November 18, 2009 / 12:03 AM / in 10 years

Thain defends Wall Street bonuses

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former Merrill Lynch Chief Executive John Thain, who was fired after a scandal over the payment of billions of bonuses to Merrill traders, argued on Tuesday that big payouts played no role in triggering the financial crisis.

Former chief executive of Merrill Lynch, John Thain speaks at the Reuters Global Finance Summit in New York November 17, 2009. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Congress and various federal regulators have accused Bank of America Corp of failing to adequately disclose various details about the Merrill merger to investors, including the payment of $3.6 billion of bonuses to Merrill staff in the fall of 2008.

“The focus on bonuses as the cause of risk-taking is just wrong,” Thain told the Reuters Global Finance Summit in New York. “Bonuses did not cause excessive risk-taking and bonuses did not cause the financial crisis.”

Thain instead blamed the crisis on poor risk management, excessive leverage and too much liquidity available for too long.

Thain, ousted after Merrill Lynch was sold to Bank of America, said he favored proposals that tie bonuses to long-term performance, are based on equity, and include clawbacks. But he doubted such changes will prevent another collapse.

He pointed to Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns as examples of companies whose senior management received a large portion of their compensation in stock.

“That didn’t help them,” Thain said, referring to the two former competitors.

Thain also defended Goldman Sachs Group Inc, which is back to posting robust profits soon after paying back $10 billion it borrowed from the U.S. government.

“The fact that Goldman Sachs is doing well is good for the financial system, not bad for the financial system,” said Thain, himself a former executive at the company.

“The fact that the financial system is improving is a good thing. I don’t think it will be better for the U.S. economy if all the large financial institutions were losing money.”

Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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