Friday, August 17, 2007

Portal for Billionaires

While you are fretting about what happened to your savings this past month, with the Dow roller coaster, the high rollers are getting their own private playground, according to the one U.S. business news scoop I have ever seen the Washington Post get. It's called the NASDAQ Portal and it's for investors with at least $100 million to pony up; if you think that doesn't mean you, think again, your pension or mutual fund may be invested there.

This sort of thing affects all of us in more ways than one.

Starting August 15 NASDAQ has been offering certain investors, including "qualified institutional investors" under Securities and Exchange Commission rule 144A, the opportunity to buy and sell stock, commercial paper and other instruments without having to disclose the purchasers, the financial statements of the firms involved or of the investors.

Shhh ... it's a private club.

Combine that with the acquisition of Chrysler -- soon other major companies -- by an investor group in such away that it is now a private company. Let's forget all the tax dollars that went into saving Chrysler in the first place; when the taxpayer invests, it doesn't count. (Remember the Tom Paxton song I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler?)

Chrysler is only the first of several offerings of a similar sort, creating a corporate financing gated community of sorts, to which most people are not allowed entrance, even though they are affected as employees, consumers and taxpayers.

All right, I won't deny that current disclosures are almost meaningless. Nor that most balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements, while technically accurate in a murky sort of way, might as well have been written by the Brontë sisters.

The various investment markets are, for the most part, legalized gambling. Still, those few laws from the New Deal era that survived Reagan and the two Bushes, plus the post-Enron Sarbanes-Oxley rules, help catch the occasional egregious crook.

With the abandonment of any pretense that there is an insider elite that cooks the books and holds all the economic power, we are nakedly no longer living in a society of laws.

To put it in Dickensian terms, the law is an ass; but if you have enough money it doesn't exist at all.
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