TODAY   |  November 23, 2009

Study: Wall St. execs cashed in before collapse

Nov. 24: A new study finds that executives at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers walked away with huge payouts just before the collapse on Wall Street. NBC’s Lisa Myers reports.

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>> much.

>>> now to the economy and a new revelation that executives at two of the firms which figured prominently in the financial meltdown walked away with huge payouts in the years that led up to the collapse on wall street . nbc's senior investigative correspondent lisa myers has details on that. lisa, it's going to make a lot of people mad.

>> it absolutely will, matt. this study found that executives at lehman brothers and bear stearns cashed in big time in the years before their firms imploded. and even though they suffered huge losses at the end, their ceo still walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars. critics call it being richly rewarded for failure. it was the early phase of the financial meltdown last year. first, bear stearns was sold to avoid collapse. then lehman brothers went bankrupt. shareholders lost billions and thousands of employees lost jobs. but a new study by experts at harvard law school titled "wages of failure" found that since 2000 , the top five executives at each firm had received staggering amounts of cash bonuses and it sold mountains of stock. bear stearns executives cashed out about $1.4 billion. and lehman brothers , $1 billion.

>> people who invested in these companies should feel betrayed. the whole idea of capitalism is that the people provide the capital and the executives take care of it for us. in this case, the people provided their capital and the executives took it.

>> reporter: the study found that when the firms collapsed, both bear stearns ceo james cayne and lehman ceo richard fuld lost about $900 million worth of stock, but the study said they still came out well ahead overall, walking away with $388 million and fuld $541 million.

>> they were rewarded hundreds of millions of dollars and they got that reward for making catastrophic decisions.

>> reporter: last year, cayne bought two condominiums here at the iconic plaza hotel in new york city . price tag, $28 million. fuld also remains a wealthy man. he has an $8 million estate in greenwich, connecticut, sold his park avenue apartment in new york for $26 million this summer, and has a $14 million oceanfront estate in florida which he sold to his wife for $100 earlier this year. shareholders are suing executives of both firms. gerald silk represents former lehman shareholders who claim executives weren't truthful about the firm's financial condition.

>> lehman crashed and shareholders lost billions of dollars when dick fuld and others walked away personally very, very wealthy.

>> reporter: fuld's lawyer would not comment. cayne's did not respond to requests for comment. both men have denied wrongdoing and said their firms were swept under by a financial tsunami. cayne has apologized to employees and investors. fuld says he wakes up every night thinking what could i have done differently? matt?

>> lisa myers for us in washington, thank you. jim cramer