The Billionaire’s Apprentice

The Book of the Week is “The Billionaire’s Apprentice” by Anita Raghavan, published in 2013. This ebook describes the investigation into the activities of a few Wall Streeters who were accused of insider trading in the past several years. Most of the accused happened to be of South Asian descent–from  Sri Lanka and India.

One concept the book conveys to readers is that it is unknown how many American securities-industry professionals are benefiting from insider trading, but the people in this book just happened to get caught because there was sufficient evidence against them to prompt the SEC, US Attorney’s office and FBI to go after them, rather than other possible offenders. The departments involved included the SEC’s Market Abuse Unit and the Department of Justice’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force in the legal jurisdiction of the Southern District of New York (covering Manhattan and the Bronx, according to the author).

Another concept is that the investigating organizations and the securities industry are staffed with many people who, during their careers, switch allegiances. They might go from being a prosecutor to being a defense attorney, or from brokerage executive to government regulator, or vice versa. In this book the “old boy network” is alive and well. Arguably, conflicts abound.

Read the book to learn, among other extremes, about wiretapping (not the NSA’s), about one of the accused who “had several phones– at least thirteen– and he used them all” and a $30 million legal bill.

King of Capital

The Book of the Week is “King of Capital” by David Carey and John E. Morris, published in 2012.  This ebook recounts the history of leveraged buyout (“LBO” or  “private equity”) firms, mostly Blackstone Group, from the 1980’s through the first decade of the 21st century. This ebook attempts to debunk the stereotype of greedy Wall Streeters.

Back in the 1980’s, one kind of transaction or “deal” the LBO firm did, was buy out companies that were publicly traded, taking them private. It risked only a tiny amount of its own money to take ownership and take over the management, usually 5-15% of the total price. The role of the firm was to arrange financing. The management of the company (client) being bought out, was the party risking the most, and doing the buying out– borrowing a large percentage of the purchase price (leveraging) — in essence, “robbing Peter to pay Paul” with the monies raised by the LBO firm from various financial institutions.

This was where “junk bonds” came in– very risky debt instruments that carried extremely high interest rates, as much as 19%. The reason for the risk and high return, was that, in the event that the client went bankrupt, bank loans were repaid to creditors first, and if there was any money left, then much later, the junk bonds would be repaid.

According to Carey and Morris, the goal of LBO firms that were “corporate raiders” was to capitalize on the hidden value of a target’s assets that was not being reflected in its stock price. The value was there but the directors and officers of the target were too busy looting their company by throwing lavish parties at their mansions and on their yachts, and zipping around in their corporate jets.

The raiders had no interest in owning the target, but wanted to make it leaner and meaner by firing the greedy CEO’s. Then they would cash out at a profit of several times their initial investment. Over time, the targets developed strategies, such as the “poison pill” to counter the raiders. Unfortunately, “For all their talk of overhauling badly run companies, the raiders seldom demonstrated much aptitude for improving companies.” Pox on both the houses of the raiders and targets.

Buyout firms that were not corporate raiders truly wanted to own the target. “…buyout investors look for companies that produce enough cash to cover the interest on the debt needed to buy them and which also are likely to increase in value.” A major part of the job of LBO firms is to identify possible deals through extensive financial research, and then decide whether to invest in the ones predicted to succeed.

The year 1981 was a great year for LBO’s because interest rates peaked, there was an economic downturn, and stocks were down. In the autumn of 1985, two partners, Steve Schwarzman and Pete Peterson started Blackstone Group. Schwarzman said that his partnership would not be able to compete with the older, more experienced LBO firms, unless it “…brought efficiencies to a company by way of cost improvements or revenue synergies.”

The early 2000’s became a rerun of the 1980’s as financial institutions took on excessive debt loads. Fall of 2008 saw the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank raise funds to try to bail out Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG by calling on private equity firms like Blackstone Group to help.

Read the book to learn more about the redistribution of wealth among the wealthy over the course of three decades, and the turnover, and victories and defeats of the partners at Blackstone Group.

Dot Bomb

The Book of the Week is “Dot Bomb” by J. David Kuo, published in 2001. This ebook details the business dealings and the ensuing suspenseful power struggle at a dot-com company called Value America between 1996 and 2001.

The online retailer’s intended brand image was to boast maximum selection of merchandise shipped directly from sellers. This delivery-on-demand arrangement allowed the company to remain inventory-free, and thus minimize overhead costs. However, in reality, it needed to use resellers for many of the supposedly infinite products it sold.

Value America’s founder and leader, Craig Winn, was a charming megalomaniac who had grand plans to partner with various major corporations in order to attract investors and make the company worthy of an IPO. Unfortunately, Winn had planned to sell stock to the public just after the peak of the dot-com boom, when brokerages’ confidence in internet companies had started to wane.

After Value America went public, Goldman Sachs issued a report that was the internet retailer with the highest potential for success because it had high sales margins on its then-merchandise consisting only of books; a $30 billion valuation was not out of the realm of possiblity. Goldman went on to say Value America had the worst prospects, with sales margins of 1% and runaway costs. It would have to achieve revenues of billions of dollars in order to make any money.

Toward the end of the story, the author realized “Despite the hype, headlines, and hysteria, this was just a gold rush we were in… a lot of us were kin to those poor, freezing fools in Alaska who had staked everything on turning up a glittering chunk of gold.”

Read the book to learn the fate of the author, his family and the other Value America employees with dollar signs in their eyeballs.

The Black Swan

The Book of the Week is “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2010. In this book, the author explains his theory about rare, unexpected events, “Black Swans”– unexpected by those affected, because human traits and uncertain situations cause people to draw the wrong conclusions, formulate the wrong predictions, and make the wrong decisions. “Black Swan events are largely caused by people using measures way over their heads, instilling false confidence based on bogus results.” The author applies his ideas mostly to “experts” who manipulate the financial markets.

While Taleb makes some good points, this blogger suspects that very few readers of this book will come away fully understanding what a Black Swan is. Taleb tries to provide several examples; his illustrations are unclear as to why one event is a Black Swan and why another is not.

One example consists of five trading managers at a European-owned financial institution who wrote a five-year plan. Having neglected to consider all possible adverse future events, they were done in by “the Black Swan of the Russian financial default of 1998 and the accompanying meltdown of the values of Latin American debt markets.” Yet, Taleb writes that the 2008 financial crisis was not a Black Swan. He says such a cluster screw-up will happen again. A Black Swan is a negative or more rarely, a positive occurrence that in general, has never happened before.

One human trait people have is that they are reluctant to attribute events to randomness. But Taleb thinks randomness plays a part in all sorts of events, including long winning streaks of investors. He even generated a computer simulation showing how it would be impossible not to have money managers who beat the market year after year– he says they did so simply by luck alone. Another reason these investors are overrated is that people hear more often about winners rather than losers.

Taleb writes, “We want to be told stories, and there is nothing wrong with that– except that we should check more thoroughly whether the story provides consequential distortions of reality… Just consider that the newspapers try to get impeccable facts, but weave them into a narrative in such a way as to convey the impression of causality (and knowledge).”

Leg the Spread

The Book of the Week is “Leg the Spread” by Cari Lynn, published in 2004.  The author interviewed several current and former commodities-futures traders, providing detailed descriptions of their days at the market in Chicago.

Some traders, employees of a broker-dealer, actually stood on the trading floor, yelling and waving paper from the time the market opened at 8am until mid-afternoon.  Others traded online.  They had good days and bad days.

One female who formerly made a large amount of money on the trading floor before becoming burnt out, had many bad days, both because the job itself was stressful, and because the vast majority of people around her– practically all men– were sexist.  In many cases, the way for a female to get ahead besides having super luck, quick math skills and keen intuition about human behavior, was to sleep with one’s (male) boss.

Read the book to get a comprehensive, entertaining picture of the American commodities-futures market in the mid-single-digit 2000’s.

God Is My Broker

The Book of the Week is “God Is My Broker” by Brother Ty, with Christopher Buckley and John Tierney.  It is a very funny satire.  The story starts with a man who made sufficient money on “Wall Street” to retire at a young age.  However, a mid-life crisis caused him to try the lifestyle of a Trappist Monk.

While swearing off material possessions at the monastery, “Brother Ty” still had the urge to gamble.  So he let a line of text in a religious tract dictate his course of action in the stock market.   The way Brother Ty interpreted the text turned out to be contrarian to most other traders’ advice and actions, but turned out to be extremely lucrative for him.

The humor of this book emerges when the monastery and the monastery’s abbot are revealed to be just as dishonest as Wall Street.   The monastery raised money through selling wine that was falsely advertised, and the abbot built himself an entertainment center with the ill-gotten gains. Read the book to vicariously experience the hilarity that ensues.