Six years ago, the $40 billion Enron debacle was seen as the tsunami of modern corruption scandals. But that was just a ripple in a sordid line of sleights of hand, insider trading, disinformation, financial losses disguised as profits, and predatory lending, all leading to a steady decline into bandit capitalism.
On the heels of Enron came Tyco International, Adelphia, Peregrine Systems, and WorldCom, which cost investors billions when their share prices collapsed and shook public confidence in securities markets.
Hardly a day goes by without front-page stories about business and financial misfeasance. The avalanche of corporate scandals — more in five years than during the entire 20th century — has inflicted more harm to the world's greatest free-enterprise system since 2001 than al-Qaida did on Sept. 11. And that includes the S&L disaster of the late 1980s and early '90s.
More than 1,000 small lending institutions known as "savings and loans," also called "thrifts," had failed. Half of the federally insured thrift institutions in the United States had gone under in less than a decade, and the associated slowdown in new home construction and the financial fallout contributed to the 1990-91 recession.
High, volatile interest rates, reckless lending practices, lax oversight and rapid deregulation paved the way for the greatest banking disaster since the Great Depression. Now 2008 picks up the sleaze baton and is in the lead.
Earlier this year, Kevin Phillips' book "Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism" was on the money. Democratic capitalism has been on a glide path to bandit capitalism, rocking from one scandal to the next, oblivious to the harm being done to the superstructure.
The broker is on the phone to a client with his latest recommendations. "Rather than buying individual stocks in corrupt and mismanaged companies, we suggest buying corrupt and mismanaged mutual funds," he says in this classic Peter Steiner cartoon.
After the Enron massacre of thousands of employees' savings, pensions and children's education funds, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission determined that at least half of the 88 mutual fund companies controlling 90 percent of the industry's $9 trillion in assets authorized "large" investors to play the fixed roulette wheel of market timing.
The privileged few could buy funds at outdated prices and then unload them the next day.
Primus inter pares (first among equals), venture capitalist Wilbur Ross sees several hundred banks — out of 8,500 — tanking in the next year. Wall Street itself seems up for grabs.
Bear Stearns' meltdown pushed it into the junior ranks of JPMorgan Chase & Co. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were saved by a government takeover, which insiders knew was coming.
The 158-year-old Lehman Brothers, the country's fourth-largest investment bank, crumpled under the weight of noxious real estate assets spawned by electronic circus barkers and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It had lost 95 percent of its market value this year alone and listed more than $600 billion in liabilities.
Merrill Lynch, No. 3 in the investment bank pecking order with losses and write-downs from subprime mortgages of $52.2 billion, was only too happy to be swept up in the embrace of Bank of America, the biggest retail bank in the United States, for $29 a share, a miraculous $12 higher than where it was at the closing bell Friday. That was still less than half its 52-week high.
Too clever by half, complex debt instruments clogged the engines that produced gargantuan paper profits. The gravy train was running out of gravy.
CEOs of Fannie and Freddie, deposed by the government, said they were due by contract $24 million in severance pay. The government put its foot down. The courts will have to settle it. But the decision reflected growing revulsion around the country at the manners and mores topsides of Fortune 500 corporations.
Golden parachutes, whether CEOs fail or succeed, are a national scandal, but they continue unabated. Stan O'Neal, former chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch, made a couple of wrong calls and was asked to leave. His parachute was worth $165 million — on top of the $165 million he had earned over the previous four years.
James Kilts, former Gillette CEO, also received $165 million after orchestrating the sale of Gillette to Procter & Gamble. Galling to his critics was the loss of 6,000 jobs in the combined company. In January 2007, Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli resigned and landed a severance package worth $210 million, even though the company's stock had dropped slightly.
Average annual compensation for Fortune 500 CEOs is $11.5 million, or 364 times the pay of an average employee. Sixty years ago, when this reporter immigrated to the United States, CEOs made 10 to 30 times what average workers earned.
Today, men and women solicited to take over large corporations argue they should not be treated any differently from Hollywood or sports stars. Apple's Steve Jobs is still the highest-paid CEO in the United States: $650 million. Occidental Petroleum's Ray Irani is a distant second at $322 million, followed by Barry Diller of IAC, a shade less at $300 million.
Both Democrats and Republicans are tiptoeing around the issue. They both need the fat cats to help fund their campaigns. But whether McCain-Palin or Obama-Biden win in November, reform is in the air.
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