Skip to main content

Dig Deeper on Morgan's Red Star Bailout

Don't buy Mack blaming its financial straits on one bad trade.
  • Author:
  • Publish date:

There used to be a quaint little saying about how it will rain sulfuric acid in the canyons of Wall Street before a House of Morgan was run by communists. Well, you can

read here all about how CEO John Mack is now Great Leader of the People's Republic of Morgan.

And when you go outside today, don't forget your umbrella.

But what The Business Press Maven is more concerned with this morning is Chairman Mack's claim that but for one particular trade, Morgan would be just fine and would, presumably, not have fallen into the hands of Red China, making it the latest investment-banking domino to do so.

Because some of the same business media that are busy portraying him as valiant and altruistic in not granting himself untold millions in bonuses after a year featuring untold billions in losses, are simply passing along his claim that but for one trade, everything would be fine inside Mainland Morgan.

The Financial Times

is a prime example of this

subprime thinking.

First off, after announcing larger-than-expected writedowns of nearly $10 billion (which is a lot of money, more than The Business Press Maven makes in two entire years), the FT was content to frame the reach-out to China as something done from a position of strength: "John Mack, chairman and chief executive, said the $5bn capital injection from China Investment Corporation would bolster its already strong balance sheet and strengthen its deep ties in China."

But who can be content passing along one self-serving stance from Great Leader Mack when you can pass along two? Or, if you include a plug by a lackey to save the Great Leader's job, three.

Anyhow, here is the press release from the People's Republic of Morgan. Whoops, my bad. I mean the article from

The Financial Times

: "The losses were largely related to one proprietary trading bet against subprime which went disastrously wrong."

Then came an expansion on this thought, plus a job plug from underlings: "Colm Kelleher, chief financial officer, said there was a definable chain of command and people had been held accountable. 'This was an isolated event. You can't hold the CEO accountable for every single trade that is done.' "

Another senior executive said there was an important difference between Morgan Stanley and other troubled banks such as






. "John has unbelievable support in the firm. He is not perceived to have failed other than by not choosing the right people and maybe sticking by them for too long."

Then meaningless forward-looking rhetoric from the Grand Leader was passed along: "Mr Mack said the group would be 'much more cautious on some of these larger risks' at least until his overhaul of risk management had bedded down. 'We were sprinting and we will be kind of jogging for a while.'"

Call The Business Press Maven a killjoy if you wish, but I say that investor's understanding of the People's Republic of Morgan and Chairman Mack could have been expanded if

The Financial Times

stopped taking dictation from the Gang of Three at Morgan and started taking their marching orders from

The Wall Street Journal


In an article called "

Loss Pressures Morgan Stanley CEO," more than one mistake at the company is laid bare.

The entire ethos he gave to the firm, for example, was one of risk, thanks to Chairman Mack. In 2005, he famously brought a Cultural Revolution to Morgan, when he admonished the company to take more chances by shaming them about having no "swagger." And above and beyond the subprime losses, as this article points out, he stood by an old crony who played a big role in the losses.



continued with its criticisms, which certainly went beyond one unlucky trade: "In addition, under Mr. Mack's watch, Morgan Stanley in February 2006 paid $1.76 billion for a credit-card company, Goldfish, only to see its value written down by $422 million a few weeks ago. He acquired a subprime-mortgage company, Saxon Capital Inc., for $706 million last December, even as warnings about the subprime storm were being sounded."

And rather than quoting subordinates, who spring to his defense, the


quotes the best sort of analyst: the retired kind, who can speak his mind without losing access:

"He's a chronic destroyer of value," said Kevin Murphy, a former Morgan Stanley airline analyst who is now retired and recently sold his stock. "He's a nice person, but you put this guy in the corner office and there's an X-factor where he hurts himself."


Flogging the Maven

if The Business Press Maven imparts one guiding thought to investors, it is that business journalism is a human enterprise. Personal thoughts, biases and perspectives are always at play, so the savvy investor has to be on the lookout. But as in every human enterprise, there are sometimes dumb humans, and The Business Press Maven himself is never immune.

Though I take great pride in my low number of errors, whenever I commit one (now two), it is guaranteed to be dumb. On Monday, I referred to

MarketWatch from Dow Jones


CBS MarketWatch from Dow Jones

, which it has not been named since just after the earth cooled.

Incredibly, I once referred to it as

MarketWatch at Dow Jones

. Spectators are invited to the public square at noon for a Business Press Maven flogging. And, in all seriousness, my apologies to (let me get this straight)

MarketWatch from Dow Jones

for my total idiocy.

At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He also did back-up beat coverage of The New York Knicks for the paper's Sports section for two seasons and covered other professional and collegiate sports. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections, including National, Metro, Escapes, Style, Real Estate, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Money & Business, Circuits and the Op-Ed Page. For his "Business Press Maven? column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz website at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;

click here

to send him an email.