DO CEOS ONLY MATTER SOME OF THE TIME?

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Steve Pearlstein spent some time last week with Mayo Shattuck, the grinning fellow pictured above. Shattuck was a high-flying financial whiz kid who looked like a genius amidst the boom but who's been tagged as a fool since the crash. Shattuck, of course, has all manner of perfectly reasonable explanations for his company's poor fortunes. But the conclusion, then, isn't just that Shattuck is being unfairly pilloried now. It's also that he was disproportionately lauded then. Quoth Pearlstein:

Like many executives and directors on Wall Street, Mayo Shattuck ultimately defends his performance by noting that in business, as in life, bad things sometimes happen to good people. By the same logic, of course, good things sometimes happen to good people -- which those good people ought to remember the next time they confuse luck with skill and begin to believe they are worth $14 million a year.

It serves the interests of various people to suggest that the weakness of firms operating in today's unforgiving economy is evidence of systemic challenges, just as it served the interests of many people to argue that the performance of particular companies in the preceding boom was the product of CEO brilliance. But it's actually pretty unlikely that individual initiative is the main driver of boom performance but a miniscule factor amidst busts. In the aggregate, firms look good when the economy looks good, and in the aggregate, firms look bad when the economy looks bad, and it's not because CEOs become very smart or very stupid all at once.

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