It's time to talk to the French.
No, I'm not suggesting we seek their counsel on how to turn Iraq into a major cheese-exporting nation.
We just need to buy some French real estate.
I'm thinking about Devil's Island, the former French penal colony off French Guiana, on the east coast of South America. We need to own it so it can be restored to its earlier splendor as a tool for cleaning up society. I'm thinking it would make a great home for corporate criminals, the kind New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer is finding under every piece of mahogany. While most of our prisons are crowded, Devil's Island is big enough to hold an entire generation of corporate big wigs who threaten our economy and society.
In case you don't remember your history (or Steve McQueen movies), Emperor Napoleon III turned the island into a prison in 1852. It remained one for nearly a century, closing in 1946. During that time it was a dumping ground for political prisoners and the nastiest criminals in France. Many were sent there. Few survived.
And what does Devil's Island have to do with personal finance and investments?
Reviving Devil's Island may be the only way we can stop an epidemic of ethical turpitude that we experience as corporate crime.
Some readers will think I'm being extreme. We have, after all, endured a long history of business and financial charlatans. Indeed, it could be argued that the American standard of doing business is higher than it has ever been. Whatever the current standard relative to our history, however, it fails to meet public expectations.
And that's the rub. The unending wave of corporate scandals is starting to change my behavior as an investor.
It's probably changing your behavior, too.
You and I may feel like small potatoes (because we are) but without our trust and the money that follows, the system doesn't work.
In his recent book "The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created" (McGraw-Hill, HB, $29.95) William Bernstein tells us that prosperity is based on four things:
• Secure property rights, including intellectual property and civil liberties.
• "A systematic procedure for examining and interpreting the world--- the scientific method."
• A modern capital market for financing innovation.
• Rapid communications and efficient transport for people and goods.
We've had all four in this country. It's those four qualities that make us unique and so successful.
Unfortunately, corporate crime threatens two of the four factors--- property rights and capital markets.
It has been done by bid rigging (the current insurance industry scandal), embezzlement (late trading and other violations of trust in the mutual fund industry), and fraud (Enron, Qwest, WorldCom, etc.). It has been done on an unprecedented scale, extinguishing thousands of financial lives.
In conventional crimes like murder and manslaughter the victim's loss is clear. The victim is dead. We can estimate the number of years of life lost by subtracting a victim's age at death from their life expectancy.
Financial death from corporate crime is less clear. Years of work are lost. Sometimes a lifetime of work is lost. But there is no body to bury.
This should not confuse the folks who write the laws and set the punishments. There is some standard---be it 10, 100, or 1,000--- where the number of financial deaths is the equivalent of one physical death and, therefore, murder. Facing an epidemic of executives without conscience and corporate directors who don't pay attention, the law needs to respond with harsher punishments.
That's where Devil's Island comes in. Life imprisonment on Devil's Island would be kinder than the public hangings former employees of Enron might favor for certain of their executives.
If the law doesn't get truly harsh--- if the small investors in America who own common stocks and mutual funds don't see a living hell awarded to America's Top Paid Miscreants--- a lot of money will be going into mattresses and coffee cans.
Modern capital markets run on trust and integrity, not mattresses and coffee cans.
This article contains the opinions of the author but not necessarily the opinions of AssetBuilder Inc. The opinion of the author is subject to change without notice. All materials presented are compiled from sources believed to be reliable and current, but accuracy cannot be guaranteed. This article is distributed for educational puposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, product, or service.
Performance data shown represents past performance. Past performance is no guarantee of future results and current performance may be higher or lower than the performance shown.
AssetBuilder Inc. is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Consider the investment objectives, risks, and expenses carefully before investing.