Lean in close for a private little secret, will you? When I was a stockbroker selling legitimate securities at a legitimate Wall Street firm, Shearson Lehman Brothers, I developed a fascination for bucket shops. These of course are the brokerage firms (and I use the term loosely) that managed to shove the most hollow, worthless stocks down the gullet of the public.
The truth is, selling legitimate securities mostly by phone to the public was no easy hill to climb. But making millions by selling those same people obvious time bombs? There had to be an enormous, if perverse, amount of sales talent at play.
What was the secret formula that allowed these people to do such bad so well?
Enter Jordan Belfort, once widely known as the "Wolf of Wall Street, Master of the (Dark) Universe of Bucket Shops," in his helicopter, which at the time is crashing onto the vast lawn of his Long Island estate. It's the start of his book:
The Wolf of Wall Street: Stock Market Multimillionaire at 26, Federal Convict at 36, I Partied Like a Rock Star, Lived like a King, and Barely Survived My Rise and Fall as an American Entrepreneurial Icon
. Though I would quibble with the title -- he was more a white collar criminal than entrepreneurial icon, I had because of my baseline curiosity, been looking forward to this book, put out by Bantam, for a while.
I was not disappointed.
In terms of business literature, we more commonly get Graham, Dodd and Buffet than Dewey Cheatem and Howe. We also tend to get more self-serving books than tales of crimes and debauchery though. Caution: This book is probably self-serving in a thousand ways I haven't even realized yet. If the Wolf of Wall Street mentions that the earth is round, assume for your own safety that it is flat.
But for those not completely familiar with Wall Street, this is an important read. Think of it as a tour of the sort of underbelly of the financial market scene, the dark side of which, in some form, is always out there. For those more experienced, this can be, plain and simple, a fun read.
About that secret formula for scam artists everywhere? Belfort publishes the secret formula by page 54:
"And what secret formula had Stratton the Wall Street firm he started, which was eventually shuttered by authorities discovered that allowed all these obscenely young kids to make such obscene amounts of money? For the most part, it was based on two simple truths: first, that a majority of the richest one percent of Americans are closet degenerate gamblers, who can't withstand the temptation to keep rolling the dice again and again, even if they know the dice are loaded against them; and, second, that contrary to previous assumptions, young men and women who possess the collective social graces of a herd of sex-crazed water buffalo and have an intelligence quotient in the range of Forrest Gump on three hits of acid, can be taught to sound like Wall Street wizards, as long as you write every last word down for them and then keep drilling it into their head again and again -- every day, twice a day -- for a year straight."
The secret to sleazy success goes further than that, as becomes evident in the book. Despite his stock pumping, making his mother-in-law hide cash for him overseas, twin addictions to drugs and prostitutes and various other offenses against societal norms, the social contract, the legal system and good taste, Belfort, proud to be known as the Wolf of Wall Street, is an extremely likeable rogue. You can know what to say -- and benefit from the chance-taking qualities at the heart of many successful people -- but you also need that special something. That humor, that gift of the gab and bit of the blarney, to do it as well as the Wolf did.
So get in on the joke. Just be sure to hold onto your wallet.
Do know that in the recounting of his many shenanigans, the book is a bit much sometimes. Remember that helicopter crash at the start of the book? Here's the first sentence of Chapter 35: "As impossible as it might seem, nine months after the sinking of my yacht, my life had sunk to even deeper levels of insanity." Soon: "Of course, I still managed to consume my daily dose of twenty quaaludes, but at least now I was using them in a healthier way, a more productive way -- to balance out the coke."
In the end, part of the reason you end up liking Belfort (despite your better judgment) is that not only is he a talented and funny storyteller (a rare quality for a business book author) but he is a vulnerable and empathic guy in many ways. This, of course, makes sense. Every good hustler is, at some level, quite attuned to the vanities and insecurities of others. They don't, of course, seek to fix the problems of others. They play and prey upon them. But, still, they have a handle on the emotional rhythms of other people, far more than, say, a blindly violent criminal might.
Anyhow, Belfort is an author now, who secured a nice book deal for himself. And after nearly two years in prison, Belfort is out, giving interviews about how he is full of regret and reformed. Buy the book. But just to be safe, don't buy his claims. We have not heard the last from him. Let's just hope that it's always in a book and not on the other end of the phone.
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
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