Bear Stearns employees discover again the perils of owning large chunks of company stock.
On Wall Street, employees are suddenly worried about their stakes in their employers’ stock.
The reason, of course, is the plunge in Bear Stearns shares.
Employees at the firm are now worried not only about their jobs but watched helplessly as their company stock holdings plummeted. Bear Stearns, which employs 14,000, is about one-third owned by its staff.
JPMorgan Chase is paying just $2 a share for the 85-year-old investment bank, the fifth-biggest in the U.S., to rescue it from a severe cash crunch. That’s a far cry from where the shares were just weeks ago. Bear’s shares closed at $30 March 14, and traded above $100 as recently as December. The sale price is 99 percent below where the shares were trading as recently as April last year. The stock closed this past week at $5.94 a share.
Most Read Business Stories
- Google puts lid on cookie jar and ends an internet era | Commentary
- MacKenzie Scott marries Seattle teacher after Bezos divorce
- Bill to limit evictions in Washington state advances
- FAA safety engineer goes public to slam the agency's oversight of Boeing's 737 MAX
- Microsoft attack blamed on China goes global, with 60,000 victims
The obvious parallel is with the collapse of Enron, the Houston-based energy-trading giant that entered bankruptcy proceedings in December 2001 with accounting problems and billions of dollars in debt. In addition to thousands of jobs, more than $2 billion in pensions were wiped out.
“It’s Enron all over again,” said Don Delves, president of the Delves Group, a Chicago executive-compensation consulting firm. “Enron had the same problem; everyone was locked up in their stock.”
Now employees all over Wall Street are wondering about the wisdom of owning large chunks of their own companies’ stock.
Employee stock ownership is also high at Lehman Brothers Holdings, at about 30 percent, according to the company’s Web site. Lehman, one of the few independent investment-banking firms like Bear, has sought to reassure investors that it has sufficient liquidity.
And at many larger Wall Street firms, employees often have large holdings of stock through bonuses, 401(k) plans and options.
At Merrill Lynch, employees own 26 percent of the company’s stock, according to 2006 data on the company’s Web site. The data include options not yet vested.
Depending on production, Merrill advisers are awarded a percentage of stock that vests after five years, according to one of the firm’s financial advisers.
A little before 9 a.m. Monday, the Southeast regional director of wealth management at the firm sent a note to financial advisers, saying the firm’s “capital position is sound,” and that, as when E.F. Hutton and Drexel Burnham Lambert collapsed in the past, the swift decline of Bear could signal a turning point, the adviser said.
Of Bear Stearns employees, the adviser said, “We feel their pain, literally, because we’re going through it. This is uncharted water for all of us. We’ll see, probably, the real test of patience and nerves.”
One Citigroup executive who receives deferred stock as part of his bonus, said, “I’ve heard people saying they have nothing but Citi in their 401(k). That is the classic mistake.”
And a veteran Citi broker said, “Don’t limit your investments to your company stock. That’s standard advice to our clients,” and now “the same advice we give to ourselves.”
Time and again, company collapses show the perils of employee ownership of huge chunks of company stock.
At Lucent, the telecom giant matched employee contributions to its 401(k) plan with company stock, and employees often invested in the stock in their 401(k) plan. They suffered in the telecom crash; the company later merged, becoming Alcatel-Lucent.
Of course, employee-stock ownership goes much broader than Wall Street.
Last year, 11.2 million Americans held $928 billion in employee-stock-ownership plans, stock bonus plans and profit-sharing plans that primarily invest in company stock. That was up from 2006 when 10.5 million plan participants held $675 billion in similar plans, according to the National Center For Employee Ownership in Oakland, Calif.
According to Hewitt Associates, a third of workers don’t have company stock in their 401(k) plans, but almost 40 percent have at least 20 percent, and 16 percent have more than a 50 percent balance in company stock.
Lower-paid managers might receive 10 percent of their compensation in stock, while the highest-paid executives might receive 45 or 50 percent of their pay in company stock, said Alan Johnson, managing director, Johnson Associates, a compensation-consulting firm.
It can range from 15 to 80 percent or even 90 percent. The stock vests over time, typically three to four years.
“There’s tremendous pride in ownership,” said Johnson. While financial advisers might recommend against owning so much company stock, “Fear can be a great motivator,” he said. “If you’re worried about returns, then you’ll be extra careful.”
Pearl Meyer, a senior managing director at executive-compensation consulting firm Steven Hall & Partners in New York, said the culture at Bear Stearns was more like “a Goldman Sachs culture” than that of a publicly owned firm.
“While they were public, they had a partnership culture,” and the culture encouraged heavy employee ownership in the stock, she said.
At Bear Stearns, employees were barred from trading shares they hold in the company recently because of long-standing “lockups” weeks before the company’s earnings announcements.