The Death of Money / Dealings – BONUS POST

The first Bonus Book of the Week is “The Death of Money, The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System” by James Rickards, published in 2014. This was an all-over-the-map hodgepodge of generalizations on global financial trends, economic theory and what the author claimed was the devastation those trends could lead to, as of the book’s writing.

Prior to 9/11, the CIA possessed no expertise in the nefarious goings-on in the securities industry that could presage the occurrence of a terrorist attack. America’s law enforcement and security agencies had plenty of data, but inter-agency rivalry inhibited information-sharing and creativity– that would have allowed them to “connect the dots” in getting more specific information.

Prior to 9/11, American intelligence did detect irregular trading patterns in the stocks of the two airlines whose planes were targeted in the attacks. A tiny percentage of those trades were illegal because they were made by insiders– by the terrorists who knew those airlines’ share prices would soon plummet; the remaining percentage of anomalous trading was done by those who noticed the unusual activity (but not the reason for it) and jumped on the bandwagon.

After the attacks, threat-detection software was created for monitoring not just stock trading, but also currency and precious metals trading. The author wrote that a recently trendy means for bringing down an enemy-nation is: doing serious economic and financial harm rather than physical harm. Assaults on a nation’s technology and infrastructure such as the money-handling parts of cyberspace, aviation, dams and utilities, instead of targeting a country’s military and weapons or people of a specific ethnic group, is becoming the new normal.

The author remarked that China’s institutions are actually at risk for attacks, because the country’s government, economically, owns a large chunk of the means of production and arguably, labor; not to mention, capital. Wealthy Chinese business owners and executives have a co-dependent relationship with (corrupt) government officials. Besides, there are: “cross ownership, family ties, front companies, and straw man stockholders.”

The author warned the reader that a global financial crisis is likely in the offing due to prevailing circumstances in the economic heavy hitters of the world (like, the United States and China); among those circumstances: misallocation of investment funds; employers’ power to minimize benefits and compensation; red ink and the ever-widening, (allegedly alarming) gap between rich and poor. Financial panic is correlated with social unrest. That can lead to revolution.

The magnitude and accelerating frequency of financial bailouts of the last twenty-five years just shows how fragile the economic systems of the world are. In the United States, excessive deregulation fueled out-of-control greed, etc., etc., etc. In Europe, the group of nations that agreed to adopt one currency (the euro) thought the other nations would help mitigate their own economic problems, when in reality– they were putting all their eggs in one basket. In effect, they had to get permission from the others to make significant changes to their economic policies; they were forced into unhealthy co-dependent relationships.

Read the book to get the lowdown on: all the different groups of nations which were trying to diminish the U.S. dollar’s hegemony (hint: BRICS, BELL, GIIPS, SCO, GCC) at the book’s writing; the United States’ economic system explained for laypeople (via a Venn diagram, along with how the author defined “money” and “death”– both buried in the middle of the book); and everything you ever wanted to know about the value of gold, among other factors in the American dollar’s declining power in the world.

The second Bonus Book of the Week is “Dealings, A Political and Financial Life” by Felix Rohatyn, published in 2010. This bragfest described the life of the typical alpha male who rode a fabulous career in the securities industry, starting in the 1950’s.

The aforementioned first Bonus Book described the trends indicative of a dire future global financial situation. Many such untoward events have already occurred in the last couple of centuries (!), and keep happening. Every time, the seeds of financial disaster are sown decades prior to when it hits the fan.

The selective memory and cherry-picking of data of participants and victims (not to mention propagandists!) cause readers to perceive that those kinds of events are unprecedented, or are becoming more frequent. Excuse the cliche, THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN (For more info, see this blog’s posts: Serpent on the Rock, A Fighting Chance, Since Yesterday, Why I Left Goldman Sachs, The Zeroes and Dot Bomb).

Rohatyn described a few major stressful economic near-disasters that he was asked to help remedy. One situation was early 1970’s Wall Street, which was a house of cards about to collapse. Another was the near-bankruptcy of New York City in the mid-1970’s.

The late 1950’s saw the city becoming a bloated, bureaucratic civil-service gravy train, due to the increasing power of unions. The costs of generous contracts (along with other sociological factors) was eroding the city’s tax base. Local politicians stayed in power by staying friendly with the unions. One hand washed the other.

At the dawn of the 1970’s, the city needed more and more short-term loans from banks. Creative accounting allowed the debt explosion to continue. The city got subsidies from the state and federal governments, but only at the end of its fiscal year, so its deficit ballooned annually before then. The city got generous borrowing terms because it was in the state’s and fed’s best interest (excuse the pun) to deregulate the lending banks, as they were political patrons, too. Eventually, push came to shove.

In June 1975, Rohatyn was appointed to a bipartisan (truly bipartisan!) committee to help New York State governor Hugh Carey draft a bailout plan for the city, three weeks before the date on which the city would be forced into bankruptcy. Fortunately, Carey possessed the right temperament for saving the world.

Read the book to learn more about how the author helped impose some adult supervision in various, serious economic episodes in his career, and more about his career itself.

Serpent on the Rock

The Book of the Week is “Serpent on the Rock” by Kurt Eichenwald, published in 1995.

This volume contained an egregious error. It appeared in an anecdote about a member of the Belzberg family, Canadian Orthodox-Jews. In the late 1970’s, Belzberg was acquiring a large quantity of stock of the retail brokerage named Bache, so one of Bache’s executives met with him, to find out his intentions.

As the meeting ended, the author wrote that Belzberg shook hands with the Bache executive. That was obviously a fictionalized detail of the story, because Orthodox Jews do not shake hands with, or touch others, except for close family members.

Anyway, in the second half of the 1970’s, tax shelters became trendy in the securities industry. In the 1980’s, Bache (with a shady reputation in the first place) sold tax shelters in the form of limited partnerships of various kinds (oil and real estate were the most common) and reaped fat fees of as much as 8%. On a bunch of them, printed marketing communications illegally contained material omissions and misstatements.

Bache’s clients were clearly unsophisticated, because anyone with a minimal knowledge of finance should have seen that the objectives of the investment were contradictory: “income, growth and safety” (!)

Brokers dispensed with the printed prospectuses (which contained disclaimers required by law), and focused on verbally selling the money-losing financial instruments to their clients. They lied about the projected financial returns (14 to 15%, when they were pretty sure there would actually be disastrous losses). They called the investments “safe”– a word that should NEVER be used on Wall Street. The proper lingo should be “low-risk” and only when that’s the truth. The limited partnerships were “high-risk.”

One man, Jim Darr, became particularly powerful in the Direct Investment Group, and engaged in a boatload of excessively greedy, unethical activities and white-collar crimes that made him fabulously wealthy. In 1983, he flew all the way to a small thrift bank in Arkansas to get a home loan of $1.8 million to purchase a mansion in Connecticut. At that time, there were plenty of local lenders he could have approached.

Another sleazy character, Clifton Harrison, after pulling his last act of unbelievable thievery, gave the excuse, “I’ve just been borrowing some money against future fees.” Read the book to learn more about the various individuals who shaped Bache’s history, and what became of them.

ENDNOTE: The above shenanigans happens every few years in the United States. The line from the movie “That Thing You Do” describes it perfectly: A very common tale, boys, a very common tale. Here is a brief elaboration of the last forty years:

Steps of the American Politico-Economic Cycle

  1. An extremely pro-business president comes to power.
  2. Excessive deregulation ensues.
  3. Shady financial instruments and money-making vehicles spike in popularity (tax shelters, savings and loan associations, goodwill valuations, junk bonds, derivatives, dot-com stocks, stock-options-repricing, subprime mortgages, payday lenders, for-profit colleges, the PACE program, etc., etc., etc.)
  4. Out-of-control greed ensues.
  5. Profiteers of all political persuasions dispense with ethical behavior.
  6. The bubble bursts. A financial crash ensues.
  7. Lawsuit time!
  8. The impoverishment rate accelerates for the middle class and the poor.
  9. Election time. “It’s the economy, stupid.” Whether true or not (usually not!), campaign-propaganda convinces voters that the president is solely responsible for their personal financial situations.
  10. The reelected president, or one from the same party, continues some of the same hog-wild policies, or the new president reverses what he can. Re-regulation ensues.
  11. Time for another round of Survival Roulette (See this blog’s post, “Blind Ambition”).
  12. Opposition-propagandists pull strings to reverse what the new president reversed. They make voters impatient for improvement, even though undoing the damage takes years and years.
  13. Election time. Repeat steps 1-12.

Our Leaders Are Like Teens

OUR LEADERS ARE LIKE TEENS
sung to the tune of “Only In My Dreams” with apologies to Debbie Gibson.

The powers-that-be are keeping secrets.
We need to end their gravy train.
We’re losing our democracy,
in shrill-whining-Debbie-Gibson pain.

We must return to basic civics,
and regulate again.
Bring back laws on guns and Wall Street,
and cut how much we spend.

Yes, our leaders are like teens
with their social schemes.
They manipulate the scenes.

We need a lot more governing.
Not more polls. Not more Tweets.
Now we see our world come tumbling down.
Now all they see are Party seats.

Congress has to get the tough votes,
and go back to how it used to be:
The good bills got enough votes.
We’ll know again how it feels to be free.

Yes, our leaders are like teens
with their social schemes.
They manipulate the scenes.

Yes, yes, yes, yes our leaders are like teens
with their social schemes.
They manipulate the scenes.

Yes, our leaders are like teens
with their social schemes.
They manipulate the scenes.

Yes, yes, yes, yes our leaders are like teens
with their social schemes.
They manipulate the scenes.

Yes, yes, yes…

Do No Harm / Since Yesterday – BONUS POST

The first Bonus Book of the Week is “Do No Harm, Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery” by Henry Marsh, originally published in 2014. In this personal account, the author– a British brain surgeon– described his horribly depressing career. He recounted how he removed brain tumors from, and clipped aneurysms of, his most memorable patients through the decades. Even when a tumor was benign, it would keep growing and inevitably kill the patient unless taken out. Even when a large aneurysm had yet to burst, there was a chance (incalculable, as every patient is different) that it would burst in the patient’s lifetime.

Metaphorically speaking, some people would say that the outgoing president of the United States is a tumor in the nation’s brain. The author wrote, “You can never know for certain from a brain scan exactly how a tumor will behave until you start to remove it. It might be hard or soft, dry or bloody…” Prior to diagnosis, the most common symptom patients experience is headaches– which are uncharacteristic for them in daily life.

In order for a brain surgeon to acquire experience, he needs to actually practice on real patients, and make mistakes. Even when the surgeon does everything right in treating the patient, something could go wrong, anyway. In addition to stressing over his patients, the author had to deal with bureaucracies. But regardless of the healthcare system an industrialized country has (government-run, commercial, or a combination thereof), it’s comprised of: “… government targets, self-serving politicians, tabloid headlines, scandals, deadlines, civil servants, clinical cock-ups, financial crises, patient press-groups, trade unions, litigation, complaints and self-important doctors…”

Read the book to learn of the author’s trials and tribulations in treating patients not only in Britain, but also in Kiev.

The second Bonus Book of the Week is “Since Yesterday, The 1930’s in America, September 3, 1929 – September 3, 1939” by Frederick Lewis Allen, originally published in 1939.

“To hear angry Republicans and angry Democrats talking, one would have supposed the contest was between a tyrant determined to destroy private property, ambition, the Constitution, democracy, and civilization itself; and a dupe of Wall Street who would introduce a fascist dictatorship.” Such was the nature of the 1936 presidential election in America.

Clearly, propagandizing hasn’t changed in ninety years. Presidents want to have it both ways: they take credit for all positive economic news, and blame their predecessors for all negative economic news.

At the dawn of the 1930’s when the economy went south, Americans held very strong opinions about their political preferences, heavily influenced by the propaganda they read in newspapers and magazines. Not much has changed, except that now they can force their opinions on the world at the speed of light. Immediately they think they’re experts from watching the idiot box and/or reading the Web; the attitude is, “I’m not an attorney, not a doctor, and not an economist, but I play one on social media, because I can, and because I’m right.”

Other similarities between the Depression Era and recent times include:

  • Golf was a popular businessman’s game.
  • Fans of professional sports worshipped their star players, like in baseball, tennis, and golf– Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, etc.
  • Automation due to new technologies (such as steam, gasoline and electric power, inventions and farm machinery) and urbanization were eliminating jobs in industry, agriculture, and textiles more than offshoring ever would.
  • Listeners worshipped a pundit on the radio– Father Coughlin– a hate-spewing demagogue from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak (but he broadcast on only one station, not a national network, so he became nationally known only in his later years in the 1930’s).
  • All players in the banking industry were financially interdependent so when the system collapsed, they all fell like dominoes. Then-president Hoover established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in order to bail out only his corporate cronies, as he didn’t believe in stimulus money for individuals.
  • In summer 1932, Howard Scott and his inscrutable theory of Technocracy was a fad. The author wrote, “Yet in the meantime it had offered an object-lesson in the readiness of the American people for a new messiah and a new credo” just as “Wikinomics” (see the post in this blog) was supposed to be the next big thing.
  • The political agenda behind COVID has forced Americans to relax online similar to the way the Depression brought on: the five-day (rather than six-day) workweek, construction of sports and recreational areas of all kinds, and provision for transportation to get to them.
  • Beginning in late 1936 into 1937, in the Midwestern and Northeastern United States, a bunch of rivers overflowed their banks due to humans’ misuse of land; in the third week of September 1938, 682 people died in an unexpected hurricane that destroyed regions unprepared for flooding, in New England and Mid-Atlantic states.
  • Between 1931 and 1936, there were actually more people leaving the U.S. than coming in, for various reasons, and the U.S. birth rate was slowing.
  • Ultra-rich Americans who refused to face inconvenient facts were the ones who hated FDR when he was elected president.

Proposals distorted in propaganda that played out in the Depression Era, whose outcomes are yet to be seen in recent times, included:

  • In the 1930’s, in order to allow men to keep their dignity, the government put them to work instead of giving them handouts. In their first few years of existence, FDR’s alphabet soup of mostly federal (rather than state or local level) jobs and programs was nonpartisan. However, eventually, the Democrats provided maximum funding as election day approached. On the whole, the financial relief worked well, except in Pennsylvania, where there was gross misuse of funds.
  • FDR’s policies sought to mitigate environmental damage done by people, and prevent future natural disasters with his introduction of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, and his signing of the Taylor Grazing Act into law. These kinds of measures simply require political backing and money– the sooner a sufficient amount of both are thrown at them, the sooner the problems will be solved!
  • In February 1938, FDR floated a proposal to make seventy years the mandatory retirement age of all federal judges– including U.S. Supreme Court justices– and increase the number of justices from nine to fifteen. That unpopular proposal hurt FDR’s reputation.

In 1935, FDR introduced economic change to the country by instituting the Social Security system, financial assistance only for Americans 65 and older. In 1965, LBJ introduced economic change to the country by instituting the Medicare and Medicaid systems, healthcare funding for only those Americans who are poor and / or 65 and older.

In the future, the United States government might be introducing a better overall system of healthcare funding for all Americans of all ages and income levels (which is obviously much more complex than any system that has ever been created before in this country, so it’s not going to be perfect the first time around). In order to pay for the improved system, the government will likely have to raise taxes on the rich.

Along these lines, economics 101 says a nation’s economy is strongest when it has a healthy, well-educated workforce.

Whether deliberately or not, the political agenda revolving around COVID has rewarded education-software makers by closing schools across the country. So ironically, by allowing the software makers to get richer (because, presumably, their higher taxes will be paying for the improved healthcare-funding system), the software makers are dictating education policy. So in the long run, the nation will have a healthy, poorly educated workforce!

Anyway, read the book to learn much more about the tenor of the times in 1930’s America, culturally, politically and economically.

Pertinent Post

“P” post.

Present pandemic’s politics produced:

  • propaganda
  • president-promotion
  • provisions-portioning predicaments
  • panic
  • profiteering
  • paranoia
  • patronage pigs
  • pissed, persecuted people
  • poseurs
  • puerile politicians (petty power plays)
  • pained physicians
  • problematic prescriptions
  • pressured paramedics
  • pestered practices
  • poor populations
  • plus, predictably:

POPPYCOCK.

Taken For A Ride

The Book of the Week is “Taken For A Ride, How Daimler-Benz Drove Off With Chrysler” by Bill Vlasic and Bradley A. Stertz, published in 2000.

This was a story not atypical in many ways, of any 1990’s merger between two big-name public companies. One difference, however, was that one was American (Chrysler), and the other, German (Daimler-Benz). Thus, there was the additional difficulty of minimizing employee friction in connection not only with the different corporate cultures, but with the different national cultures.

Another difference was that Daimler and Chrysler weren’t direct competitors– product-wise demographically or geographically, so there was little personnel duplication between them. So minimal employee layoffs were in order.

Initially, Kirk Kerkorian was a major shareholder of Chrysler. In April 1995, his group Tracinda made a tender offer for all of Chrysler, but unwisely publicly admitted it had yet to line up the financing for purchasing the company. The news brought out all the greedy stakeholders: Tracinda’s people, and institutional and individual shareholders of Chrysler. Other parties to the possible transaction included investment bankers, and consultants of various kinds– image, financial, M&A, and legal.

The media stoked public anger at Tracinda for its poor planning (which might have been deliberate, to rattle the target). The Wall Street Journal made the emotionally charged claim that Kerkorian would saddle Chrysler with a heavy debt load if his bid was successful. Of course, regardless of success, he knew he would boost Chrysler’s share price and make more money for himself.

There were various times when different male corporate leaders became angry at others, usually when they felt they had or were going to get, less power or money than they thought they deserved.

For example, anger was directed at Lee Iacocca, former turnaround artist of Chrysler around 1980. At the time of the Kerkorian affair, he was a paid corporate consultant to Chrysler but contracted with Kerkorian, too. So Chrysler revoked the stock options he still had. “He [Iacocca] was… madder than a hornet when he heard he would get only $42 million…”

By the mid-1990’s, auto industry executives knew their companies would be swallowed up by bigger ones if their own companies didn’t make acquisitions or team up with their competitors.

One other possible way to expand was to try to sell cars to Third World countries like Vietnam. However, the bulk of those Asians– who were still farming and fishing– would need to save their entire annual salaries for forty years (!) if they wanted to buy even the lowest-price Chrysler car, the Neon. Besides, their country still had few paved roads, anyway.

In summer 1997, the timing just happened to be right for Daimler and Chrysler to get together with a stock swap (rather than a tender offer– buying the stock from the shareholders to cash them out– make them no longer owners of the stock). Nevertheless, the months-long merger talks had to be kept secret because if the news was prematurely leaked, Chrysler’s stock price would skyrocket, making a deal prohibitively expensive.

Read the book to learn what, in summer 1999, prompted the following: “His aides had never seen Kirk Kerkorian so mad. In two days he lost almost $600 million on his Daimler Chrysler stock” plus all the other details of the whole story.

Highly Confident

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.

King of the Club

The Book of the Week is “King of the Club” by Charles Gasparino, published in 2007.

The subject of this book “… was suffering from the downside of loyalty; he spent so much time surrounding himself with people he could trust that he forgot he also needed smart people who could get a job done in times of crisis, and he was now facing… the greatest crisis of his career.”

Sounds familiar. It was actually “Richard Grasso and the Survival of the New York Stock Exchange.” When he was fifteen years old, Grasso began trading stocks in an account held in his mother’s name, getting stock tips from his drug-store-owner-employer.

The author was rather vague about Grasso’s two years of military service which allegedly began in the mid 1960’s, spent: “…in Fort Meade, Maryland, though he did make periodic trips to Vietnam.” Apparently, Grasso’s eyesight was good enough to get him drafted by the U.S. Army, but not good enough to get him hired by the New York City Police Department, his first-choice employer after the military.

Grasso therefore began work as a back-office Wall-Street clerk at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in early 1968. The author failed to mention whether Grasso was told to put his stocks in a blind trust, or whether his new employer had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Grasso meteorically moved up through the ranks. He was innovative in executing new marketing initiatives for the exchange. He also poached companies that were listed on either the American Stock Exchange or the NASDAQ– that provided fierce competition to the NYSE. All three were stock markets of corporate entities that wanted to sell their shares far and wide. But the companies could be listed in only one place. Grasso convinced them that the NYSE was the best place to list.

By 1980, Grasso controlled NYSE listings, its trading floor and almost all its trading operations. In the mid-1980’s, the chair of NASDAQ, Bernie Madoff, claimed his market’s trading was more fair for investors because it executed trades electronically, thus multiple players were interacting continuously while setting impartial prices. The argument went that electronic trading made the market more “efficient”– as no buyers or sellers had significantly better pricing information than others on which to trade, theoretically.

In 1990, Grasso stepped up to the second-most powerful position at the NYSE. He was in charge of the exchange listees and, at the same time, in charge of regulating them. He did the legwork of bringing new business to the exchange. His boss, the chairman, did the public relations work of delivering speeches globally and persuading the federal government to keep conditions favorable for the exchange.

Several of the NYSE’s board of directors were Wall Street executives who passively continued to keep the status quo– lavishly rewarding Grasso monetarily for his undivided attention to lavishly lining their pockets year after year when times were good.

There was honor among thieves, as Grasso’s henchmen turned a blind eye to the various forms of illegal activity that allowed them to make obscene amounts of money on the trading floor. Until there wasn’t honor among thieves– as conditions changed.

From a not-for-profit-organization-legal-standpoint, most of the parties and individuals involved were engaging in various highly unethical activities, at best; conflicts of interest abounded as participants in the exchange network cooperated in a way that maximized profits for everyone until, as usual, some individuals got too greedy.

Being head of the New York Stock Exchange is not unlike leading the U.S. government. The marriage of politics and commerce is always fraught with conflicts of interest. Some are avoidable. It’s a shame that politics in particular tends to attract dishonest attention whores with hubris syndrome whose ethics are in the basement. Of course, they usually use the “everybody does it” excuse and change the subject if they can.

But there ought to be equal justice under the law for any of the accused– after an investigation of where the evidence leads— with NO jumping to conclusions, assumptions or biases prior to a thorough review of all evidence, if any. Along these lines, one would do well to ignore the superlative-laden, repetitive, sensationalist drivel emanating from the teleprompter box, um, er– idiot box.

Anyway, starting in the late 1990’s, unbridled greed led to a bunch of scandals. There was Long Term Capital Management, Enron, WorldCom, the dot-com crash, various major SEC violations committed by big-name brokerages; not to mention 9/11’s impact on the financial markets. All on Grasso’s watch. Yet, his pay kept soaring, anyway. It wasn’t pay-for-performance anymore.

Finally, Grasso got the same treatment, figuratively speaking, as other major historical figures. One week he was flying high and the next, kicked to the curb. Grasso was suffering from a bad case of hubris syndrome. In early September 2003, herd mentality / groupthink seized the board; jealousy (possibly subconscious) of his pay package reached critical mass.

Read the book to learn of the usual occurrences in such a situation (investigation, litigation, political machination and myth propagation) that led to the changing of more things, and more of same.

Financier

The Book of the Week is “Financier, The Biography of Andre Meyer, a Story of Money, Power, and the Reshaping of American Business” by Cary Reich, published in 1983.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Meyer was a pioneer of the mergers and acquisitions craze in corporate America. He was the head honcho at the investment banking firm of Lazard Freres.

The firm exploited the trend, switching from supplying venture capital to advising its clients which were institutional, to form conglomerates, because it was thought that bigger was better. Other firms spent big bucks on research analysts, whose pronouncements were sometimes wrong. Lazard specialized in numerous, diverse, creatively structured deals.

Beginning in August 1951, for instance, for the purpose of minimizing the tax on the purchase and sale of an eight hundred thousand acre cattle ranch in Texas, over what turned out to be the course of a decade– Lazard split up the real property into sixteen different parcels, each owned by a different corporate entity. This way, the eventual 80% profit on the approximately $18 million investment was classified as capital gains (taxed at 25%) rather than real-estate income (taxed at 90% in those days; that’s not a typo).

The absolutely most valuable investment in the 1950’s and 1960’s was real estate because inflation was only 1%, and real estate ventures were easy to form. This was shown by Bill Zeckendorf, who (after obtaining loans with usurious terms on various occasions from Lazard), in August 1968, with assets of $1.8 million and debt of $79 million, rose from the ashes of bankruptcy to form General Property Corporation, and continued doing real estate business.

In early 1977, Meyer “… was convinced that the world was heading for economic apocalypse, that capitalism was dying, that government deficits and inflation were out of hand, and that nothing was a safe investment any longer… Should you buy gold? Stocks? Art? Bonds? And he didn’t want to buy anything.”

A man with his life experience should have known better. As is well known, the economy recovered within a decade. Granted, it got worse before it got better, and of course, shortly after that, there occurred a stock market crash and recession. But one need only wait ten years or less to see major changes in the nation’s economics (and politics for that matter; not that there aren’t lingering scars).

Excuse the cliche, but this too, shall pass.

Read the book to learn about Meyer’s major deals, the corporate culture of Lazard Freres, and how its reputation was hurt when it became too creative with its complicated stock swaps in its underwriting activities.