Just two short years ago, the business sections of bookstores across the land were filled to overflowing with books proclaiming the end of commerce as we knew it. The new economy and the Internet were going to transform the world, and business leaders had better be prepared to deal with the consequences. Books such as George Gilder's Telecosm and James Glassman and Kevin Hassett's Dow 36,000 predicted new telecom-based prosperity and a stock market that was surely headed for the heliosphere. Much has happened in the past 24 months to disprove those theories, and bookshelves are now being filled with tomes that look back at the economic train wreck that has destroyed trillions of dollars' worth of wealth and savaged the confidence of American investors.
Washington Post reporter Shannon Henry had a front row view of the inflation -- and bursting -- of the Internet bubble, and her book The Dinner Club: How the Masters of the Internet Universe Rode the Rise and Fall of the Greatest Boom in History (Free Press, $26) provides a time capsule of that era. Henry focuses on a group of Washington, D.C.-area technology entrepreneurs who in 1997 launched an informal venture capital group called the Capital Investors. The group met monthly over extravagant dinners to celebrate their good fortune, to network and to listen to the business pitches of aspiring entrepreneurs. After short deliberations, the group would decide whether it would provide seed money to the fledgling companies.
Well-known members of the group include Ted Leonsis, the founder of Redgate Communications, who went on to become one of America OnLine's highest-ranking executives; John Sidgmore, the former head of beleaguered telecom giant WorldCom; and James V. Kimsey, a cofounder of AOL. But none of the Capital Investors had a wilder ride than Michael Saylor, the cofounder and CEO of the data management firm MicroStrategy. On March 20, 2000, the day MicroStrategy announced an earnings restatement for 1998 and 1999, Saylor's stake in the firm declined in value by $6.2 billion. Saylor probably deserved his fall from grace. In one of the best quotes in the book, a member of the Capital Investors, Marc Andreessen, the cofounder of Netscape Communications, said Saylor was a "cross between [Oracle CEO] Larry Ellison, [Microsoft CEO] Bill Gates and Genghis Khan with a little bit of P.T. Barnum thrown in."
Although Saylor's experience was the most extreme, all of the members of the Capital Investors eventually were forced to eat big doses of humble pie along with their haute cuisine. Although Henry's book is informative and entertaining, it is often a bit confusing, due to the large number of characters and events. She profiles all 26 members of the Capital Investors, as well as a platoon of other characters eager to get their money. The book is also hindered by a less-than-clear chronology. But those are quibbles with what is otherwise a very readable book that provides juicy details about an unprecedented period of American business history.
Made to Be Broken
Muriel Siebert's Changing the Rules: Adventures of a Wall Street Maverick (Free Press, $25) offers a similar insider's look at history. Siebert, who in 1967 became the first woman to have a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, has led a fascinating life. And her stories of fighting for acceptance -- and profits -- in what was then an all-male fraternity are engaging. "I had to give more and better advice, information and service than customers could get from anyone else," she writes. In 1975, she was among the first Wall Street brokers to offer discount brokerage services. Two years later, Siebert interrupted her career to become the first female superintendent of banking for the state of New York.
Her stint as New York's "SOB" provides some of the book's best reading. Siebert writes about her efforts to keep the state's banks healthy at a time when international banks such as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Co. were surging into the American market. She also tells how super-lobbyist Clark Clifford pushed for her to approve the takeover of New York-based Bank of Commerce by a group that was later revealed to be controlled by the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. BCCI was shut down in 1991 in the wake of what prosecutors allege was one of the biggest bank frauds in world history.
Much of Siebert's book is spent settling old scores with past enemies. And while her book is entertaining, it appears ill-timed. Her story would have found a much more welcome audience three years ago, when investors loved Wall Street and all the people who came with it. In addition, the book would have been more relevant had it acknowledged the Wall Street shenanigans now coming to light. A four-page chapter at the end offers a short list of proposed reforms. Siebert advocates that companies be required to disclose in full what their derivatives positions are, that company officers and directors be required to immediately disclose all stock transactions, and that companies fully disclose any events that might trigger early payment of their debt. All of them are good ideas, but the chapter appears tacked on.
While Siebert portrays herself as a friend of the investor, Arthur Levitt's new book charges that she was just as opposed to reform as the rest of the good ol' boys on Wall Street. In Take On the Street: What Corporate America Doesn't Want You to Know and What You Can Do to Fight Back (Pantheon, $24.95), the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission details -- together with co-author Paula Dwyer -- his years-long effort to reform the way business is done on Wall Street. One of the obstacles, Levitt says, was Siebert. In 1999, after speaking at the Economic Club of New York about the numerous conflicts of interest and number-fudging that existed in corporate America, Levitt says he "got a scolding" from Siebert, who told him he was "misguided" and should refrain from "tearing down Wall Street."
There are plenty of other entertaining stories here. While seeking to implement a rule that would have prohibited accounting firms from consulting for companies they were auditing, Levitt was being pressured by members of Congress. Several members were even threatening to cut the SEC's funding. Looking for help, he called Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Levitt told Lott his proposal had lots of support, including the backing of The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Business Week. Lott, says Levitt, replied that he wasn't familiar with the rule, but said "if those liberal publications are in favor of it, then I'm against it."
About the time Levitt was leaving the SEC, he was invited to join the board of Apple Computer by the company's CEO, Steven Jobs. But when he showed company officials a speech he was giving on corporate governance, he was quickly uninvited. Levitt says that's because Jobs "had carefully hand-picked his own board," which is filled with individuals who have clear conflicts of interest and are not truly independent. "It's plain to me," writes Levitt, "that Apple's board is not designed to act independently of the CEO."
While Levitt tosses plenty of grenades, he also offers investors a wealth of information, including a good primer on how to read balance sheets and cash-flow statements, which Web sites offer the best information for investors, and what to look for in a mutual fund. Take On the Street should be required reading for anyone interested in learning how America's financial markets became corrupted.
Jeffrey Garten's The Politics of Fortune: A New Agenda for Business Leaders (Harvard Univ. Business School, $24.95) is not nearly as wide-ranging as Levitt's book, but it is no less ambitious. Garten, the dean of the Yale School of Management, has written a to-do list for American executives. And a daunting list it is. According to Garten, business leaders must now not only concern themselves with their company's profits and salvage their tattered reputations, they must also reckon with a host of other problems that span the globe. Garten advises that the business world must, among other things: jump into the national security debate; overhaul corporate regulation and governance; work to preserve the social safety net; encourage free trade; fight world poverty; be responsive to global labor, environmental and human rights issues; synchronize national security goals with business goals; and rethink the way business schools educate their students.
The agenda, admits Garten, "is nothing short of formidable." Yet, as he points out, business leaders may have no choice but to tackle it. "There are virtually no CEOs in the category of hero," writes Garten. "Americans need no less than a new paradigm for leadership in their society."
Garten spends a chapter on each subject, explaining, for instance, how U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola and Pfizer are working to battle poverty by supporting health-care initiatives. This is needed, argues Garten, because "poverty fosters weak governments and civil wars and creates opportunities for terrorists to operate with relative impunity."
Garten's book is sure to draw scorn from those opposed to globalism and free trade. Indeed, his book is a call to arms for corporate executives, a warning that unless they act decisively to get more involved in every level of domestic and international affairs, they -- and the companies they command -- will be hurt. It's a bold book that every CEO in America should read, if only to understand the difficulties of their jobs -- jobs that looked a whole lot easier two years ago. *
Robert Bryce is the author of "Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron."