The Book of the Week is “Highly Confident, The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken” by Jesse Kornbluth, published in 1992. This volume described a situation that lends itself to the hypothetical board game “Survival Roulette: Wall Street Edition” (See “Blind Ambition” post).
There have been countless ultimate winners of this game through the decades: all the people never caught for securities-industry crimes. A million lawbreakers a day go unpunished. That doesn’t mean the crimes didn’t happen.
However, the most famous hypothetical losers of the game in this book were Ivan Boesky (an independent bond trader in New York) and Michael Milken (bond-trading executive at Drexel Burnham Lambert in Los Angeles). Other losers could include Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, Kenneth Lay, Steve Jobs and Richard Scrushy.
The board spaces could include Go To Jail (of course), and describe the financial crimes of: insider trading, Free Parking (or “stock parking”), disclosure failures, material misstatements, accounting irregularities, re-pricing stock options, and fraudulent conveyance, but also specific actions of conscience-salving philanthropy in which Milken engaged– such as throwing money at cancer research, and volunteering to teach math to nine and ten year-olds.
In August 1986, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York began an investigation into Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) violations in the bond industry. By October 1986, the head federal prosecutor there, Rudolph Giuliani, was taping phone calls between Boesky and Milken. This, because Boesky had immediately accepted a plea deal to turn state’s evidence in exchange for a slap-on-the-wrist, country-club jail sentence. Boesky was one of the game’s lesser losers, to be sure. He was the king of lying, cheating and stealing.
Milken was a creative workaholic math genius whose meteoric career-rise allowed him to head an entire bond-research department in his mid-twenties. But he had zero ability for honest introspection.
Milken was a master at controlling his environment and other people, but he deceived himself about his “breaking the rules of the game” in his industry. He thought he was helping people all the time, but didn’t see how others were indirectly hurt by his actions. This kind of hubris syndrome is not uncommon in alpha males.
In 1978, Milken initiated the push to have Drexel underwrite junk-bond deals that financed hostile corporate takeovers. This wasn’t illegal in itself, but Boesky persistently badgered Milken until, by the early 1980’s, the latter was eventually manipulated into breaking the law.
Milken had a history of selfless philanthropy, yet his business actions gave rise to obscenely high fees made by his employer, an obscenely high income for himself, and crushing debt load for his clients. This led to extremely adverse financial and social consequences for thousands upon thousands of laid-off American employees of merged companies, subjected to disrupted lives and untold stresses.
The mood of the securities industry could be described thusly: “… with the election of Ronald Reagan… All that mattered was an ability to make money — without concern for risk, without regard for regulation.”
The investigation and resulting plea deals had the law enforcement agencies patting themselves on the back for convincing the perpetrators (other than Milken and Boesky) to implicate others, but the immunity deals the perpetrators got were a joke, considering that they themselves had serious credibility problems, and serious violations. It was a kangaroo court.
Nonetheless, the following parties launched investigations: Drexel and its attorneys, Milken and his attorneys, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the SEC. Those last two, of course, engaged in fierce rivalry. By September 1991, there was an orgy of litigation against Milken. The roll call involved fifty-eight lawyers (!)
Around the same time, Wedtech was another 1980’s scandal borne of out-of-control greed. In that case, a personal injury attorney generated billing documents that purported to show charges for legal services, that were actually for lobbying. Wedtech’s executives bribed politicians for the purpose of influence peddling, and swindled shareholders. This kind of crime is not uncommon.
Along these lines, if, for instance, a real-estate mogul declared business bankruptcy repeatedly throughout his business career, why did investors trust him with their money again and again and again and again and again?? Perhaps there was influence peddling. The politicians were his puppets who eventually passed legislation favorable to them all. It was worth it to them to risk losing all their chump-change investment to get access to future (much more) profitable contacts and politicians who did their will.
Anyway, Milken hired a team of lawyers who were the cream of the crop of Northeastern elitists. Yet, unfortunately for him, the media and law enforcement made him the poster-boy / scapegoat for the greed of the 1980’s.
Ben Stein, a wannabe Hollywood writer, was, according to the author, an individual who fueled public outrage against Milken. He was unwisely hired to write articles for Barron’s (a major Wall Street publication) after Milken was indicted. The nature of his utterances in print were “Shocking, unsubstantiated, never-proven assertions made with absolute certainty.” Stein claimed his taking of the drug Halcion caused him to produce such libelous garbage.
Strangely enough, insider trading wasn’t what Milken was jailed for, but rather, a minor disclosure failure. The judge in his case was ridiculously misguided, considering that the court calculated the dollar value of damages Milken caused was a mere $318,000. But the court saw that the revenues generated by him and his firm were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. So the court fined him $600,000,000.
Read the book to learn of Milken’s prison sentence and numerous other details of the whole tabloid-crazy affair.