EMPEROR'S CLUB HAS WALL STREET LESSONS
By Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Lake Worth, Fla.
LAKE WORTH, Fla., Nov. 25, 2002 -- Kevin Kline's new Thanksgiving-week flick, "The Emperor's Club," won't beat Harry Potter or James Bond at the box office, but perhaps it should be mandatory viewing in the front office.
As for cinema and script, it a lame rip-off of prep school classics going back to Tom Brown's School Days and the Dead Poet's Society, but for Corporate Ethics 101 it provides a whole semester of curriculum. I won't give away the plot, but suffice it to say that it deals with the type of look-the-other-way morality that is straight out of the Enron, Adelphia, Worldcom, Citigroup, and Wall Street analysts' headlines. It's really a shame that my 22-year-old daughter and her peers have been flocking to movies about hip-hop rappers, mystical demons, magical wizards, rock stars, and post-Cold War spies. The Emperor's Club is the first movie I've seen in a while that at least attempts to address my late grandmother's edict about everything from curfews to drunk driving: "If (fill in the name of your best friend) jumped out of the window, would you follow him?" My folks would follow her admonitions with the postscript: "We don't care if everyone does it!." (I must add that this applied to going to a bowling alley which housed a pool hall at age 13, and staying out past 11 p.m. on school nights in high school.) The truth of the movie, and the reason it probably will create a big yawn at the box office and from the critics, is that most business, political, and, sadly, even religious leaders really don't care about morality.
Oh, sure, they say they care, but it's the old conflict when in the great Christmas move "The Bells of Saint Mary," a hoodlum donates ill-gotten dough to the sparsely funded school. According to the Wall Street Journal a few years back, most young execs - by a long shot - would gladly serve 10 years hard (or soft) time in the slammer if convicted of white collar crime - if they were assured ofgetting out of jail with a big fat nest egg for the rest of their lives. Watergate burglar Chuck Colson, junk-bond scammer Mike Milken, even inside trader Ivan Boesky, all have regained some level of media respectability by sugar coating their lying and cheating with the discovery of the Lord, cures for disease, great philanthropic deeds, or all of the above. "If you say you never stole candy bars from the corner store as kid, or plagiarized a term paper in college, you're a damned liar!" a radio talk show colleague once chastised on the air (in a joint appearance with me). My response wasn't exactly honorable, but it was truthful: "They way I was brought up, and I think most of the kids I knew, was stealing was wrong, you didn't take stuff that didn't belong to you, no matter how small. As for school, well, I loved going to class, liked the lectures, but never studied that much. I sure didn't care enough about high grades to study, and I sure wasn't going to risk getting thrown out by cheating. Getting an 'A' didn't matter that much." We now know, even without Kevin Kline, that from the courts to medical school, from Merrill Lynch to nursery school for your kiddies, cheating counts. By the way, influence peddling, stabbing a coworker in the back, and doing anything and everything to trample a colleague so you can climb the corporate ladder is also received with a knowing smirk, and mild (or stronger) grudging admiration from the stompees below. When William Webster-former judge, CIA, and FBI director, was given a rinky-dink board directorship, assigned to the audit committee, and helped preside over the irregularities of that firm, the head of the SEC felt this news should not disqualify Webster from a job as the agency's top policeman.
SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt didn't even think that his fellow board members would care to know the information. When the stories broke, Judge Webster - probably sincerely - felt that there was no conflict of interest, no disgrace, nothing to force his recusal from the appointment, and amazingly, never even hinted that he was not the best person for this highly sensitive new job. It was only the outcry from us peons which shook the rotten, or at least wormy, apples from the regulatory tree. So, Emperors and Empresses of America, who do you trust? Trust yourself. If a stock you never heard of runs from $3 to $80 ask yourself, "Why?" If you can't sit down and write a lucid paragraph about the basic business of a company you invest in, just say, "I'll pass." And if Counsin Bernie, Aunt Sarah, or your minister's brother has a hot investment which is "too good to pass up," tell them in the holiday spirit of charity, you'll defer to someone more needy.
Oh, yeah, one more thing: Tell them to come back after eight straight quarters of positive earnings, and an investment grade rating from S&P.
Mark Scheinbaum is chief investment strategist for Kaplan & Co. Securities, Inc., Boca Raton, Florida, BSE, NASD, SIPC. Reach him art www.kaplansecurities.com.