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Picks and Pans Review: Den of Thieves

updated 12/16/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 01:00AM

by James B. Stewart

They were stupendously successful financiers in a decade lush with funds. Smart, handsome Martin Siegel of Kidder, Peabody & Co., a man haunted by his father's failure in business, could never have enough money. "Self-promoting, ineffectual" Dennis Levine of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., shrouding himself in Swiss bank accounts and secret codes, was pulling down millions in illegal profits. Master arbitrageur Ivan Boesky, surrounded by bodyguards and wealth, had hopes of becoming "a latter-day Rothschild." Michael Milken, the financial wizard who turned junk bonds into an all-powerful weapon for corporate takeovers, earned $550 million in 1986 alone.

Their reign eventually crumbled, shaken in part by the stock market crash of 1987, the junk-bond collapse of 1989, the S&L crisis and the recession. Furthermore, justice came calling in the guise of men such as Gary Lynch, the determined chief of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the relentless federal attorneys Rudolph Giuliani and Charles Carberry.

Den of Thieves is a fascinating examination of what the author credibly calls "the greatest criminal conspiracy in financial history" and a hammering indictment of the profit-at-any-cost mentality that ruled Wall Street in the Reagan years. Stewart (The Partners), a Pulitzer-prizewinning reporter and currently page-one editor of The Wall Street Journal, expertly glues together all the pieces, turning a confusing financial puzzle into a coherent and compelling narrative.

Stewart animates not only the lavish parties, the money drops at public phone booths, the trading on inside information and the other stunning excesses and extremes but also the abstract ziggurats of leverage and junk on which fortunes were built. He brings to life as well the implacable lawmen poring over documents, pressuring the compromised, using big fish to catch bigger fish until, inevitably, the greed barons turn on one another.

The punishments doled out to the culprits may leave the reader exasperated, especially given the lens of thousands of people who lost their jobs in corporate takeovers. Milken, for example, will walk away from prison, perhaps as early as 1993, with a net worth of about $2 billion. (Simon & Schuster, $25)

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