Not even the EEOC was allowed at this sex discrimination hearing

On Feb. 26, eight women who had sued Sterling Jewelers, Inc. were ushered into a private hearing room in midtown Manhattan with their lawyers, lawyers for Sterling, and an arbitrator. The door was shut behind them.

Like an increasing number of disputes between employees and employers, this one would be heard in a forum where the public and the press were forbidden.

I asked to attend the late February hearings on this sex discrimination case that could wind up including 44,000 women in 50 states, but the arbitrator declined my request. More important is that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – the agency in charge of enforcing federal civil rights laws – also asked, and also was declined. 

Joseph Sellers, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the agency was told it could ask for a transcript, although no guarantee was made that it would receive one.

Sterling, based in Akron, Ohio, is parent of 12 jewelry chains in the U.S., including Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers.

The two sides presented their arguments for and against a motion to certify a class of women who’d worked in sales positions at Sterling since 2003. The women at the hearing, who would act as representatives of the class, say that Sterling discriminated against them in its pay and promotion policies.

The case, which I wrote about Saturday in The New York Times, includes examples of some of the worst sexual harassment allegations I’ve ever heard, and that includes the vulgar behavior I wrote about in my book “Tales From the Boom-Boom Room: The Landmark Legal Battles That Exposed Wall Street’s Shocking Culture of Sexual Harassment.”

Sterling says the allegations are “without merit.” Continue reading

Wall Street Says It’s Classier Than “Wolf of Wall Street.” Really?

The depiction of stock brokers in that “Wolf of Wall Street” movie has the securities industry on the defensive. In my column today for Investopedia.com, I talk about how a faction that considers itself the “real” Wall Street is anxious to get the word out that it has no similarity to the thugs who appear in the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Ask a pal at a Wall Street firm about the box-office hit The Wolf of Wall Street, and brace for one of those sour faces that suggests there’s a bad smell in the room. Those sex-obsessed, drug-taking thugs who ripped off investors in Martin Scorsese’s all-time, biggest-grossing film have nothing in common with the refined investment professionals who do business on real Wall Street, they will tell you.

But that’s not entirely true. The Wall Streeters who wear expensive suits and do business in Manhattan may not be tossing midgets around the trading room, as the perhaps less genteel Long Island brokers in the movie did. They aren’t above hurting investors, though.

“If people understood the similarities between Belfort and Wall Street, there would be a riot in this country,” says Dennis Kelleher, CEO of the investor advocacy group Better Markets Inc. Kelleher explains, for example, that Belfort’s operation dealt in barely-regulated penny stocks that came with either skimpy information or documents that twisted or obfuscated the facts. On conventional Wall Street, says Kelleher, firms bask in the convenience of the opaque, too, trading the kinds of over-the-counter derivatives that helped crash the economy in 2008.

Here’s a link to the story.

One in Five Senior Citizens Fall for Financial Scams

As many times as I’ve run across stories about financial ripoffs of the elderly, I still can’t help but be shocked at the cruelty it takes to fleece people who are so fragile. In my article yesterday for TheStreet.com, I wrote about how much worse the problem has become, and how it will only get worse from here.

While elder financial abuse is in some respects nothing new in the annals of fraud, the aging of the baby boom generation and Americans’ increasing longevity are coming together in a perfect storm that could cause the problem to skyrocket. A 2010 survey by the Metropolitan Life Foundation estimated that victims of elder financial abuse lost at least $2.9 billion in 2010, up 12% from 2008.

I begin with a story about 73-year-old Charles S. Bacino, who lay dying in a hospital bed in 2012 when the man he called his “financial affairs manager” came by to visit and persuaded him to invest $82,000 in a cocoa and banana plantation in Ecuador. Mr. Bacino, who was hooked up to a morphine drip to soothe the pain of his pancreatic cancer, gave his keys to the man so that he could fetch his checkbook. Less than a month later, Mr. Bacino was dead and the whereabouts of his money was a mystery.

You can read the full article here.

Sabew Commentary Award

Today, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers said that I won the “Best in Business” award for commentary in the news agency category for columns I wrote in 2013 for Bloomberg View.

Here’s a list of all the winners, including writers worth following on a regular basis, such as Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica and Michael Smallberg of The Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

If you’re looking for smart and talented financial journalists worth adding to your regular reading list, take a few minutes to go through the roster of Sabew winners.

Notes from the judges on my submission:

NEWS AGENCIES COMMENTARY

Winner: Susan Antilla, Bloomberg View, for her columns.

Terrific topics. Tough, engaging, enlightening, head-snapping. Well-reasoned arguments. Writes with authority and insight in a simple, declarative style that doesnt wander. No navel-gazing. Sophisticated humor used lightly in a way that advances the argument. Not humor for humors sake.

Here are links to the stories the judges considered:

Do Deutsche Bank’s ‘Prettier’ Women Get the Best?

JP Morgan’s Teflon CEO Glides Past Reputation Hits

Hate Follows When the Police Try to Do Their Job

Top Stock Picks of 2013 Lose Out to Honey Boo-Boo

Do You Really Want to Learn Investing From These Guys?

“Customers first,” I always say, and who knew that the securities industry would actually come around to saying the same? The lobbying group for Wall Street, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, unveiled some new battle cries for 2014 at a meeting in New York in November, “Customers First” and “Helping Main Street Prosper” among them.

I wrote about Sifma’s upcoming efforts to plant seeds of goodwill with the public in my new column for Investopedia.com this week:

The financial industry’s trade group is on a mission, and the public relations tour de force begins this month with the launch of a capital markets literacy effort that SIFMA calls “Invest it Forward.”

Sifma actually has a financial literacy winner in its popular “Stock Market Game” that gives school kids $100,000 in virtual money to trade. Kids who play the game improve their  literacy scores, but the champions can be a tad precocious:

A fifth grader from East Brunswick, N.J., took to the stage at the Marriott to receive her SIFMA award for investment prowess, and said the teamwork approach to investing sometimes cramped her style. “I hated when my team was arguing because we were just wasting time, and time wasted is virtual money lost,” she said. Could somebody spring for a copy of Graham and Dodd’s “Security Analysis” for this child?

You might check to see if your wallet is still in your pocket when you’re listening to Sifma’s pro-investor pitch. You can read the column here.

About that Reformed ‘Wolf’ of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort, who did jail time for fleecing investors at Stratton Oakmont, the Long Island brokerage firm he founded, has put himself out there as a reformed man. Indeed, he has been making money legitimately, giving speeches to audiences enthralled with the idea of spending an hour or so in the same room as a convicted felon who claims to have seen the light.

Belfort is, of course, the author of the 2007 book “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio (playing Belfort) that was released last month. He’s taken to social media to inform the public that he’s a good guy who is giving all the movie proceeds back to the investors he defrauded. But the prosecutors who put him in jail say he’s not telling the story just right. I write about it in my story today in The New York Times.

 

 

Investors’ Story Left Out of Wall Street ‘Wolf’ Movie

You’ve seen the trailers.  A convicted stock fraudster played by Leonardo DiCaprio parties it up on his 170-foot yacht and entertains his office of crooked stock brokers with a half-naked marching band that celebrates the group’s  latest money haul from their clueless clients.

Paramount’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a 3-hour movie that opens Christmas Day. I saw a screening in New York on Wednesday night. The mostly 30-something crowd loved watching the hard-partying life that comes when you perfect a method to steal from the public.

My prediction: Young people will be wowed by DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, just as they were by Michael Douglas aka Gordon Gekko (remember “Greed is Good?”) in the movie “Wall Street.” Douglas said in this story that he was “shocked” that young people decided to work on Wall Street after watching him play a Wall Street bad guy.

Ask your college-aged kids what they think when they see the movie, and let me know.

It was sort of bothering me that amid all this hard partying and cocaine-snorting that nobody had bothered to mention that people actually got hurt by the funny brokers who throw midgets at a bullseye for fun. Thus, my story in today’s New York Times: “Investors’ Story Left Out of Wall Street ‘Wolf’ Movie. You can read it here.

McKinsey Clients Shrugged at Scandals, Ignored Greed

McKinsey & Co. is the global fix-it firm of choice, whether you’re a company looking for an outsider to justify laying off thousands of employees or a government looking to get its managerial act together. A new book by Duff McDonald, a contributing editor at Fortune and The New York Observer, provides a good history of the firm but can’t seem to decide whether McKinsey is a valuable advisor or a waste of money.

I reviewed “The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business,” for Bloomberg Muse today. You can read it here.

Jury Largely Sides With Bank in Madoff-Related Case

A Hartford jury said Wednesday that the Connecticut bank that was custodian for two investors in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was not liable for their losses.

I wrote about the Alice-in-Wonderland-style trial in a story for The New York Times on July 8. The bank’s former president said he didn’t know what due diligence the bank might have done to be sure the customer’s assets existed, and didn’t know how the bank maintained accurate records. The president, who’d been in the banking business for 36 years, had a degree in finance from Georgetown University.

Another doozy in the trial was the bank’s former custodial manager, who said he would get three or four “very thick envelopes” of trade confirmations from Madoff some weeks. He put them in a file drawer and never reviewed the documents. (Except that he occasionally took a peek because he was curious about what Madoff might be buying or selling, but not curious enough to do any checking on behalf of the bank’s customers.)

The Hartford trial began in June as a consolidation of three lawsuits with similar allegations. But two of those cases settled for $7.5 million just before the jury began its deliberations, leaving the jury with only the case of two elderly Florida investors to decide. You can read my story about the verdict today for The Times here. Take a lesson from this: When a financial outfit tells you it is your custodian, don’t make the mistake of assuming that means they have custody of your money.

Custodians don’t always take custody: investors beware

Custodial banks typically earn their fees based on a percentage of the value of the assets they’re holding for you. But do they have any obligation to confirm whether there are any assets there in the first place?

A Hartford jury is deliberating over that and other questions in a case brought by former customers of Bernard Madoff. Westport National Bank was custodian of the investors’ accounts. But, as it turns out, when the bank took over the accounts in 1999, no assets existed, and the bank didn’t bother to check.

The custodial issue is becoming ever-more important as investors increasingly put “alternative” investments such as hedge funds in their retirement accounts. Pricing those investments can be dicey, and you shouldn’t expect that your custodian is doing any analysis to ensure that the prices they show on your statements are realistic.

I attended several days of the trial against Westport National Bank in Federal court in Hartford in June. Here’s a story I wrote about it for The New York Times.

When markets come undone from crisis fraud, regulators investigate something else

The public was pretty peeved about the financial crisis in 2008, and regulators felt the pressure to produce a few scalps in response. So what did the regulators do? They investigated something that had nothing to do with the crisis.

I reviewed Charles Gasparino’s new book “Circle of Friends: The Massive Federal Crackdown on Insider Trading — And Why the Markets Always Work Against the Little Guy” for Bloomberg Muse this week.

Gasparino tells the story of the all-out war on insider trading that began in 2008, and he questions the regulators’ priorities in pursuing inside traders when there were people who’d just about brought down the economy roaming free.

The book has some problems, but Gasparino is right that our regulators are chasing all the wrong people. Here’s the review.

Stockbrokers say the darndest things

I was at a local bank this morning, filling out the paperwork for a Certificate of Deposit, when I overheard a stockbroker in the next cubicle trying to answer questions from a worried elderly couple who’d come in with an account statement that had alarmed them.

“As long as you hold the CMO to term, you can’t lose money,” the broker said, referring to their investment in a collateralized mortgage obligation. I couldn’t help but wonder which would happen first — the maturity date of the CMO or the year of the couple’s estimated life expectancy.

I looked up at the bank officer who was doing the paperwork for my CD. “You guys sell CMOs?” I asked. Yes, indeed, she told me, not the least bit taken aback when I asked “Why are you selling risky stuff like that at your bank?”

He’s doing great!” she said of her huckster colleague, and I could hardly argue with that. “I’m sure he is,” I replied, my sarcasm going totally over her head.

I’d begun to scribble notes as the back-and-forth continued between the seniors and the broker. “It’s backed and guaranteed by the U.S. government,” the salesman told his customers. But the husband kept coming back with questions. “But the value’s gone down,” he said.

No sweat, the broker told him. That’s just partial return of your principal, he said. “This valuation number means nothing.” But no, the value’s gone down more than the amount of the principal repayment, the husband countered. “Pay no attention to the losses,” said the broker. “I have no concerns. This is the best buy in the industry.”

Best buy in the industry for the broker, maybe. Even if that investment winds up working out fine for the couple, they clearly didn’t understand what they’d purchased. And if they wind up losing, smart money says that broker will swear he never told those customers that anything about their CMO was “guaranteed.”

JPMorgan’s Teflon CEO Glides Past Reputation Hits

What does it take for investors and other supporters of a popular public company to finally decide the firm has gone too far in breaking the rules?

If you’re JPMorgan Chase & Co., it apparently takes more than a $6.2 billion trading blunder, a really embarrassing hearing before a Senate investigations committee, and a report that 8 federal agencies are circling you with probes.

In my column today for Bloomberg View, I write about the stunning ability of “The World’s Most-Admired Bank” to wallow in credit for all its good news, but slip by when the bad stuff happens.

“Steel City Re, a Pittsburgh-based firm that measures corporate reputations, ranks the bank in the 90th percentile among 50 financial conglomerates…Little wonder, I suppose, that earlier this year, JPMorgan topped the Fortune magazine list of most-admired banks in the world for the second year in a row. Are the bank’s admirers living in some parallel universe where black marks just don’t register?”

 

How does JPMorgan do it? You can read my column here.

Getting a little vertigo from the regulatory revolving door?

There’s been a lot of attention to the government-to-private practice “revolving door” since President Barack Obama nominated white-collar defense lawyer Mary Jo White to be chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Investor advocates say we should be worried when lawyers shuffle back and forth between jobs as regulators and lucrative spots defending banks and brokerage firms. But the lawyers who move in and out of government jobs say they can handle the conflicts just fine.

The New York City Bar Association had a panel to discuss “The Financial Crisis and the Regulatory Revolving Door” on Feb. 12 and moderator Scott Cohn of CNBC posed the question “Which is it?” Is it spinning out of control or is it non-existent?”

I was one of the six panelists, and cited a few gems from a just-released report by The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) that illustrated the close connection between the SEC and its alumni who’d moved on to represent the institutions the SEC regulates.

In an item about the panel on Feb. 19, POGO said “White’s nomination highlights the challenge that the SEC and many agencies face when senior officials have tangled ties to the industry they’re supposed to be regulating.” You can read the POGO post here.

I wrote about Mary Jo White’s conflicts in a recent column for Bloomberg View.

Your thoughts on the debate? Let me know at @antillaview or susan.antilla15@gmail.com.

 

 

 

Mary Jo White’s Past and the Future of the SEC

Have you been buying into the sales pitch for President Obama’s nominee for chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission?

Mary Jo White’s supporters say she was tough as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where she prosecuted mobsters and terrorists. From my column for Bloomberg View today:

She spent the past 10 years representing Wall Street, so she knows something about the legerdemain of banksters. And — insert violin solo here — she is a patriot, willing to give up millions of dollars in income as chairman of the litigation department at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP for a lousy government salary.”

Of course, the addition of “former SEC chairman” can only enhance her resume if and when she decides to go back to private practice. As for the idea that she might somehow be able to use her experience working for Wall Street to help crack cases as a regulator, I’m not buying it.

The SEC and Justice Department have had former defense lawyers checking in and out of top spots for years, and it hasn’t led to any big-bank carnage among the people who orchestrated flakey derivatives, self-destructing collateralized-debt obligations or other outrages. When was the last time you saw anyone from a well-known bank doing a perp walk for his role in the financial crisis?

You can read the full column here.

As always, I’m happy to hear from readers via Twitter or at susan.antilla15@gmail.com.

 

AIG’s Greenberg Thumbs Nose at Taxpayers

The man who made the insurance company AIG into an industry giant has written a book — The AIG Story — and if there’s one thing we learn from Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, it’s that Hank admires Hank.

The book, co-written with George Washington University law professor Lawrence Cunningham, describes Greenberg as “innovative” and “independent” and “pioneering.” I reviewed it for Bloomberg Muse today:

If you’re among the U.S. taxpayers who watched in horror as $182 billion of your money made its way to the collapsing insurance giant American International Group Inc. (AIG) during the financial crisis, it might come as a surprise to learn that your forced munificence didn’t make much of a difference. In his new book, “The AIG Story,” former chief executive Maurice “Hank” Greenberg offers his take on what kept the company alive: “It was saved only by the loyalty and tenacity of its valiant workforce,” he says.

You can read my full review here. But the main thing I came away with when I put  ”The AIG Story” down was what a disappointment it is when powerful people with inside access to world events miss an opportunity to pass on insights to the rest of us.

Surely, after a high-flying career befriending heads of state and moving AIG from an insurance runt to a world-wide behemoth, a man of 87 would have constructive insights about the near-collapse of the global economy. And, with a little luck, maybe even a bit of introspection about lessons he’s learned? Instead, we get 328 pages of finger-pointing and self- congratulation.

So there you have it. A wasted opportunity. But do take a look at the list of people willing to praise the book on the back cover, and consider adding them to the list of authors you needn’t follow. Amazon.com publishes the “praise” here.

 

A case of Wall Street greed gone too far

You hate paying taxes. I hate paying taxes. And the good folks at Goldman Sachs & Co. apparently hate paying taxes too. From my column this week for CNN.com:

“While the rest of us were donning our party clothes on New Year’s Eve, the legal worker bees at Goldman were pushing the send button on 10 regulatory filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. By the time the ball dropped in Times Square, regulators had been notified that $65 million in Goldman stock had been granted a month early, helping a cluster of powerful multimillionaire executives trim their tax tab.”

Yes, I know. Can you blame them for taking perfectly legal means to avoid a bigger tax bill? Well, actually, yes.

“What makes the Goldman move distasteful is that it wasn’t even two months ago that CEO Blankfein was mouthing off in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he endorsed tax increases “especially for the wealthiest” — along with a plug to cut entitlements to all you freeloaders out there.”

You can read my CNN column here.