Book Notes — ‘Den of Thieves,’ by James B. Stewart

Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

Den of thieves

Den of Thieves
By James B. Stewart
Published: 1991
ISBN: 067179227X
Amazon link
Rating: 10/10

Brief recap: An absolute classic. Pulitzer-prize winning Jim Stewart tells, though in-depth reporting and riveting storytelling, the story of the insider trading scandals that rocked Wall Street in the 1980s.

My notes:

  • Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Dennis Levine, Martin Seigel – you’ve heard their names in connection with insider trading, and may remember some specifics of their deeds.

    In this book, Stewart – with whom I was lucky enough to study at journalism school – lays out in incredible detail what motivated them to break the law, precisely how they did it, and how they were caught.

    The book clearly communicates what a powerful factor greed can be, and how the characters in the story acted with brazen disregard for the law. Also, even people who are familiar with Wall Street excess might be surprised with just how much money the industry’s titans made (and make) – yachts, helicopters, lavish estates, it’s all here.

  • The book remains relevant even today. As Stewart writes in a new introduction in 2010, after the global financial crisis:

When I finished writing Den of Thieves, in 1991, I ended with a question: Can it happen again?

Nearly twenty years later, we know the answer: it did happen again. Which begs the same question: are we destined to repeat history yet again?

I believe the answer lies in these pages, since this is ultimately a story not about insider trading or hostile takeovers but about human nature. In the most recent financial crisis, the setting has changed to subprime mortgages, asset-back securities, and exotic derivatives. Yet again, the power of vast sums of money to overpower everything in their path – laws, regulations, ethics, even common sense – has been on ample display. And once again, in the face of public outrage, there have been calls for reform.

  • Although “Den of Thieves” contains descriptions of complex matters like financial instruments and elaborate financing arrangements (not to mention a huge cast of characters), it is still a page turner – even at over 500 pages long.
  • Stewart reconstructs, in vivid scenes, how everything unfolded, putting the reader in the middle of the action. (For more on how Stewart tells stories, see his excellent 1998 book “Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction.”)