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'Den of Thieves' - classic review from the Monitor archives

Wall Street greed laid bare.

By By David Francis / November 23, 2008

[The Monitor occasionally reprints older book reviews of current interest. This review originally ran in the Monitor on Jan. 14, 1992.]

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In an old-fashioned western, the movie-house audience often cheers when the hero arrives to bring the villain to justice. That's the reaction a reader may well feel when reaching the second half of Den of Thieves, the excellent new book by Wall Street Journal editor James B. Stewart.
The first half of "Den of Thieves" spells out the misdeeds of Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Martin Siegel, and Dennis Levine, who, as a book jacket blurb notes, "created a series of security scams that made other financial hustles look like amateur night." It is a tale of people obsessed with money in a decade of rampant greed on Wall Street. Mr. Milken and Mr. Boesky, especially, are depicted as moral idiots.

Besides spelling out the financial crimes of these four and various other thieves in the securities industry, Stewart traipses out any other gobs of scandal he can find in their lives. At times, the depravity becomes depressing.

Where are the men and women of integrity? Where are those who want to do something constructive with their lives, not just make a buck - or a billion bucks? Where are those with the independence of mind not to be overwhelmed by the flaunted money and aura of success that once surrounded these crooked big players in the mergers, acquisitions, and leveraged buyouts that weakened so many corporations in the 1980s?

Thus it is a relief when Stewart turns to "The Chase" by investigators of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the United States attorney's office in New York. One can almost hear the clatter of hooves as they ride to the rescue of the nation's securities markets. For indeed, in Stewart's view, the corruption on Wall Street threatened the system.

"At the most basic level, American capitalism has flourished because everyone, rich and poor alike, has seen the marketplace reward merit - enterprise, innovation, hard work, intelligence. The securities laws were implemented to help protect that process, to guard the integrity of the markets and to encourage capital formation, by providing a level playing field on which everyone might pursue their fortunes. Violations of the securities laws are not victimless crimes. When insider traders gain windfall s tock profits because they have bribed someone to leak confidential business secrets, when prices are manipulated and blocks of stock secretly accumulated, our confidence in the underlying fairness of the market is shattered. We are all victims."

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