FORTUNE -- Timing is everything. Consider, if you will, the story of Mary Barra, the first female chief executive of General Motors, who in less than a month went from pioneer to punching bag. For something that's clearly GM's fault, and some of her predecessors' fault -- but clearly not her fault.
Barra, who spent 33 years clawing her way to the top of GM (GM), became its CEO on Jan. 15, making her an icon of sorts. But less than a month later, GM began recalling vehicles because of its deadly, now-infamous faulty ignition switch. Instead of being praised for perseverance and cracking the glass ceiling, Barra is now a target, getting beaten up on a regular basis in televised Congressional hearings, in media scrums, and in other forums too numerous to name.
I don't normally sympathize very much with CEOs, who get paid amazing amounts of money to assume a lot of responsibility, including taking the heat when the company screws up. If you're getting eight-digit paychecks and thus benefiting from the work of everyone below you in the corporate hierarchy, it's only fair that you get whacked for the sins of your subordinates, even if you knew nothing about them. The buck is supposed to stop somewhere, and the CEO's office is the right place.
But beating up on Barra, which satisfies the bloodlust of Washington pols and makes for good theater and massive buzz, is absurd. Had the ignition-switch recall happened last year instead of less than 30 days after Barra took office this year, Dan Akerson, who became GM's CEO in 2010, would have been the one called in front of Congress to be tortured in the U.S. version of a show trial. Had GM or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or both of them been quick and competent, it might have been Akerson's predecessor, Ed Whitacre, who was tortured.
I totally get the point of focusing blame on an individual, who's identifiable, rather than diffusing it over a big, impersonal corporation. After all, that's the kind of thing I have been doing for a living ever since I learned the art of personalizing companies during my days at Forbes magazine (not to be confused with my current employer Fortune) more than 30 years ago.
But if you're going to beat up on an individual for the failure of a company, you ought to beat up the right individual -- not the person who happens to be CEO when the problem surfaces.
Maybe Congress should be calling Rick Wagoner, the company's CEO from June of 2000 until the government forced him out in 2009 as the price of rescuing the company's operations from collapse. The ignition problem seems to have started and been ignored sometime during his regime, even though I would be willing to bet that Wagoner (whom I know slightly, and kind of like) knew little or nothing about it. But he was in charge then.
Or you could call either of the two CEOs the federal government installed: Ed Whitacre (Dec. 1, 2009 to Sept. 1, 2010) or the aforementioned Akerson (Sept. 1, 2010 to Jan. 15, 2014). There are two other short-timers, but they weren't around long enough to be held responsible.
To be sure -- three of the most weaselly words in journalism -- the unfair beating that Barra is getting doesn't approach the unfairness of the way that Ed Liddy got as chairman of AIG. Barra, after all, is a GM lifer with a serious comp package, while Liddy was serving at $1 a year to preside over a mess he had nothing to do with.
I'm all in favor of accountability. And if you want to hold Barra responsible for the mess of first admitting responsibility, then trying to use GM's 2009 bankruptcy to shield the company from most of the death claims, be my guest.
But if we're going to beat up CEOs for disasters like AIG's reckless financial bets or GM's deadly ignition switches, let's beat up the people who were in charge when the mistakes were made. Not the people who happen to be in charge when the problems surface.
Sale of part of U.S Treasury's stake will yield the public a cash profit.
FORTUNE -- Crocuses and various other bulbs are popping up in my garden, a tangible sign that our brutal East Coast winter has finally ended. Something similar is sprouting on Wall Street, of all places: a tangible sign that taxpayers are finally going to get enough cash to turn a profit on Ally Financial, which had long MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Mar 28, 2014 5:00 AM ET
Surprise surprise! The U.S. government's investment in GM's former finance arm is paying off.
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No one says the President doesn't deserve his benefits. But it's hard to get past his plan to limit savers to half the value of what he'll walk away with.
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The recent swings in Apple stock prove that a few simple rules of investing always hold true.
FORTUNE -- For most people, Apple mania means buying the company's products and playing with them. But for us financial voyeur types, the fun comes from watching the lunatic lurching of Apple's stock price.
You gotta love it. From the start of last year through its all-time closing high on Sept. 19, Wilshire Associate says, MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Feb 6, 2013 5:00 AM ET
Ben Bernanke's low interest rate policy has driven down the dollar. America's trading partners aren't happy.
FORTUNE -- What do Rogaine and the Federal Reserve's economic-stimulus policies have in common? No, it doesn't involve Ben Bernanke's or Alan Greenspan's hairlines. Give up? The answer: side effects.
Rogaine, as you may know, was originally developed as a blood pressure medication but was "repurposed" because it had the side effect of promoting hair growth. MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Jan 16, 2013 5:00 AM ET
If you want to take advantage of the Royce Select Fund's uniquely fair fees - sorry - that ship has sailed.
FORTUNE -- There are times when an innovative and brilliantly designed product takes the world by storm and makes a fortune for its creators and marketers. Think iPhone. And then there are times when an innovative and brilliantly designed product just doesn't catch on. Think of the Royce Select Fund.
Never MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Oct 10, 2012 5:00 AM ET
Wall Street loves a Republican president, right? Not so fast. With history as our judge, the answer is not so clear.
FORTUNE -- One of the questions I get asked these days is whether a win by Mitt Romney or by Barack Obama would be better for the stock market. To which the only honest answer is "I have no earthly idea." Any competent and dispassionate market analyst will tell you MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Sep 19, 2012 5:00 AM ET
Five years after the U.S. economy teetered on collapse, here are five reasons why we need to stop pointing fingers and fix the problems that nearly sank us.
FORTUNE -- It's hard to believe, but it's been five years and a day since the U.S. financial system's problems surfaced, and we're still not even remotely close to being able to feel good about the economy. My admittedly arbitrary start date is MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Jun 13, 2012 5:00 AM ET
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