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Bear Stearns Fat Cats Cashed Out at the Top

Greenberg, Molinaro, Cayne and Spector sold $57 million of stock before the crisis hit.

BOSTON -- Wall Street bank Bear Stearns (BSC) is right at the heart of the subprime mortgage meltdown. It's reeling from massive, multibillion-dollar losses at two hedge funds.

And every investor who has watched the stock collapse from more than $172 to just $117.78 in a few months is probably kicking himself for not selling at least some back at the peak, before the crisis hit.

Four savvy investors did just that.

Step forward, Alan Greenberg, Sam Molinaro, James Cayne and Warren Spector.

Who are they?

Top honchos at ... Bear Stearns. (Or they were: Spector has now left in a management shake-up. The others remain.)

Between them, the four quietly cashed out more than $57 million worth of company stock before the crisis hit.

The executives saved themselves nearly $16 million by their astutely timed sales, which were disclosed in a series of public filings.

Those losses got passed on to the unlucky outside investors who bought the stock.

Bear Stearns declined to comment.

These executives did nothing wrong. Many of the stock sales were made as share options came due at the end of 2006. Certain executives had made similar big trades in previous years. The trades were made several months before problems surfaced at the company's hedge funds in May.

Furthermore, Bear Stearns executives are still holding plenty of stock in the company.

Nonetheless, their timing last winter was notable for its good fortune, if nothing else. Once again it shows that company insiders seem to prove pretty good at knowing when their own stock is overvalued and when the future risks do not justify the price.

The facts?

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Between the end of November 2006 and the end of March this year, former Bear Stearns boss -- and current executive committee chairman -- Greenberg sold 179,277 shares at an average price of about $161, raising a total of $28.8 million.

Today the value of those shares has collapsed by $7.7 million to just $21.1 million.

After deducting his stock option costs, Greenberg made $17.7 million in profits before tax. Had he waited till now to sell the shares, he would have made just $10 million.

Nice work if you can get it, as they say.

Greenberg was not alone. Between December last year and the end of March, the now-ousted co-president Warren Spector dumped 116,255 shares at an average price of $164, raising a total of $19.1 million.

The value of those shares today: just $13.7 million.

After option expenses, Spector made $16.4 million. That's $5.4 million more than he would have made if he had waited.

Last December chairman and CEO James Cayne cashed out 46,415 shares at around $165, raising $7.6 million

Value today? Two million dollars less.

And Samuel Molinaro, the chief financial officer who just got promoted to chief operating officer thanks to the company's financial crisis, saved himself more than $400,000 by selling shares last December for $1.5 million instead of waiting until now.

It is, perhaps, a shame that Bear Stearns' two disastrous hedge funds didn't prove as nimble and astute in their trading as the guys at the top. Instead, they were caught holding junk mortgage paper as default rates soared.

Stock sales weren't the only way top executives at Bear Stearns pocketed a fortune even as they sailed the Titanic straight at the iceberg. Company filings reveal that Bear Stearns also awarded a staggering $140 million in bonuses to top executives last year.

And by good fortune, just over half of those bonuses were paid in cash rather than in the company's fast-shrinking shares.

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.