As John Carney notes, it's a little bit weird that Merrill Lynch is now headless – and just as the all-important bonus decisions are being made, too. Why no interim CEO? Carney speculates that no one is willing to do the job with Sarbox hanging over his head, especially if he was only going to stay in the position for a short amount of time.
Under Sarbanes Oxley a new CEO would have to sign a written statement certifying that the information contained in the report fairly presents, in all material respects, the financial condition and results of operations of the company. That's something a new chief executive might not feel comfortable doing.
So it seems that Merrill's next CEO will be a permanent CEO. But here's another weird thing: shouldn't it be obvious, by now, who the heir apparent is? After all, O'Neal was ousted with surgical precision, according to well-established rules. As Punk Ziegel's Dick Bove writes:
"The process is to gather as much inside information as possible that can be spun to negative and then feed the press with that informtion. This is done by setting up a team who on a daily basis has no other goal but to get rid of the CEO in favor of someone they think they can support."
The plotters clearly got rid of O'Neal – so where's the candidate "they think they can support"?
But it might be very hard to find anybody with the requisite degree of internal support. For one thing, no one really knows if Merrill's current valuation really makes financial sense, which means that it will be hard to persuade an incoming CEO to buy in at this price. But if he doesn't, Merrill's employees, loaded up with stock options which are rapidly threatening to sink under water, won't be happy. Notes Peter Eavis, on Jamie Dimon's installation as CEO of Bank One:
Another important move that Dimon made was to buy nearly $60 million of Bank One stock with his own money before joining the bank. If the new Merrill CEO were to purchase a large slug of stock in the company before joining, it would be a clever motivating gesture, causing employees to warm to the newcomer.
But I can't imagine that anybody would want to take the regulatory risk and the financial risk of doing something like that, not unless they were dynastically wealthy to begin with. Are there any underemployed billionaires out there who might be interested, and who are under the age of, say, 65?