Jimmy Cayne became known as the absentee chairman of Bear Stearns as he roamed the US playing bridge, leaving the company’s management to grapple with a slowly growing set of problems and fading market credibility.

The cigar smoking maverick went against Wall Street trends and drove Bear to become the biggest packager of subprime mortgages at a time when other banks were reluctant to touch them.

When two of Bears’ own hedge funds collapsed under the weight of over-leveraged investment in subprime mortgages and their associated credit derivates — CDOs — last June, Jimmy wasn’t at shop: he was playing bridge in Chicago, something he and Bear never lived down.

He appointed Allan Schwartz as the effective CEO and head of the bank and played the role really of the non-executive chairman. At the height of his and Bear’s powers, the firm’s shares sold for more than $US170 and he was worth $US1 billion or more. Even in its last days as the shares plunged to $US35, he was probably worth $200 million, but then Bear had to be rescued and under the original $US2-a-share agreed to be JP Morgan and the US Federal Reserve, Jimmy would have been worth just over $US11 million.

When agitation from shareholders, employees and hedge funds brought a higher offer this week of $10 a share, but Jimmy had already seized the moment.

In a Securities And Exchange Commission filing this morning in the US, it was revealed Jimmy had taken the money by selling 5.6 million Bear Stearns shares in the market on March 25 for $US10.84. He didn’t wait for the $US10 from JP Morgan, unknown buyers picked up the holding held by him and his wife.

It was yet another case of do as I do, not as I say, but the canny card sharp probably had a rational reaction to the looming train wreck that is Wall Street and the US economy.

In all the optimism in the wake of the Bear Stearns rescue, Wall Street and many investors still don’t seem to have heard the train bearing down on them.

Figures for the third and final reading on fourth quarter US economic growth show no change in the 0.6% rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from the first two estimates, which in itself shows that the economy almost staggered to a halt in the quarter from the 4.9% growth rate (annualised) in the third quarter.

The US Commerce Department said that besides the slowdown in growth, American corporate profits fell 3.3% in the fourth quarter of 2007. The US economy grew 2.2% over 2007, the slowest rate since the last recession in 2002.