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Failure This Big Wasn't Born Yesterday

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, October 5, 2008

If you're mad as hell about what's happening to our economy and need to stay mad to keep from wailing, read the October selection for the Color of Money Book Club.

Two years ago, Gary Weiss wrote "Wall Street Versus America: The Rampant Greed and Dishonesty That Imperil Your Investments."

The subtitle was changed for the paperback edition last year. Now the book is called "Wall Street Versus America: A Muckraking Look at the Thieves, Fakers, and Charlatans Who Are Ripping You Off" (Portfolio, $14.95).

I like the revision, given current events.

I'll be truthful with you. I've picked this book up a few times since it was first published, wondering whether I should recommend it. But I hesitated. Weiss, a former BusinessWeek investigative reporter, often lapses into market minutiae. So I wasn't sure the average investor would take the time to read his scathing indictment of greed-driven Wall Street.

But now I'm betting you'll find this book quite interesting after the Dow's plunge of 778 points and after watching our elected officials ram through a debt-laden Wall Street bailout bill.

Weiss, who was just signed as a contributing editor for Conde Nast's Portfolio business magazine, said he wrote the book for the average investor.

"Wall Street's yen for your wallet afflicts with equal rapacity Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, Arab and Jew, anti- and pro-abortion, rich and middle class, and even a lot of people who think they're too poor to care," Weiss writes. "It doesn't matter if you view yourself as an investor or not. It doesn't matter whether you love or hate Wall Street or whether you own any stocks or bonds or money market funds. Chances are, Wall Street is a part of your life whether you like it or not, even if you keep your money in a passbook savings account or a tin box in the backyard."

Weiss's prophetic rant against Wall Street is eerie given what we've seen lately. He lambasted brokers who pushed microcap stocks -- low-priced stocks issued by the smallest of companies -- on novice investors. He railed against the high fees charged by mutual fund companies. He writes with rage about the inadequate oversight of Wall Street.

With every page, I seethed at the case Weiss builds against typical Wall Street practices and the regulators that let them get away with so much. For example, you must read the chapter "Bear in the Woods" on the investment bank Bear Stearns. It's chilling.

"The rest of the world has Mother Teresa; Wall Street has Bear Stearns," Weiss wrote commenting on the company being dubbed in 2005 -- for the second time in three years -- America's most admired securities company.

No longer.

Bear Stearns collapsed in March and was taken over by J.P. Morgan Chase. Bear Stearns, founded in 1923, had been the country's fifth-largest investment bank.

"Anyone can make money doing things that are nice and decent and safe," Weiss pointed out two years before the Bear Stearns failure. "But it takes a gutsy firm, an envelope-pushing firm, to make money doing things that aren't so nice and aren't so decent or safe."

At least there is justice. The company was sold for a song, at $2 a share.

This book reads at times like a novel with a cast of dastardly characters. It starts out and ultimately ends with the arbitration case of Rand Groves, an individual investor from New Jersey, who tried but failed to win a case against Merrill Lynch after he lost $5 million that had been tied up in stock options in two Internet stocks. He had gone to Merrill Lynch because he was concerned about having so much money -- on paper at least -- in just two stocks. Groves complained that Merrill Lynch did not provide the expert investing advice it promised. The company denied any wrongdoing.

"As Rand Groves and thousands of other people have learned, investors in trouble have no friends," Weiss wrote.

But you do have a friend in Weiss. He's the type of friend who pumps you up when you're down. He's the friend that tells you not to take being pushed around.

"The answer to the market's woes is you," Weiss says. "The solution is literally you -- your investment choices, your actions, and, above all, all the things that you shouldn't do."

I've been getting e-mails from people across the country worried about the losses in their investment portfolios. But what strikes me as naive is that many of these people never considered that they could suffer great losses.

That means they're uninformed.

No question there's more in this book than you may want to know. But there's just too much you need to know not to pick it up.

To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended book. I invite you to join me online to chat about the book. Join me for a live discussion with Weiss at noon Eastern time, October 23 at http://www.washingtonpost.com.

In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "Wall Street Versus America," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and an address so we can send you a book if you win.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and athttp://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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