The phone rings, and the voice on the other end says something like, "Hoo boy, have I got a deal for you." Something about Argentine pork belly futures. (Or was it Mexican shale?) No matter. "Double your money in a month, 500 percent return by Christmas." Can't miss. Mortal lock. Get rich quick.
Of course, there's not much time to get in. You can't put heavyweight guys on hold. "But why would you need time?" You trust this guy; you went to school together, played football together. Look at the names he said were in it: presidents of four Fortune 500 companies. (Did you hear right? (Did you hear right? Did he actually say Shiek Yabuti?) "I even put my own grandmother into it." Get rich. Quick. (Greed, don't fail me now.) What to do?
"Hang up," says Andrew Tobias.
Tobias' Law: Never go into a deal that seems too good TO BE TRUE.
"The best thing you can do is hang up right away," Tobias says. "But if you stay on the phone, ask yourself: Why is this deal getting to me? Why isn't my lawyer bringing it to me? If he is my lawyer, how much is he in for? Am I such a close friend that he should come to me? Why isn't he going to his relatives? Then, hang up."
Andrew Tobias wants you to listen to him.
Andrew Tobias isn't trying to sell you anything bigger than his new book, "Getting by on $100,000 a Year (and Other Sad Tales)," a collection of business pieces that first appeared in magazines like New York, Esquire and Playboy. He has written about finance for a decade now since graduating from Harvard Business School, written, in part, about schemes and schemers, written best sellers like "The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need" and "Fire and Ice." And at the still semi-tender age of 33, if there's one thing he's sure of, it's that you'll never get rich quick. Well, hardly ever.
Look at him. He was 21, just out of Harvard undergrad, when he went to work for Cortes Randell at National Student Marketing. Within 18 months he had stock options in the company worth $400,000."Every time the stock went up a point, I made $1,000," he says, smiling at the remembrance of things past. But what seemed too good to be true turned out to be just that. Randell ended up in jail. "They called it creative accounting," Tobias says. "It wasn't just creative -- it was fraudulent." His $400,000 worth of stock options weren't worth the paper they were printed on. Down the dumper. Zippola. You can read about his experience in his first book, "The Funny Money Game," wherein he deals with the theme of this piece -- simply, that people get greedy.
The Greeding of America.
You hear it on every newscast: Man Makes Billion in Reptile Auction; Cash for Your Kids; There's Gold in Your Garbage.Gimme, gimme, gimme. c
So it shouldn't surprise you that newspaper libraries have thick files of clips under the word "Swindles." The stories in those files refer to people cheating other people, selling things they don't own and buying things with the money they get from those sales of things they don't own. Sleazy stories about sleazy people, looking to get a lot of distance between where they stand on the economic ladder and where everyone else stands, sleazy people who cheat their friends and neighbors.
"The things that people get maniacal about," says Andrew Tobias, "are sex, religion and money -- especially money." Swindlers' Hall of Shame
Tobias has compiled his Hall of Shame. Visionary people. Persuasive, charming, maybe even brilliant, and certainly very, very greedy. Some of the charter members include Glenn Turner (Koscot Interplanetary, mink-oil, "Dare to Be Great," $100 million in profits before they shut him down), Harold Goldstein (at 28 he was selling $25 million a month in nonexistent commodities options), Stanley Goldblum (Equity Funding Corp., fictitious life insurance sales in the hundreds of millions) and Robert S. Trippet (Home-Stake Production Co., a fraudulent oil-drilling tax shelter that looted the likes of Jack Benny, Bob Dylan and Walter Wriston, chairman of Citicorp, and others for $40 million). Write in care of Scam Central Station.
The great scams, according to Tobias, are the Ponzi Scheme and the Chain Letter; all others are variations on these stings. In the Ponzi, investors are promised -- and, at first, paid -- huge returns. But the money is actually coming from new investors, not the promised commodity. As long as new money keeps coming in, the return flows out until, finally, the scheme collapses under its own weight. The chain letter works much the same, but collapses quicker because of the geometric progression of those who have to come in at the bottom to make it work.
While others in his business school class wrote term papers about production-line techniques, Tobias wrote about chain letters. "The Ponzi tends to focus on rich people looking for tax shelters, and it's hard to have sympathy when the rich get swindled -- we should all have their problems," Tobias says. "But the chain letter is almost always terribly destructive to poor people; I always hear about new letters from my unemployed friends. You take the recent 'Circle of Gold' chain. You put up $1,000 to get back $16,000. Movie executives and personalities got into it early. But when the music stops, who are the ones getting hurt? Secretaries. People who can't afford it.
"For 10,000 people to make money, 150,000 people have to be in on the bottom. For them to make money, 2,250,000 people have to be there. Where's the money coming from? Mars? It's coming from the people you sell the letter to. You may choose to ignore it, but deep down you have to know that with each sale you are starting your own chain letter, and you are doing a very sleazy, unethical thing."
Tobias shakes his head.
This is very disturbing to him, this greed.
He has spent so much of his life writing about greed, analyzing greed, even staring into the face of greed -- Glenn Turner's mink-oiled face, for example.
"People who get into these things are greedy and gullible," Tobias says, as if a research doctor identifying a pathology. "People who start them are greedier still, and so cynical and callous."
Dare to be great.
Turner would drive up to get gas in his new Cadillac, wearing a diamond ring and a new suit, and tell the gas jockey, "You know, I was pumping gas a couple of years ago, too -- and now look at me." Turner would invite the man to one of his Koscot meetings, introduce him to other men driving Cadillacs and wearing diamond rings and new suits and dare him to be great. Greed is a social disease. People looked once and leaped.
"Number one is looking successful, having the credential cards," Tobias says. "Number two is promising to make people rich and giving them a rationale -- in this case the mink-oil cosmetics -- so they can believe it. We all want to believe we can make it. We dream of having much, much more than we have, but it's so boring doing it the slow, prudent way of saving $1,000 or $2,000 a year until you get enough to invest wisely."
Tobias's hands are darting as he speaks. The lizard dart. Hands. Eyes.
"It's not hard to see how Turner did it. Look, if you can have a Jonestown you can certainly have a Glenn Turner. Turner had people on the floor at these meetings shouting, 'MMMMMMMMONEYYYYY' in unison. These people have very little hope of riches otherwise, and here it is -- Salvation! Of course, you didn't want to go door-to-door selling cosmetics, that was the hard way. You wanted to do it like Turner did, selling franchises to other people, get that geometric progression going."
It is suggested that Turner could do it again, that anyone with a touch like that can always do it again.
"For all I know," Tobias says, "in 10 years Turner could become governor of Florida. You have to remember that the people who made money with him -- even if it was only 5 percent -- think he's God. I wrote a piece on him detailing the scheme, and people wrote me for his address. They wanted to get involved."
Tobias is shaking his head in disbelief. Scrimping Through the '80s
But why should we care what Tobias says? Why should we care about someone whose friends describe him as "the Rodney Dangerfield of business" because he's forever telling them in that soft voice, behind that preppie look, that the deal he just got into went bust, another loser.
Tobias is laughing.
"That's not true," he says. "But print it. I love it."
In fact, he is doing quite well. The New York City condo he bought a few years ago for $41,000 ($11,000 down) is now worth about $225,000. He's had his best sellers, "and finally, in the last few years, I've had some luck in the market." His former magazine editors say he may be the most readable, surely the funniest, business writer in the country. There is a new book due soon, about insurance. The numbers are on Tobias' side, and he knows it.
Tobias' Law: IT'S NOT WHAT YOU HAVE, BUT WHICH DIRECTION YOU'RE GOING.
He is now a veteran of five book tours. "On the first I couldn't justify the book company spending so much of its money on me, so I stayed with friends instead of in hotels. On the second tour I stayed in hotels, but I didn't order the orange juice because it cost $2.50 a glass, an outrage. On the third I got the orange juice. On the fourth I got anything I wanted. Now, I'm flying first class, and I've got a limo taking me around. I've paced myself. I'm ready for this now. The thing you have to know is that as soon as you get something nice, you can't live without it anymore. That's what I mean about the direction you're going. It isn't hard doing without the orange juice on the way up, but it's murder on the way down."
A Tobias Guide to Survival in the '80s?
He is bearish on lawyers ("The greediest people. This country is being strangled by lawyers; we produce 30,000 new parasites a year, and they're like beavers -- they enter the mainstream and dam it up") and bullish on a $1-a-gallon gas tax, microwave ovens ("I can cook you a fish parmigiana in 1 minute and 50 seconds that will knock your eyes out, and I don't waste energy") and other energy-conserving devices, lowering taxes on investments, buying in bulk (he admits to keeping cans of tuna underneath his bed, and his friends swear he buys toilet paper by the ton) and "it sounds so simplistic, but good old-fashioned shopping."
Hypothetical: Household of four, two adults, two kids. Both adults work, combined income, $30,000. Paying off home mortgage. No inherited income.Zero in bank. What to do?
Tobias: "First of all, if they're not saving anything, then bonds vs. stocks have no relevance. They're going to have to save more than they spend to build a nest egg. I say they can save $3,000 to $4,000 a year. I know it can be done, because people live on $22,000 a year instead of $30,000 and 16 instead of 22 and 10 instead of 16. There are sacrifices, and they are nasty, but it can be done. You start with a smaller, more efficient car.Take less expensive vacations. Eat out less. Get enough saved to pay off the credit cards, because it's crazy to pay off at 18 percent. Buy nonperishable items on sale in bulk. Let's say a six-pack of Coke costs about $2.50. But sometimes it's on sale for $1.25. When it is, buy 100. Thats a $125 tax-free savings on the current price, to say nothing of what it might cost when your supply is done. Think of it as investing in Coke. I'm saying there are choices. You can choose to be $1,000 up or $1,000 down just by shopping."
As if to prove it, Tobias stood to model his new blue blazer. A nice cut.
A good fit. "I went into Paul Stuart, like I always do, and bought this. This costs $89. But it looks like $245."
A small smile of satisfaction creases his face without even wrinkling his blazer.