "retired" at 56.

Sure. Kind of the way Julius Caesar "retired" as dictator of Rome.

O'Neal was taken out by a boardroom coup following record losses at the Wall Street bank. Merrill lost $2.2 billion during the market turmoil last quarter, after taking an $8.4 billion write-down.The news sent its shares tumbling. O'Neal then alienated allies by broaching merger talks with

Wachovia Bank

(WB) - Get Free Report

without first telling his own board.

The knives came out last week. A whispering campaign showed board members distancing themselves from the isolated head honcho -- and implying they had been unhappy with his performance for years.

It's the usual rewriting of history.

It's only been 21 months since the same board members were lavishing O'Neal with praise and a special $36 million bonus for doing such a good job.

They gave him another $18.5 million cash bonus plus another $27 million in stockand $2 million in extra incentives just last January.

Turns out they were embracing him and kissing him on the cheek almost up to the moment when they stuck in the shiv. "Mother Merrill" my eye.

In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, Brett Arends doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Arends takes a critical look inside mutual funds and the personal finance industry in a twice-weekly column that ranges from investment advice for the general reader to the industry's latest scoop. Prior to joining in 2006, he worked for more than two years at the Boston Herald, where he revived the paper's well-known 'On State Street' finance column and was part of a team that won two SABEW awards in 2005. He had previously written for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail newspapers in London, the magazine Private Eye, and for Global Agenda, the official magazine of the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland. Arends has also written a book on sports 'futures' betting.