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.

I Love Capitalism – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “I Love Capitalism, An American Story” by Ken Langone, Cofounder of the Home Depot, published in 2018. This is the bragfest of a Wall Streeter, who appears to have bragging rights.

Born in September 1935 in Roslyn Heights, in New York State (on Long Island), Langone caught the entrepreneurial bug early in life. By college, he was selling stationery and neckties.

In the single-digit 2000’s, Langone helped recruit a CEO for Home Depot. In the short term, the CEO greatly improved the numbers that serve as indicators of a company’s financial success. However, the dollar value of the company actually decreased after a few years. His philosophy damaged the corporate culture by violating the company’s philosophical values.

For, the CEO failed to understand that in a customer service business like Home Depot, corporate culture drives the numbers. Employee satisfaction gets the same score as customer service. His replacement “… dressed like a plumber, and he looked like a nerd… [but] he became a rock star to the employees…”

Langone admitted up front that he had mentors and helpers left and right throughout his life. “Some guys who get to be wealthy like to brag about being self-made men. I can’t imagine they’re not leaving somebody out of that equation.” [likely, their daddy.]

Read the book to learn about who assisted Langone in his adventures in capitalism.

Indecent Exposure

The Book of the Week is “Indecent Exposure, A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street” by David McClintick, published in 1982. This volume with the provocative but misleading title had nothing to do with sex. It actually consisted of a suspenseful, albeit long story seen mostly through the eyes of Alan J. Hirschfield, the CEO and officer at Columbia, the movie company. It was about how a lack of honesty, the power of propaganda, and clashing egos basically resulted in the redistribution of wealth among the wealthy. This sort of thing happens all the time.

In February 1977, then-famous actor Cliff Robertson received a document saying he owed taxes in connection with a check he never received. He later found out that the check had been forged and cashed in his name, by David Begelman, a high-level executive at the aforesaid Columbia.

It was common practice for Hollywood studios to send movie actors checks for thousands of dollars (usually unreported to the IRS) that defrayed a small portion of their promotion expenses for a new picture. The IRS had just then begun cracking down on that taxable income. Robertson’s reaction set in motion a series of consequences that affected thousands of people; mostly financially.

Columbia was a public company, and the bad publicity resulting from news of a serious crime committed by one of its executives was a serious public relations problem. Hirschfield, who was on the board of directors, was told by an attorney that he had a duty to inform the executive committee, corporate counsel and the SEC after an internal investigation had been conducted.

As has been the case since the discovery of journalism/tabloidism, (supposedly said by Mark Twain), “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Begelman’s friends in the Hollywood community (of which the check forger had many) rushed to his defense, having heard only vague rumors that described his transgressions in euphemisms. They really had no clue that he had actually committed several felonies, it turned out. They didn’t want to know.

The friends planted tabloidy messages in the media making the excuse “Everybody Does It” because they took unethical liberties with their own expense accounts, and made Hirschfield the villain, saying he was a power-hungry, vindictive executive, as he technically did compete for power with Begelman in the company hierarchy. Hollywood’s and the public’s gullibility in automatically believing in Begelman’s innocence and Hirschfield’s treachery is human nature.

At the board meeting that initiated the long, heated discussion that would determine whether Begelman was fired, Begelman acted like a prisoner on death row who had suddenly found religion. He implied he might kill himself if removed from his primary job. But actually, anyone who knows this kind of person knows that he would be too arrogant to kill himself.

A preliminary inquiry into Begelman’s history yielded more than one serious crime during his Columbia tenure, and previous lying and other worse misdeeds. Hirschfield argued for termination, saying Begelman was unlikely to change his spots, as dishonesty was a lifelong habit with him. Over the next few years, the Hollywood community and the public, however, still having heard only distorted soundbites that minimized Begelman’s sins, fooled itself into believing they weren’t that bad, and continued to defend him.

Interesting sidenote: In 1982, in a joking context, Hirschfield exclaimed to a female friend who was high on the corporate ladder, in front of some colleagues: “Female executives suck!” She laughed. Clearly, if that was uttered in 2018, hilarity would NOT ensue.

Read the book to learn of the consequences of the stupid actions taken by most of the main characters of this entertaining saga.

A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin” by Kathy Griffin, published in 2009.

This memoir described the comedian whose shtick consisted of telling humorous, embarrassing stories about members of the entertainment industry. Or, as she characterized herself: “… someone who gets fired, stirs up trouble, and gets debated about on CNN for saying bad things on award shows.” Kudos to her for being an honest, amusing attention whore. She must have brought in sufficient profits for the entertainment industry to tolerate her behavior.

Born in November 1960 in Forest Park, Illinois, the youngest of five children, Griffin grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. At eighteen years old, she moved to Santa Monica, California to be an actress. She apparently had the talent, drive and creativity to get famous.

In the early 2000’s, Griffin performed sufficiently well at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles to double the length of her show to two hours. This allowed the cocktail waitresses to make sufficient money to pay their rent, “Plus they loved serving the gays, because they were well-dressed, respectful and tipped well.”

Griffin didn’t talk about Anna Nicole Smith right after she died out of respect. As Greg Giraldo would have said, “Too soon, too soon.” Griffin revealed deeply personal information– both of her parents were functional alcoholics, and her oldest brother was a pedophile and substance abuser.

Griffin tried to raise the alarm about her brother, but, as she joked– her parents thought “denial” was a river in Egypt. She admitted to two major errors in her life– poor judgment in both her marriage and in having liposuction. Read the book to learn the details of this and other episodes.

SERIOUS ENDNOTE: Griffin had no qualms about making political statements unrelated to the awards shows she attended. It is therefore not inappropriate to make a political statement unrelated to Griffin’s book, below.

This nation seems to be in denial about the amount of debt load currently carried by not only individuals and businesses, but by the federal government and local governments. It appears that bankruptcies of government entities is the next financial crisis in the offing; the reason why, will be explained shortly.

Within the last thirty or so years alone, the United States has seen greed fests and then busts with regard to junk bonds, savings and loan associations, derivatives, tech stocks, and subprime mortgages, just to name a few. Mortgage-backed securities used to be one of the lowest-risk investments around. Tax-free municipal bonds are presumably still one of the lowest-risk investments around.

BUT one small bond brokerage (and possibly others, too) whose website says it “specialize[s] in tax-free municipal bonds. That’s all we do.” recently changed the language on its customers’ monthly statements. It is forcing them to accept the words, “trading & speculation” (!) for their “Investment objective/Risk tolerance” or else they won’t be able to purchase bonds. It makes itself sound like a penny-stock broker-dealer of the 1980’s that churns accounts. Or a currency broker.

The brokerage is so phobic about covering itself legally that there must be bond issuers who are going to go belly up AFTER THE CURRENT PRESIDENT HAS BEEN REELECTED or has left office, whenever that is. (It might be recalled that Detroit took the plunge in July 2013, after Obama was reelected.) Or its brokers are getting greedy and unscrupulous. Or both. Good luck with that, all.

The Nudist on the Late Shift – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “The Nudist on the Late Shift, and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley” by Po Bronson, published in 1999.  The author provided NO specific source notes and NO index, but he was a journalist who interviewed numerous, various individuals directly.

Anyway, the interviewees aspired to get rich quick in Silicon Valley in the 1990’s. Most were technology gurus; the others, sellers of high-tech products. Some became multi-millionaires; others, who also possessed irrepressible optimism, moved on to the next project.

Bronson described the trials and tribulations suffered by parties involved in an IPO– the subject tech company’s directors and officers, the SEC, the local business printer, bankers in various major U. S. cities, etc.– on the precarious first day of trading on a Friday in the summer of 1998.

The author spoke extensively with the supremely confident co-creator of the software that became Hotmail, the world’s first Web-based email service– which was free and global, later sold to Microsoft in late 1997 for about $400 million. At the book’s writing, the service had more than 26 million users.

One of countless interesting aspects of the World Wide Web is that its advent weeded out the sloppy computer-code developers. The reason is that the code is required to be on a global rather than a local-area network– with the potential for millions of users with diverse hardware, software and settings– and thus the potential for crashing much more easily.

Read the book to learn about the then-options available to entrepreneurs seeking funding for their projects.

Start-Up Nation

The Book of the Week is “Start-Up Nation, The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, published in 2009. The authors of this extended essay ponder why Israel had, at the book’s writing, a huger number of tech start-ups than all other industrialized nations, second only to the United States’. The reasons range from the cultural to the political to the economic.

The Israeli corporate and military mentality involves: complete focus; learning from errors (which are tolerated and treated as learning experiences); constant debriefings and self-criticism sessions; endless, heated debate; and empowerment of employees at all status levels to use their initiative and resources– even to the point of upstaging their bosses with their input. This atmosphere encourages independent thinking, and discourages herd mentality and blind obedience.

Militarily, all Israelis serve a minimum of two to three years and then become reservists for two more decades. Close social ties are formed that foster business relationships later. The exceptional rising stars participate in special nine-year training programs that create  “foxes” rather than “hedgehogs.” Foxes use diverse skills from operating and maintaining high-tech equipment to imaginatively solving problems.

After serving their country, many Israelis then attend university. Finally, employers consider quality and quantity of military experience as major hiring criteria.

The authors provided real-life examples of how the traits Israelis possess cause them to gravitate toward entrepreneurial ventures. In 1965, in one instance, kibbutzniks digging a well hoping to find drinking water instead encountered warm, salty water. A creative academic advised them to breed tropical food-fish. By-products of the fish-farm were used for fertilizer for their olive and date trees.

Read the book to learn of additional characteristics of and actions taken by Israelis and their government that have helped them achieve technological advances in various economically rewarding areas, including medicine, auto manufacturing and computing.

Red Notice

The Book of the Week is “Red Notice, A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight For Justice” by Bill Browder, published in 2015. This suspenseful, emotional saga should be made into a motion picture, as it is not only entertaining and engaging, but is a comprehensive picture of the extremes of human nature.

Rebelling against his left wing intellectual family, Browder became a capitalist. During his career, he worked under two big bosses who died under mysterious, suspicious circumstances– Bob Maxwell and Edmond Safra. As a young whippersnapper, he longed to do investment consulting in Eastern Europe, but had to settle for London. Browder got in on the ground floor when the Russian securities industry was in its infancy in the early 1990’s.

In early 2000, the power of Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, was actually held by “… oligarchs, regional governors, and organized-crime groups.” Browder started a hedge fund called Hermitage. What with complex economic and political goings-on, his hedge fund became the victim of the Russian mentality. In 2006, Hermitage had to “… sell billions of dollars worth of Russian securities without anyone knowing.” That was just one of many traumatic episodes in Browder’s career.

The author had the brains and skills to become not only a successful financial consultant and investor, but a muckraker; however, this made him a “Darwin Award” candidate. He became involved in a true thriller with intrigue, greed, power hunger, human rights abuses and karma. Russia struck at his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky. Numerous Russians in positions of authority– in the government, prisons, the police– all lied to the world about what happened to Magnitsky. Under Putin’s rule, Russia had reverted to the Stalinism of the 1920’s, with thousands of dissidents tortured and killed.

The few people whose eyes were open, who were raising the alarm– were risking their own lives. The rest of the world didn’t want to get involved because they were of the mentality that the violence was confined to Russia, and it wouldn’t spread to them. And they might end up like those dissidents if they rocked the boat. Besides, in the 2000’s, people have become desensitized to human rights abuses due to the widespread, propagandized publicizing of them (like video clips arousing viewers’ morbid curiosity, of the alleged beheadings of journalists by Middle Easterners on YouTube).

(Please excuse the legalese in this paragraph- but it is the briefest way of explanation) Some people would say that Browder had “unclean hands” and there was “contributory negligence” on his part, so his story should not have deserved the special attention it got. Admittedly, he was out for revenge, not because he truly wanted to stem uncivil behavior in the world. He made his living in an industry full of greedy people whose scruples are less than stellar– securities. He made a ton of money by engaging in “self-dealing” and insider trading, which would be considered violations of American securities laws. He was from America, the country that gave rise to the corrupt economic system in Russia in the first place. It might be recalled that Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs gave bad advice to Boris Yeltsin (to put it generously), convincing him to adopt “shock capitalism” — a ruinous financial plan. Lastly, Browder had “constructive knowledge” that doing business in Russia was especially risky (not just financially), compared to other countries. Arguably, he was trying to apply American morals and laws to get justice in a situation in which he had profited from Russian morals and lawlessness. Some people would say, “Pox on everyone’s house.”

Browder wrote, “There was something almost biblical about Sergei’s story, and even though I am not a religious man, as I sat there watching history unfold, I couldn’t help but feel that God had intervened in this case.” This blogger thinks that, but for Browder’s powerful professional and political contacts who intervened in this case, it would be just another infuriating, depressing, suppressed, and eventually forgotten human rights abuse story.

Read the book to learn the details of the story, including the actions taken against the morally bankrupt, brazen Russian criminals, and learn whether justice was done.

The Antidote

The Book of the Week is “The Antidote” by Barry Werth, published in 2014. This suspenseful saga is about the public drug company, Vertex.

Vertex has created the core substances in drugs that treat niche diseases, such as hepatitis C and cystic fibrosis. It has partnered with various other drug companies to use their resources.

Unconventionally, in the 1990’s, Vertex’s employees were organized into teams working on protein targets rather than those working on different diseases. The company’s teams were demoralized when they failed month after month to come up with a successful molecule.

The cost of American drugs is so high not just because the drugmakers are greedy, but because their employees feel entitled to a large reward for creating an effective product that does minimal harm to patients. They take tremendous risks– acquire pricey, extensive educations in organic chemistry and such, working long daily hours, suffer loads of stress from dealing with grant applications, patent disputes, licensing issues, doctor-insurer issues, undergoing the rigorous process of seeking FDA approval after laboring months or years on a drug substance– possibly applying for approval at the same time as another company with a competing product, and face the possibility of being laid off anytime. This is why life-saving, life-prolonging medicines are astronomically expensive. However, the drugs would not exist, but for the necessary evil of a greed machine that raises the funds to pay for the price of creating them.

Vertex posted a “profit” of more than $2 million in the fourth quarter of 1993, even though it had yet to sell even one pill. Its financial arrangements with its partners allowed it to claim that its income exceeded its expenses. By the end of the 1990’s, however, there were still no actual drugs produced, and the company was likely many years and hundreds of millions of dollars from the market. It was thus a likely takeover target. Some of Vertex’s scientists and lawyers became avid day-traders of the company’s stock in the autumn of 2000, after a deal with Novartis.

Trading rumors fly all the time, and one influential analyst at a big-name investment bank might downgrade a drug company’s stock, causing a selloff. In the early 2000’s, there was an SEC accusation of insider trading against Vertex’s house counsel. Ironically, it is common practice for panel members of the FDA to receive financial support in research-funding from many pharmaceutical companies.

Those companies that are public must answer to Wall Street. Unsurprisingly, at numerous medical conferences, their executives spout cliches such as “…We believe it’s a matter of time before we break this disease wide open and make a really big difference for a lot of people.”

Read the book to learn about actions Vertex took in research, development and finance in order to stay in business twenty years while accumulating losses of more than $1.5 billion; the causes of its high turnover of executives; how it became more geared toward finding commercial applications with its research results, and how it had fared product-wise and financially by autumn 2013.

Adventures of a Currency Trader – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Adventures of a Currency Trader” by Rob Booker, published in 2007.

This fable describes fictional characters who were doing currency trading in the early 2000’s at New York City offices. It is about human nature. People are loss-averse and lazy, but love gambling.

It is difficult to say whether readers will actually heed the lessons in the story because it has many unrealistic elements; among them: a) the newbie-trader protagonist had a major mentor who cared about him even though he impulsively disobeyed his mentor from the get-go; b) the protagonist influenced an entire trading floor of seasoned traders; c) the protagonist had access to all the resources that significantly accelerated his learning curve.

The moral is that those who realize they are passionate about currency trading– before they actually start trading with highly leveraged real money– need to understand what they are getting into and do their homework– develop on paper, a trading system that is statistically profitable in the long run.

Read the book to get an overview of currency trading, including the risks, and the mentalities of different traders.