Tuesday, September 03, 2002

And Now, For Something Completely Contemptible. . .

The not-so-secret dirty secret of the crash is that even as investors were losing 70%, 90%, even in some cases all of their holdings, top officials of many of the companies that have crashed the hardest were getting immensely, extraordinarily, obscenely wealthy. They got rich because they were able to take advantage of the bubble to cash in hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of stock--stock that was usually handed to them via risk-free options--at vastly inflated prices. When the bubble burst, their shareholders were left holding the bag. But, hey, they had theirs.

How much did they take in? We'll get to that in a second, but first we need to explain the criteria for the list that accompanies this story. First, we looked at companies that had hit a market cap of at least $400 million--and fallen by at least 75% from the highs they reached during the bubble years. Second, we counted insider stock sales from 1999 onward. (That's why Gary Winnick's tally comes to "only" $508 million on our list; he had sold a ton of Global Crossing stock before 1999.) And third, we included only stock sold by top executives and board members; the quick profits made by the venture capital firms that funded the dot-com boom were excluded. (Also excluded in all but a very few cases--largely because it's impossible to track--was stock sold by company officers after they left their jobs. For the same reason, we did not include the cost of acquiring the shares; in most cases option prices were so low that including that cost would hardly affect the totals.) What we cared about, ultimately, was a simple, straightforward thing: How much cash did the top executives at America's Losingest Companies reap by selling their shares to the investing public?

Even with these fairly narrow parameters, the numbers are astounding. Executives and directors of the 1,035 corporations that met our criteria took out, by our estimate, roughly $66 billion. Of that amount, a total haul of $23 billion went to 466 insiders at the 25 corporations where the executives cashed out the most. Those are the companies that make up this list.

The top 25 include some big and obvious names: Cisco (CEO John Chambers: $239 million), for instance, and AOL Time Warner, parent of FORTUNE's publisher (chairman Steve Case: $475 million). But they also include companies you would be surprised to find on a top-25 list of any kind. Executives and directors at a software maker called Ariba raked in $1.24 billion even as its stock was falling from $150 to around $3. Yahoo executives reaped $901 million in stock sales while the company's shares fell from $250 to about $11.

Somebody, please send these guys to jail.

And they say we don't need government regulation of business — that market forces will ensure Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

I would also like to point out the source of these numbers. Is it a notorious left-wing hippie do-gooder magazine like Mother Jones? Nope, though they have an interesting editorial on the potential political effects of corporate scandals. Is it a brilliant social satire from Mad? No, though they feature a devastatingly funny story of the Martha Stewart insider-trading scandal. It is a classic list from Fortune, one of the most respectable business journals and a bastion of free enterprise.

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