Why Does Wall Street Stink?

Bright and early Monday morning, New Yorkers awoke to an unpleasant smell. More than that, an unpleasant and unfamiliar smell. Opinions were varied on the source, although New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed to espouse the most popular theory in describing his administration's response to the smell: "We are waiting for the gas to pass."

Not so fast, Mr. Mayor. Let's not jump to any conclusions here. Perhaps this was, indeed, just an isolated and temporary gas leak. But so far, there's no firm consensus on the source of the stink.

Fortunately, I have it on strong authority -- an intelligence assessment prepared by the CIA, and meticulously cherry-picked by Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- that the true source of the smell has been located. As foreshadowed by the title above, it's Wall Street itself that stinks.

What's that? You find these sources less than trustworthy? Very well. Let's go to Warren Buffett for confirmation. Surely he's a source whose authority on the matter is beyond dispute. Quoth the Master: "If a graduating MBA were to ask me, 'How do I get rich in a hurry?' I would not respond with quotations from Ben Franklin or Horatio Alger but would, instead, hold my nose with one hand and point with the other toward Wall Street."

Q.E.D.
There you have it, folks, straight from the Oracle of Omaha's mouth. Wall Street stinks. And how could it be otherwise? The most scandal-plagued alleyway this side of K Street, Wall Street has been ripe and stinking for most of the current millennium. In illustration, here are a few topics that my fellow Fools, and yours Fool-y also, have discussed over the past few years.

What's yours is ours
Special thanks go to Home Depot's (NYSE: HD  ) board of directors for reminding us all that the chief function of shareholders is to provide capital for redistribution to corporate insiders. The firm's presentation of a $210 million gift basket to outgoing CEO Bob Nardelli almost made us forget about Exxon Mobil's (NYSE: XOM  ) $400 million parting gift to departing CEO Lee Raymond. And the $50,000-per-month in apartment rent that Rupert Murdoch charged to News Corp. (NYSE: NWS  ) on top of $25.5 million in salary and bonuses last year. And the $600 million, give or take, that Tyco (NYSE: TYC  ) execs looted from that firm's corporate coffers. And -- well, you get the drift.

What's ours is cheaper than yours
But mere greed is so banal. So to give credit where credit is due, let's not forget the latest twist on the concept: the stock-options backdating scandal -- which was unique not only in its brazen originality ("Hmm. It's great that we're diluting outside investors. And we love how this doesn't affect our income statements -- but can we get the free money cheaper?"), but in the denouement: Once caught in the act, the execs have begun to express honest-to-goodness contrition! CEOs at United Health (NYSE: UNH  ) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) agreed to scale back their options grabs, for example. Comverse's CEO was so embarrassed he actually fled the country!

Gimme what's yours ...
... and give it to me cheap. So say Wall Street's mini-tender slickers, who prey on unwary and ill-informed individual investors with invitations to sell their shares for less than their worth -- and often for less than their current market price.

Just give us your money
Once upon a time, theft operated on a less grand scale. Rather than grabbing millions of dollars at a time, as is the current fashion, back in 2003, mutual funds -- trustees of our retirements -- relied on much smaller thefts, but spread across a wider pool of victims. Remember the timing scandal?

Rodney Dangerfield in reverse
In September, fellow Fool Stephen Ellis torpedoed cargo hauler DryShips (Nasdaq: DRYS  ) -- for many reasons, not the least of which was the company's CEO admitting to Barron's editor Kathryn Welling that he was IPO'ing the company in the United States "because Americans are the dumbest investors around, and there's lots of liquidity in this market." Nice.

The truth? You can't handle the truth
In this age of instantaneous online access to SEC filings, webcast conference calls, and paranoid IR directors, it's easy to forget there was a time when the investing game was even more rigged than it remains today. Remember Regulation FD? (We do. In fact, according to former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, the support of The Motley Fool was instrumental in getting the regulation passed.) It's the law now, but before Reg FD, investment bankers on Wall Street routinely got access to inside information long before it filtered down to us mere Fools on Main Street.

In summary, Wall Street stinks. Always has. Still does. But which of these scandals is the stinkiest? Help me out here, people. I've had a cold all week long, and my sniffer just can't figure out who's most at fault. Email me at writerich@gmail.com, and tell me which of these Wall Street scandals most offends your delicate nostrils. Or if you've got another nominee, I'm open to those, too.

On Friday, I'll take the most interesting (and printable -- remember, this is a family publication) responses and publish them right here on Fool.com for you to enjoy over the weekend.

Home Depot and Tyco are Inside Value recommendations. United Health is a Stock Advisor selection.

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of United Health. The Fool believes so strongly in fair disclosure, that we've got a policy on it of our own.


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