Staying Safe from Financial Predators
Ken Lay, the disgraced former chairman of Enron, found a way to escape his legal problems: He died after being convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges. His onetime CEO and partner in crime, Jeffrey Skilling, wasn't so "lucky": He was sentenced to 24 years in prison last month.
I'm not gleeful about Lay's death or Skilling's sentencing, partly because I'm afraid true justice hasn't been carried out. Similarly, when Martha Stewart was convicted and went to prison in 2004, I was shocked. Not because I condone insider trading or attempting to cover up illicit activities, but because she was hardly the criminal the justice system should have been after.
Between 1995 and 2005, literally trillions of investor dollars were stolen from ordinary people with hopes for a secure retirement or a college education for their kids.
Wealth Instead of Jail Time
Many of the crooks responsible for such acts have never been caught and some remain in business. In the same vein, while the savings of average people across the country were being wiped out, the New York Stock Exchange "inadvertently" awarded CEO Dick Grasso a $187 million dollars in compensation.
While Martha was baking cookies in jail, Grasso was richly rewarded for presiding over one of the most corrupt eras of the stock exchange. Was the $187 million Grasso's sales commission for the $7 to $9 trillion the "little" investors lost?
Thank goodness Elliot Spitzer, the New York State attorney general, had the guts to take him to court and win. It looks like Grasso may have to pay back $100 million, but he won't do any time behind bars.
This raises all sorts of questions. Who are the guys who awarded Dick Grasso so much money in the first place? Is someone going after them? Do you still want to trust your money to these people? Does Martha doing time make you feel more confident? Is Jeff Skilling the last crook?
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
It is true that people, especially investors, tend to have short memories. As soon as a market heats up, greed takes over and caution is forgotten.
For instance, the real estate market hit bottom in 1992. Property prices were horrible, the savings and loan industry went bust, and dishonest bankers and real estate developers like Charles Keating were going to jail. Scandals were everywhere, and the federal government had to step in for a bailout.
But in less than 10 years, memories of that horrible disaster were erased, crooks and corruption were forgotten, and people were pouring their money back into real estate.
Today, such corporate giants such as Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and others are gone -- taking trillions of investor dollars with them. But with the Dow over 12,000 memories of these offenders (and of Martha in jail) have vanished just as surely, and investors are once again flocking to the stock market.
Where Are They Now?
What about Enron's board of directors who were supposed to supervise Lay, Skilling, and Fastow? What about the accountants and the analysts? What about all the pension and mutual fund managers who were buying the worthless Enron stock with their investors' money? Were they asleep as Enron executives were robbing and lying? Aren't they still out there investing other people's money?
And what about all the stockbrokers and financial planners who recommended the mutual funds that were buying the Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom stock for their investors? Are they still in business? Were they investigated? If medical doctors can be sued for malpractice, shouldn't financial professionals practice under the same safeguard?
And what about all the financial journalists on television and in print who failed to alert investors to Enron's shady practices? Only a few years ago they were cheering on the dotcom stocks, and today are cheering on the Dow reaching 12,000.
A Rogue's Gallery
Some of the people who made off with millions of investor money are still being celebrated rather than questioned. For example, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch is still considered a leadership guru.
Yet if you look at the facts, Welch took a lot of investor money and left GE in worst shape than ever. When he was exposed for an extra-martial affair, his retirement compensation also came to light. His work at GE netted him nearly $1 billion. His retirement benefits include use of company jets and a lavish New York apartment, and his stipend is $734,000 a month.
Now, if he'd left GE a stronger company, I wouldn't have much to criticize. But the hard facts are that the 2000 value of GE was $600 billion and by early 2005 it was down to $379 billion.
There's also Steve Case of AOL fame. When AOL acquired Time Warner, Time Warner's stock went to $90 a share before falling to a low of less than $10. Market value of the merger was $240 billion, but by 2005 it was less than $82 billion. Thanks to Case, I have a number of friends at Time Warner who are wondering what happened to their retirement.
Most of the people who were responsible for one of the biggest market crashes in history are still in the system today, doing many of the same things today that they were doing then.
So, as the Dow continues its upward march past 12,000, remember that Martha Stewart is now out of jail -- but so are many of the other characters who actually did run off with the money and never served a day or jail time.
Your mind is still your most important asset, so be careful who you take your advice from and what you believe is true. Remember that all financial markets are filled with good but not necessarily innocent people looking after their own self-interests before they look after yours.