One of the long-standing business fables – particularly in the financial services sector – is that of bringing the prince of darkness to justice. By prince of darkness I mean the CEO, and usually entrepreneurial founder, of a financial services firm who is breaking the law: insider trading, fraud, or perhaps a Ponzi scheme. Justice is delivered by the government, usually the SEC acting in concert with the Justice Department and the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Justice may come about because the government’s own tripwires, such as its monitoring of stock trades, reveal criminality, or because some disgruntled employee of the prince of darkness, either voluntarily or under criminal prosecution himself, provides the information on which the government can build its case.
In terms of the four quadrant matrix for analyzing organizational narratives outlined in Governing Fables, this is a retributive one. Because this narrative takes place in the financial services sector, it is about the money. The prince of darkness forfeits his ill-gotten gains to the government, which uses the money to recoup at least some of the losses suffered by those who have been tricked or exploited. The prince of darkness is disgraced, is required to do prison time, and may have important privileges, such as trading on the stock exchange, withdrawn for the rest of his life.
One can think of several real-life narratives that follow this fable: those of Jeffrey Skilling, Conrad Black, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, and Bernard Madoff. There is also a classic fictional version, which is the movie Wall Street, with its prince of darkness protagonist, Gordon Gekko. Gekko, a role for which Michael Douglas won the Academy Award for best actor, is vital and charismatic. He can convince his employees to break the law on his behalf: his conversation in his limo with the ambitious neophyte trader Bud Fox is a classic example. Gekko is also effective at arguing – however cynically – that his market manipulations actually benefit society (“greed is good”). Gekko’s crime is insider trading, in particular encouraging his employees to find inside information which he can use for profitable trades.
As life imitates art, which itself reflects life, we are now watching the unfolding of the US Government’s case against Steven A. Cohen, CEO and 100 percent owner of the hedge fund SAC Capital Advisers. A number of Cohen’s employees have confessed to or are under indictment for trading on inside information and Cohen has already paid over $ 600 million in a preliminary out-of-court settlement (a fact curiously omitted from his Wikipedia entry). The big question that remains is whether Cohen’s employees will be willing and able to provide enough information to enable the government to indict and convict him.
Cohen, however, is no Gordon Gekko. He is notoriously private and most unlikely to make speeches extolling his values at shareholder meetings. Unlike Michael Douglas’s classic chiseled profile and flowing hair, Cohen is bald, bespectacled , and podgy-faced. His successive wives do not at all appear to be like Gekko’s trophy wife and mistresses.
If Cohen is not the charming and charismatic rogue of a Gordon Gekko, he is also not the progressive and socially enlightened plutocrat that Bill Gates freely chose to become, or that Michael Milken, as part of his restitution, was compelled to become. Cohen’s two all-consuming passions appear to be building an ever bigger mansion and enhancing his personal art collection. He contributed substantially to the Romney campaign, presumably seeing it as an investment in keeping his rate of taxation low.
Few tears will be shed for him if, in the pursuit of justice, the US government brings him down. My guess is that many people, on Wall Street and elsewhere, are cheering for this to happen. Another instantiation of the retributive fable awaits.