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A quick scan for a deadly sin

As the author of a book called Age of Greed, I’m sometimes reprimanded by people who tell me I’m naive to have implied that the current era is greedier than others. Of course greed is universal, but its prominence at a given moment is a matter of degree. It reached spectacular heights on Wall Street in the late 1980s, and has persisted at that level. 

Has this begun to change? One sign of a society’s health is how well it can tackle corruption. We are quick to denounce it in other countries, and to consider it a sign of underdevelopment. But today’s Wall Street Journal yet again gives me pause about corruption in America. As many readers know, the Journal runs a What’s News column, in which it highlights the main business and finance stories of the day. On March 20, the print edition of the paper included a bunch of disturbing examples of what is going on in our country.

For starters, the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency reduced its management grade for JPMorgan, indicating that the company’s risk management is slipping. (You’ll recall that Morgan, headed by Jamie Dimon, was supposed to be the well-managed bank.) The Journal also noted that JPMorgan had just agreed to pay customers of MF Global $546 million; as trustee of the defunct company founded by former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, Morgan had been sued by investors over some $1 billion in missing funds.

Going down the column a bit, we see that Freddie Mac, the federal mortgage agency, sued a dozen of the world’s biggest banks for rigging Libor, the key interest rate for interbank loans. Many more such suits are in the pipeline.

Further along, the Journal reports that the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating Microsoft for dealing with partners who have bribed foreign officials.

A couple of stories down, we find that the SEC is scrutinizing the lavish expenses hedge-fund managers charge to their customers. (The funds are at least partially — I’d say slightly — regulated as a result of the Dodd–Frank Act.)

Finally in What’s News, prosecutors accused a Florida financier of raising $13 million from investors by telling them he could get them Facebook shares in advance of the company’s initial public offering (and implicitly, at a lower price), then using the money for personal expenses.

And then there was this unbelievable item from the pages of the New York Times: Three retailers, including Neiman Marcus, admitted to having sold real fur instead of the advertised fake fur.  

That was just today. The age of greed over? Hardly.

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February 2014

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