65 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2005
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Den of Thieves is a snapshot of human nature showing its seemy side. Stewart's book has a cast of characters you couldn't believe if it were a work of fiction. The most brilliant thing about "Den of Thieves" is the range of villians in the book; no two come to their law-breaking in the same manner or embrace it to the same degree. All of them find temptation (usually in the form of large heaps of easy money) too hard to resist.
Stewart avoids the temptation to paint all of his law-breakers with the same brush and just focus in on the nuts and bolts of the story's timeline. Instead, he allows you to meet each individual and see how they became embroiled in Wall Street's worst scandal since the 1930s. You see some of the simple unrepentant scumbags you'd expect (Levine most closely fits the bill), but mostly you see more complex people. Milken comes off as a truly broken person who was never completely connected to reality in the same way most of us are. Most of the players come off as ordinary people who, on their own, would have cruised through their careers in uneventful fashion if not presented with a tempting, lawless option by a more proactive criminal. Each of the perpetrators has their own level of comfort with their involvement in the insider trading scheme. Some are so uncomfortable that they get out of the scheme on their own, some cry over the money they can't bring themselves to stop taking, and of course some just think they are God's gift to the financial world.
You also get to see how law enforcement can work in a situation like this - sometimes it isn't very pretty. You come to realize that regulators and public prosecutors are imperfect people in imperfect situations, subject to their own set of desires, temptations and problems. Rudy Guliani's office prosecutes this case in the public eye while he positions himself to run for Mayor of NYC. The SEC unwittingly committs a huge insider trade of its own by allowing Ivan Boesky to unload his portfolio before the public announcement of his arrest and cooperation with authorities - so he can pay them his $100 million fine. (It seems temptation's not quite as far away as the authorities think).
Great story. Great character development. Great lessons. Highly recommended.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2001
The 1980's were known as the "Greed Decade" but, for many, the true excesses of that greed were never fully known or are now only a distant memory. James Stewart's book, "Den of Thieves" provides a comprehensive, fascinating and readable look at the insider trading scandals of the 1980's which brought words like
arbitrageur and LBO into the mainstream and people like Boesky and Milken household names.
Stewart begins by looking at the rise of some of Wall Street's highest fliers and, in many cases, providing exhaustive details of how the prevailing mantra of "greed is good" led them to orchestrate their own downfall. The audacity of many of these people is almost breathtaking, as is the wealth they accumulated. Stewart moves on to detail the process by which the government, in the form of the SEC and then-US Attorney Rudy Giuliani, brought this house of cards tumbling down. The various players in the game are portrayed with varying degrees of sympathy. However, the government authorities are not necessarily portrayed in the most flattering light and Stewart raises a number of questions about the overall handling of the investigations.
One word of caution - readers should not get too bogged down in the details of the story. The insider trading scandal involved
hundreds of players and transactions and schemes that were unbelievably complex. It is almost impossible to assimilate the entire story without getting somewhat confused. Nevertheless, the book is at its most effective when you take a step back and look at the grand scheme of the insider trades, the methods by which the perpetrators were brought to justice and the punishment they suffered from their crimes. In many ways, the book was published before the story reached a final conclusion and it would be worthwhile for a revised edition to be published, updating the status of the actors involved and the fallout of the revelations which the investigations brought.
Overall, this is a fascinating and well written book which raises fundamental questions about the way business was, and is, conducted and the way in which the justice system operates. I would highly recommend it as the definitive account of the insider trading scandals of the 1980s.
53 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2009
I just reread this book now that I have 14-more years of financial world experience. I enjoyed the first half which primarily deals with the financiers and their transactions, but the second half gets bogged down following the regulators who seem hell-bent on making big arrests of powerful people and advancing their fame and careers more than they care for the actual rule of law.
Most of the financiers introduced are truly repugnant characters, in particular guys like Dennis Levine, Marty Siegel, and Richard Freeman. Levine comes across as a conniving weasel who was basically inept at arbitrage and was able to hide this fact from the ignorant (not everyone) by cheating. Siegel was portrayed as a smug crook who turned crybaby as soon as he had to take his medicine. I can't decide if I disliked Levine or Siegel more. Freeman is the most interesting. He seems clearly guilty of insider trading, and pretty much escaped severe prosecution thanks to his benefactors (Robert Rubin) at Goldman Sachs, along with most of his personal wealth.
While Stewart does some exceptional research, it is also clear that he is engaging in a lot of speculation. The most obvious example is the numerous recounted conversations between all the characters, which is of questionable accuracy and few of which are verifiable beyond what the author was able to extract from a large group of people whose honesty is suspect. This includes all the attorneys, corporate chieftains, and in my opinion it especially includes all the government agents and prosecutors.
There is a lot of myth surrounding Milken, and unfortunately most of it is inaccurate. For one, Milken has always been very guarded of his privacy. Its easy to assume he is this way because he has something to hide, which is a poor argument many people love to put forward these days. For the most part Milken has shunned interviews and has made a best effort to not get involved with the press.
Most of his closest associates remained loyal to him, and he was essentially fingered by the lying criminal Boesky for an accounting irregularity involving $5.3 million in commissions, which is hardly a master-mind criminal gain considering the multitrillion dollar scope of Drexel's operation. By fingering Milken Boesky, who clearly was guilty of insider trading, got off with a mere 3-year sentence and was able to retain some $25+ million at the expense of the people he hurt. To support Boesky's claim, agents entered the home of a young female employee and basically got her to admit guilt through coercion (fear) for something she probably did not actually understand. Unlike Boesky, Milken was never convicted of insider trading, nor was there any clear evidence that he had engaged in it. In fact, Judge Kimba Wood conceded that 4 out of the 5 convictions had zero negative economic impact, however Stewart clearly allows his personal opinions to vilify Milken and paint him out as some genius criminal. So in hindsight, the sum negative economic impact of what Milken was charged for was actually less than $320,000. Considering his operation was trading roughly $1 billion per day, there is clearly an unfair bias present throughout the book.
Milken is arguably the most brilliant financier of our age, and having financed some 3,200 companies, it is unlikely anyone will outperform him anytime soon (if ever). He was largely responsible for economic improvement in the US in the 1980's. He has always been a strong proponent of sound capital structures and responsible use of leverage. Companies that were suffering from inept managers were easy targets for takeover and restructures using Drexel financing. Beyond just junk bonds, Milken employed a vast range of financing methods that provided essential capital, which allowed companies to grow, hire, and prosper. Once it became evident that the Milken tap was shutting down (1987-1991), the market responded negatively as would be expected.
There was much to be gained from Milken's downfall. Drexel's success certainly created a lot of ill will among the old and established Wall Street banks. Since Drexel via Milken was the dominant financier, the destruction of Drexel and the ruin of Milken sent their multibillion dollar financing into the hands of the very competitors who clearly stood to gain. Stewart conveniently ignores this whole side of the equation, which is not fair. It is a good example of the many biases that plague this book. Then we also have the likes of Rudy Giuliani behind the prosecution, and here Stewart tries to argue that Giuliani had such noble intentions and cared so much about the rule of law as opposed to his making a big name for himself and advancing his public career (all this just before he successfully ran for NYC Mayor).
If you are really interested in Milken, the book is worth reading so long as you understand that a lot of the information that is presented as hard and irrefutable fact is actually rather questionable, especially in hindsight. Reading the book for the second time, it felt dated and given that it was released fairly shortly after all the events concluded, is clearly guilty of hype and sensationalism.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2004
Having re-read this book last week, it took me back to a time and a place I really didn't want to visit but found I should. Having been lured to Drexel, Burnham as a senior executive (from Morgan, Stanley in 1986) only weeks before the scandals hit -- and having witnessed the lava-roast at that firm -- it amazes me how Mr. Stewart was able to re-create events. Along with Predators' Ball, this book serves as an example of the power of quality investigative journalism. Filled with my own stories of similar dealings, I understand fully that his observations hit dead-center at the bullseye of the truth of that decade.
One comment in the Epilogue struck me as almost sad. Mr. Stewart says, in the wake of these scandals: "Wall Street has given every sign of being severely chastened." Too bad that wasn't the case.
Now myself a writer with somewhat less courage, perhaps, than Mr. Stewart (I've written about abuses/dangers on Wall Street, but write them as financial thrillers and opinion pieces -- it's safer, I think), I can only hope that with each scandal we get a little more honest, a little more chastened. Too bad I don't see that happening. Not yet, at least.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 1999
This book was really well writen and covers the breadth of what goes on in the investment banking world. I like the introductions on how the major investment houses started, and the roles of the Investment bankers, traders, lawyers, arbitragers etc. The central figure is Michael milken, who the book suggests is greedy and foul. The book is obviously on the side of US law enforcement, who some argue were biased and sought to destroy Milken for other motives. On the whole, I think it is a great book and it really helps one understand the whole finance game, and what happens (or used to happen) in wall street. Being from an Engineering and computing background, but with interest in M&A myself, I feel this book was really cool. I however reserve my judgements on Michael Milken till I read another book that is pro Milken. Taking away the crime aspects, I think Michael Milken is a genius.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2000
An absolutely outstanding look at the '80s Wall Street culture and the inside operations of Michael R. Milken, Dennis B. Levine, Ivan F. Boesky, Martin Siegel... and many, many other players on Wall Street, including U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani & the SEC investigations. Wall Street--Economic History worthy of reading.
Other great, outstanding books on the subject: "A Licence to Steal: The untold story of Michael Milken and the conspiracy to bilk the nation." by Benjamin J. Stein; and also: "Ther Predators's Ball" by Connie Bruck.
And because James B. Stewart is such an outstanding writer, I also read, which was a great book as well, written in story book fashion again: "Blood Sport: The President and his Adversaries" by James B. Stewart, a #1 New York Times Bestseller.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2000
Criticisms of this book center around the details of bond trading, specifically the authors miscalculation of commissions. Also, perhaps, some hearsay is included as facts. The author states that no anonymous sources are quoted, but there were un-named and 'not-for quote' sources used.
You either believe that the main characters (Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Martin Siegel, Dennis Levine)said what they said in the book or not. It's relevant because if true,Levine was a bigoted racist as well as a common thief. Not only did he rummage in associates desk drawers and files looking for inside information but he is quoted as saying that he could not understand a banker friend (who was interested in international lending to Third World countries)because all he wanted to do was "help the niggers and the spics." How's that for your respectable Investment Banker?! The point of the quote is this - Levine was not representative or typical of the 'new' banker but his comment shows that motives such as self interest and personal greed would certainly have found fertile ground to flourish in.
The book accurately portrays the characters (including the seedy ones),their backgrounds and the environment they found themselves in. Wall Street of the late 1970's and early 80's was changing.The Wall Street establishment of old money investment houses (Goldman-Sachs,Morgan Stanley,Kidder Peabody, Merrill Lynch, etc)and stately (maybe even stale)banks such as Citibank and First Boston were being forced to make room for investment brokers and arbitrageurs (Drexel, Burnham & Boesky & Co. etc).
New products, new people, new methods were being introduced. The new bankers were not your starched white shirt, conservative, Ivy League trained, WASP corporate types. They were first of all, younger and from different class, educational and ethnic backgrounds. Many of them were from immigrant or Jewish working or middle class families and felt themselves to be ostracised and generally outside of Wall Street. They were not all motivated by greed and certainly were not all Dennis Levines, but for a few, given the opportunity,the positions of power and the money, and now that they were 'In' they were going to change things around. Sales techniques and hustle was now more important than where you graduated from. Presentations to corporate boards were out, replaced with speadsheet analysis of cash flows and trades over the phones. The movement was towards allowing some who were previously spurned by Wall Street to get in on the action. They were going to shake up the system and as Milken himself said "tee up GM, Ford and IBM and make them cringe".
I don't find the book villifying Milken as the Devil himself but then again it doesn't portray him in a positive light either. I don't have any problem with that because I am of the view that he was a crook. A brilliant, driven, powerful and extremely wealthy and well connected financial innovator but... still a crook.
Overall the book is written with a bias towards the SEC investigation and uncovering of the insider trading scandal and the subsequent arrests of Levine, Boesky and Milken. From the perspective of 10 years on, the book is of more historical interest. All of the principals have served their time and most of the companies are gone (merged or metamorphosed). There are some interesting vignettes of people who since then have gone on to bigger and better things. You can read about Robert Rubin when he was still at Goldman Sachs, Rudy Giuliani when still US Attorney and Chuck Schumer when still only a Congressman who was critical of the SEC. There are also 8 pages of photos of the major players.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 1998
Decently written book that reveals only one side of the Milken story. It clearly presents the government's point in the trial. It lacks some compassion towards Milken as a human being. I personally like the overall written picture of Ivan Boesky and relevant photos of him included in this book.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2011
This book is a work of fiction. Of the 300 people who were involved in the Drexel transactions described in this book, the author only spoke to one of them. ONLY ONE OUT OF 300 PEOPLE !!!!
Boesky had been the author's source for many of his articles in the Wall Street Journal about the takeover battles of the 1980s. Why did the author believe Boesky's version of the takeover battles instead of Milken's?
The author lied on national television when asked by Robert Novack if he had ever met Michael Milken.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 25, 2004
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This was one book that I could not put down. The book is broken into large sections, each dealing with a particular criminal and his corresponding activities. In-depth descriptions of what was going on behind the scenes at some of the most respected financial firms of the time--absolutely fascinating. If you were around in the 80's, and you work/participate in the investment industry, this should be required historical reading.