U.S. often misses what money can't buy

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management
November 9, 2003

Two pictures from last week said volumes about the business problems in the US. Two pictures, taken two years and thousands of miles apart. Neither was taken in the US, but together they help explain our continuing saga of scandal on Main Street and Wall Street.

Perhaps you saw the first picture. It was actually a video taken in Spain during the June 2001 birthday party for Karen Mayo, the wife of then-Tyco CEO, Dennis Kozlowski. There were models in togas. Roman gladiators shooting flaming arrows into the night sky and delivering a cake, the size and likeness of a nude woman. Jimmy Buffett flew in for a private performance. Young women in diaphanous gowns (for those of you from Alabama, 'diaphanous' means transparent) tossed rose petals into the swimming pool. An ice sculpture depicting Michealangelo's David dispensed vodka from his male appendage.

Tyco shareholders and US taxpayers paid for most of this party.

Don't get me wrong; in the right circumstance, I'm all for diaphanous gowns. But not disguised as a lavish, tax deductible business trip.

The second picture was on the front page of the Financial Times. Covering almost a quarter of the front page was a well-dressed grieving man, his face mostly hidden as it slumped into his hands. He may have been crying; he was unmistakably shaken and upset. He looked like a father, perhaps grieving the loss of his wife or grandchild.

Instead, Sony CEO, Nobuyuki Idei, was announcing the elimination of 20,000 jobs in attempt to restructure the lackluster electronics company.

Idei was ashamed of the performance of Sony. It was, to him, a personal failure. He didn't blame his competitors or a weak economic environment. He didn't ask for a government bailout or subsidy. He certainly didn't drink vodka from the genitals of an ice sculpture.

The difference between Koslowski and Idei isn't one of economic structure. It is a difference of character. Remember, Koslowski's first troubles were because he forged a bunch of documents to avoid paying sales tax on some art he purchased. This is not a guy who stole money to feed his kids or double his net worth. This is like a millionaire stealing a dollar from the collection plate at church: he only does it because he thinks he can get away with it. That's who he is.

The mutual fund managers who stand accused of stealing money from their own clients are no different. These highly paid professionals didn't need the relatively few dollars they pilfered. Richard Strong stands accused of making $600,000 over five or ten years as a result of his improper trading. His firm is worth almost a billion dollars. What difference does a measly 600 thou make?

I bet Nobuyuki Idei understands the difference.

Although there are some structural problems with the mutual fund industry and the New York Stock Exchange, no amount of regulation or oversight can change a person's character. And there lies the problem.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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