How Inequality Hurts

Rough Times for the Really Smart

If you’re rich, our wealthy would have us believe, you must be smart. And if you’re really rich, then you must be even smarter. Maybe even as smart as Hank Paulson — or any other suddenly suspect top exec.

By Sam Pizzigati

This hasn’t been a great fall for the brilliant, bright shining superstars who sit at the top of America’s economic ladder. Their genius suddenly seems suspect. From Wall Street to Silicon Valley to Hedge Fund America, the smart boys are reeling.

Consider, for instance, Hank Paulson, our embattled U.S. secretary of the treasury.

Paulson came to the Treasury Department two years ago from Goldman Sachs, the nation’s most widely acclaimed investment bank. Over his years at Goldman, including eight as CEO, Paulson had amassed a stake in the company worth an estimated “$500 million when he cashed out.”

No one on Wall Street begrudged Paulson a penny of that.

In a “fiercely competitive market for intellectual talent,” Wall Streeters believed, Paulson’s brilliance had helped establish Goldman “as the pre-eminent firm in its class.” Revenues at Goldman, during Paulson’s wildly successful CEO stint, soared from $8.5 to $46 billion, profits from $2.4 billion to $11.6 billion.

Stock marketThis past September, with the U.S. economy starting to sink into crisis, commentators found this track record a welcome source of comfort. The President may be clueless, went the conventional wisdom, but at least the nation had real smarts at the Treasury.

“This former investment banker,” a Newsweek cover story pronounced, “may be the right man at the right time.”

Now, two months later, Paulson’s reputation for brilliance has run into the same ditch as the U.S. economy. Paulson appears to have been bungled the bailout almost from the start. Last week, at a House hearing on Capitol Hill, Congressman Gary Ackerman from New York blasted Paulson for “flying a $700 billion plane by the seat of your pants.”

Meanwhile, over in Silicon Valley, Jerry Yang last Monday announced he would be stepping down as the CEO of Yahoo, the now troubled Internet powerhouse.

Yang, a Stanford doctoral student in electrical engineering, co-founded Yahoo in 1995, then rode the bubble to billionaire status. He personified, as much as anyone, the staggering smarts of twenty-somethings at the “wired” cutting-edge.

Yang would move aside, as the Yahoo top gun, in 2001, after hand-picking his successor, Terry Semel, from the entertainment industry. Semel would go on to have a phenomenally lucrative half-dozen years. He cleared $230 million in stock option profits in 2004, then raked in $71.7 million worth of compensation in 2006, over twice the take-home of any executive that year in Silicon Valley.

Unfortunately, Yahoo didn’t do nearly so well, losing market share right and left. The company’s directors ended up showing Semel the door midway through last year.

To the rescue came Yang. Yahoo’s founding genius, observers hoped, would nobly save the company. Not quite. Over an 18-month span as CEO, the billionaire has bumbled from one ill-considered move to another.

Yang, as one industry analyst explained last week to the New York Times, has spent his time “completely botching” a possible merger with Microsoft — and masterminding “multiple company restructurings that have done little to restore confidence of any of Yahoo’s shareholders, employees, or customers.”

Yahoo is currently laying off 10 percent of the company’s 15,000 employees.

Citigroup, the world’s largest bank just a blink ago, has just announced plans to lay off over 30 times that many employees, 20 percent of the banking giant’s workforce.

Last week, the bank liquidated a Citi investment fund that had once managed $4.2 billion, the ninth time over recent months the bank “has had to liquidate or bail out a vehicle in its alternative investment division.” The news helped drive Citi shares down to a 16-year low. The bank, worth $180 billion a year ago, now carries just a $20 billion market value.

Citi’s catastrophic plummet, the Wall Street Journal intoned last week, illustrates “what happens when the market loses all confidence in a company’s ability to do, well, anything.”

That’s bad news for Citi CEO Vikram Pandit. He’s now rumored on the way out, less than a year after taking the bank’s top slot.

The Citi board had held enormously high hopes for the 51-year-old Pandit. How high? To bring Pandit’s smarts into the Citi fold, the bank’s board shelled out $800 million to buy the hedge fund he had started just the year before. That transaction netted Pandit $165 million.

Then in January, a month after naming Pandit CEO, Citi’s board handed him a stock incentive package worth another $30 million. You have to keep smart people engaged, after all.

Or so holds the boardroom wisdom of Wall Street and Corporate America. And these all must be smart people, right? How do we know? They’re all rich.

Sam Pizzigati, an associate fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality.

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