Gordon Gekko Repents: Greed Is Bad

As critical as we’ve been of the government’s failure to prosecute those in the financial world who done us wrong, it’s only fair to acknowledge our nation’s G-men when they bring some perps to justice.

The Associated Press reported an FBI announcement this week that its probes of financial crime last year “led to more than 3,000 convictions and over $12 billion in court-ordered restitution as agents attacked insider trading, Ponzi schemes and Medicare fraud in high-dollar scams that victimized thousands of investors and the government.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, during a briefing at the FBI’s Manhattan offices, it was revealed that, “Federal authorities are seeking to build insider-trading cases against roughly 120 individuals on and off Wall Street in an expanding criminal insider-trading investigation that has shaken the financial and corporate worlds.

“The disclosure — the first time authorities have quantified the number of people under scrutiny — comes on the heels of a string of successful prosecutions of insider trading. Since late 2009, prosecutors have charged 66 individuals at hedge funds and other companies with insider trading and won 57 convictions or guilty pleas.” Read more » (subscription required)

The highest profile of the cases successfully prosecuted was billionaire hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam who illegally profited from insider information and was sentenced last fall to 11 years in prison, the longest term for an inside trader in U.S. history. But his ill-fame is overshadowed by the legendary Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko of the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. So as part of its campaign to take a bite out of white collar crime, the FBI persuaded Wall Street star Michael Douglas to make a public service announcement — videotaped at, of all places, New York’s Trump International Hotel.

A solemn Douglas intones, “In the movie Wall Street I play Gordon Gekko, a greedy corporate executive who cheated to profit while innocent investors lost their savings. The movie was fiction, but the problem is real. Our economy is increasingly dependent on the success and integrity of the financial markets. If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.” He urges anyone who suspects illegal behavior to call an FBI tip line.

All well and good, but The New York Times notes, “The intense focus on insider trading has drawn criticism from outsiders, who call it a distraction from more important crackdowns. On the heels of the financial crisis, which crippled the global economy, the government has filed few cases tied to wrongdoing at the major banks and lenders that prompted the upheaval.”

Coincidentally, the FBI stats and Douglas’ plea come out at the same time as a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to Paul Piff, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues, the pursuit of self-interest is a “fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing.”

To read more articles by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship and watch videos from Moyers & Co., click here.

Bloomberg News reports, “The ‘upper class,’ as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to raise their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work, the research found. The solution, Piff said, is to find a way to increase empathy among wealthier people.”

Increase empathy among wealthier people – Piff suggests that combining ethics and economic courses could be helpful, but really, some prison time, or community service at least, might be the solution he seeks. If the government finally starts to crack down on the banks and Wall Street, and the FBI keeps pursuing insider traders — with Gordon Gekko’s help, of course — three hots and a cot could be just the thing.