The Number : How the Drive for Quarterly Earnings Corrupted Wall Street and Corporate America
In this commanding big-picture analysis of what went wrong in corporate America, Alex Berenson, a top financial investigative reporter for The New York Times, examines the common thread connecting Enron, Worldcom, Halliburton, Computer Associates, Tyco, and other recent corporate scandals: the cult of the number. Every three months, 14,000 publicly traded companies report sales and profits to their shareholders. Nothing is more important in these quarterly announcements than earnings per share, the lodestar that investors-and these days, that's most of us-use to judge the health of corporate America. earnings per share is the number for which all other numbers are sacrificed. It is the distilled truth of a company's health. Too bad it's often a lie. The Number provides a comprehensive overview of how Wall Street and corporate America lost their way during the great bull market that began in 1982. With fresh insight, wit, and a broad historical perspective, Berenson puts the accounting fraud of the past three years in context, describing how decades of lax standards and shady practices contributed to our current economic troubles.
In the wake of Enron's spectacular implosion, the scandals surrounding the collapse of Tyco's stock price and revelations that WorldCom inflated its earnings by $9 billion, many wonder how independent auditors could have overlooked such huge discrepancies in financial records. Others ask how the SEC failed to spot corporate fraud and errors of the accounting firms on such a scale when reviewing the annual reports. New York Times reporter Berenson provides eye-opening answers to these and other equally disturbing questions in this hard-hitting and well-documented study. Against a background of the decline in independent investment research and the shift in client base for investment houses from individual investors to corporations, he charts the ascent of earnings per share-"the number"-to measure companies' health. As stock options became a major element in executive compensation and the consulting role of audit firms increased while the SEC neglected to pursue fraud on any major scale, Berenson argues, corporate executives' motives to manipulate "the number" met with a perfect opportunity to defraud unsuspecting investors, and many couldn't resist. His coruscating portrait of the boldness and reach of corporate fraud over the past five years is a clarion cry for reform. But his discussion of the SEC's shortcomings-due to lack of staff and budget in 2001, it could audit only 2,280 of the 14,000 annual reports received and has investigated a mere fraction of all allegations of fraud in corporations-shows the agency, created to protect investors from exactly what's happened, in the direst state of emergency. (On sale Mar. 4) Forecast: Individual investors and students of economic markets will be drawn to Berenson's wealth of detail and blistering attack on corporate greed and accounting firm complicity. The book's historical perspective and investigative stance should make it a classic of financial reporting on a tumultuous contemporary period in American financial history. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 13, 2004
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Excerpt from The Number by Alex Berenson
BOOM AND BUST
It had been a very long week for J. P. Morgan Jr.
Morgan--the world's leading financier, the personification of Wall Street--had endured days of testimony before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee about his firm's misbehavior during the 1920s boom and the crash that followed. Under pointed questioning by Ferdinand Pecora, a hard-charging New York prosecutor who was the committee's chief counsel, Morgan admitted that he and many of his partners had not paid any taxes in 1931 and 1932, with the Depression at its worst. He acknowledged that earlier, at the height of the bubble, his firm had offered government officials the chance to buy shares in a hot new company at a below-market price. With 25 percent of all Americans unemployed, with banks failing and farmers starving, these revelations did not elicit great warmth. A generation later, The New York Times would call the inquiry "remarkable for its unfriendliness even in that year of bankers' general unpopularity." 
That year was 1933. And on the first day of its sixth month--Friday, June 1--at 10 A.M., in a Senate hearing room crowded with reporters and photographers, Morgan and his aides waited for another difficult day to begin.
Then the midget showed up.
The reason Lya Graf came to the Senate that day has been lost to history. Her employer, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was in town, but Graf had no obvious reason to make her way to the Capitol. Perhaps Ringling was looking for some easy publicity; a Ringling press agent named Charles Leef had accompanied her. Perhaps she just wanted to see Morgan in the flesh. If so, both circus and midget got their wishes. Ray Tucker, a reporter for the Scripps-Howard news service, saw Graf in the crowd outside the hearing room and pulled her in. "I'm going to introduce you to J. P. Morgan," Tucker said. And he did. Photographers swarmed and reporters rushed to capture every word of the not-very-interesting conversation between Morgan and Graf (Morgan: "I have a grandson bigger than you." Graf: "But I'm older.") Then Leef, the press agent, picked up Graf and popped her onto Morgan's lap.
In pictures of the incident, Morgan looks stunned and Graf amused, her arms spread wide . Richard Whitney, the president of the New York Stock Exchange and a Morgan flunky, quickly sent Graf off, and Morgan recovered his composure.
But he could not recover his reputation. In a moment he was transformed from a powerful plutocrat to a confused old man. It is impossible to imagine Morgan's father, the original J.P., who had been America's central banker before America had a central bank, being caught in a similar indignity. Morgan Sr. ended market panics, steadied the economy, and saved Wall Street from itself; he did not truck with midgets, or senators. Morgan Jr. could not stop the crash of 1929 or end the Depression. He had tried and failed. For that Morgan might have been forgiven--the economic crisis was too big for any private citizen to fix--but he and his well-paid factotums had failed in a second, inexcusable way. They had failed to understand how serious the Depression had become and how much America now distrusted financiers and big business. And so Morgan and the rest of Wall Street's Old Guard had become nearly irrelevant to the bitter national debate over how to save capitalism from itself. Commentators wrote later that the incident had "humanized" Morgan, as if a man who treasured power and discretion, whose firm did not advertise or even put its name on its front door, wanted to be humanized. As if humanization was not the ultimate embarrassment.