On Den Of Thieves

I recently finished reading Den Of Thieves – by Pulitzer Price Winner, James B. Stewart.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly insightful:

Even now it is hard to grasp the magnitude and the scope of the crime that unfolded, beginning in the mid-1970s, in the nation’s markets and financial institutions. It dwarfs any comparable financial crime, from the Great Train Robbery to the stock-manipulation schemes that gave rise to the nation’s securities laws in the first place. The magnitude of the illegal gains was so large as to be incomprehensible to most laymen.

Nor were these isolated incidents. Only in its scale and potential impact did the Milken-led conspiracy dwarf others. Financial crime was commonplace on Wall Street in the eighties. A common refrain among nearly every defendant charged in the scandal was that it was unfair to single out one individual for prosecution when so many others were guilty of the same offenses, yet weren’t charged. The code of silence that allowed crime to take root and flourish on Wall Street, even within some of the richest and most respected institutions, continues to protect many of the guilty. To dwell on the ill-gotten gains of individuals, however, is to risk missing the big picture. During this crime wave, the ownership of entire corporations changed hands, often forcibly, at a clip never before witnessed. Household names—Carnation, Beatrice, General Foods, Diamond Shamrock—vanished in takeovers that spawned criminal activity and violations of the securities laws.

Nor should the financial implications of these crimes, massive though they are, obscure the challenge they posed to the nation’s law-enforcement capabilities, its judicial system, and ultimately, to the sense of justice and fair play that is a foundation of civilized society. If ever there were people who believed themselves to be so rich and powerful as to be above the law. They were to be found in and around Wall Street in the mid-eighties. If money could buy justice in America, Milken and Drexel were prepared to spend it, and spend it they did. They hired the most expensive, sophisticated, and powerful lawyers and public-relations advisors, and they succeeded to a frightening degree at turning the public debate into a trial of government lawyers and prosecutors rather than of those accused of crimes. But they failed, thanks to the sometimes heroic efforts of underpaid, overworked government lawyers who devoted much of their careers to uncovering the scandal, especially Charles Carberry and Bruce Baird, in the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, and Gary Lynch, the head of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Lynch, the head of enforcement at the securities and exchange ness of crime on Wall Street after a decade of lax enforcement sometimes overwhelmed their resources. Not everyone who should have been prosecuted has been, and mistakes were made. Yet their overriding success in prosecuting the major culprits and reinvigorating the securities laws is a tribute to the American system of justice.

For Levine, the experience only reinforced his view that without extraordinary measures, he was never going to realize his grand ambitions. Not that he was particular surprised. As he told Wilkis constantly, he was convinced that everyone was using inside information to get ahead: the game was rigged.

The causes of the boom were probably as much psychological as financial, though many economic explanations have been offered to explain the sudden, almost frenzied effort to buy existing companies rather than create new ones. Throughout the 1970s, investors had focused on company earnings, and the corresponding price/ earnings ratios, as a measure of value. With an economy ravaged by post-Vietnam War and OPEC-induced inflation, high tax rates, and soaring interest rates, profits had been meager. So stock prices Stayed low even as inflation pushed the value of income-producing assets ever higher. Coupled with low-priced assets was the tax code’s very generous treatment of interest payments on debt. Corporate dividends paid on stock aren’t deductible; interest payments on debt are fully deductible. Buying assets with borrowed funds meant shifting much of the cost to the federal government. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 sent a powerful “anything goes” message to the financial markets. One of the first official acts of the Reagan Justice Department was to drop the government’s massive ten-year antitrust case against IBM. Bigness apparently wasn’t going to be a problem in the new era of unbridled capitalism. Suddenly, economies of scale could be realized in already oligopolistic industries such as oil, where mergers wouldn’t even have been considered in the Carter years.

Yet history offers little comfort. The famed English jurist Sir Edward Coke wrote as early as 1602 that “fraud and deceit abound in these days more than in former times.” Wall Street has shown itself peculiarly susceptible to the notion, refined by Milken and Boesky and their allies, that reward need not be accompanied by risk. Perhaps no one will ever again dominate the financial world like Milken with his junk bonds. But surely a pied piper will emerge in some other sector. Over time, the financial markets have shown remarkable e resilience and an ability to curb their own excesses. Yet they are surprisingly vulnerable to corruption from within. If nothing else, the scandals of the 1980s underscore the importance and wisdom of the securities laws and their vigorous enforcement. The Wall Street criminals were consummate evaluators of risk—and the equation as they saw it suggested little likelihood of getting caught.

A highly recommended read in the area of finance.

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