Morgan Stanley’s John Mack Steps Back, to Shrugs

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After a year when so many leaders have burned out rather than faded away — Lehman Brothers' Richard Fuld, Merrill Lynch's John Thain, former president George W. Bush — Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack's decision to gracefully bow out of his chief-executive position and retain only his chairman role as the firm recovers from its near-death experience seems almost admirable. Why don't more CEOs do this, we wondered. Resign when things are okay but not great instead of sticking around until something really good happens (at which point they won't want to leave) or something really bad transpires (at which point they will have no choice in the matter). Then we remembered the reason.

People say things like this about them:

"During his four years on Wall Street, Mack wasn't the best CEO and he wasn't the worst," David Weidner wrote at Marketwatch, adding charitably: "That he survived when so many didn't is a nice accomplishment."

"You've got to give him some credit for surviving," Kenneth Crawford of Argent Capital Management, in St. Louis, told Bloomberg. "The good thing is, there's an MS ticker on my screen that changes price each day, and there are a fair number of his peers that aren't on my screen anymore."

That's John Mack's legacy. He survived. He managed. He did what Paul Krugman said, and made banking boring again. Thirty years at Morgan Stanley, and this is what he gets: Tepid reviews. Poor guy. Years from now, he'll probably be sitting around the fire with his his great-grandchildren, and the subject of the Greatest Depression will come up. "Where were you, Grandfather?" they'll ask. "Why, I was the CEO of an investment bank," Mack will reply in a thin, reedy voice. "We were on the brink of failure. Everyone said we would be next. That it was a foregone conclusion. But I saved us! I got us a last-minute investment from the Japanese, curbed risk-taking, cut our reliance on leverage, kept my head low, and rode the thing out. And it worked! We survived. Have you ever seen Europa Europa? It was kind of like that. The part where he painfully attempts to conceal his lack of a foreskin. " Mack's grandchildren will stare at him blankly. "Did you know Lloyd Blankfein?" one of them will ask, whereupon Grandpa will give them a hateful glare, then resume muttering into the fire.