The Secret World of Mike Milken

September 1987

by Edward Jay Epstein

In December 1986, U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani made one of the most extraordinary deals in the annals of American justice. It was with Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street arbitrageur, who had admitted using stolen information to make over a $100 million. Not only was he was allowed to plead guilty to a only a single count of securities violations, but he was permitted to keep secret his foreign bank and brokerage accounts, even if they had been enriched by his criminal activity. Similarly, the accounts in his wife and children's name were protected. This accord was not Giuliani's work alone: it was initialed by the U.S. Attorneys in both Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. What Boesky offered to give in return for this leniency was, among other things, information about the secret dealings of a reclusive financier in Los Angeles-- Michael Robert Milken.

Even as Giuliani hammered out the final terms of this bargain with Boesky, Milken, on the telephone in his trading room in Beverly Hills, was lining up some $20 billion in financing for raids on such corporate behemoths as US Steel, Gillette, and Trans World Corporation. Despite the scope of his operations, he had tried to remain invisible to the world at large by denying all press interviews, avoiding social functions and buying up photographs of himself.

Now, with a stroke of the pen by Boesky and three U.S. Attorneys, Milken was suddenly in the cross-hairs of a highly-visible federal investigation.

Despite this new focus on his activities, and rumors that his indictment was imminent, Milken bravely appeared in Beverly Hills Hilton Ballroom, for his ninth-- and last junk bond convention in April. He walked amid four bodyguards, wearing a beige sports suit and defiant red tie. His Californian sun tan and toothy grin made him look much more boyish than his forty-one years. So did the well-fitting hair piece he wore. The hereditary loss of hair he suffered as a teen-ager added to his painful shyness-- and reclusiveness from the press.

More than 2000 clients of had shown up-- many, if for no other reason, then to show their support for him. They were mainly middle-level money managers from Life insurers, Savings and Loans Associations, Pension funds, College Endowments, off-shore banks, mutual funds, financial syndicates and other institution investors. Over the past decade, they had invested scores of billions of dollars in his junk bonds. Many owed their performance record, if not their careers to him. Even if they had heard his mesmerizing message before--and pointed jokes-- they watched him intently.

Milken flashed a quick smile the audience-- as if to say the world was still under control. But there was also a jarring twist in his face-- suggesting the enormous strain he was under. As he began his lilting, almost preachy cadence, his deep set eyes grew more intense. Like some leader at a revival meeting, he looked dead ahead, making sure he was in total control of his audience.

"We should all recognize from the moment we wake up in the morning, we don't like change. We don't like it when our children stop listening to Mary Poppins and all of a sudden have rock video blasting in the house...we don't like it when they change their hairdo or dress. People who run corporations don't like change either."

He hesitated a moment for effect; a grimace on his face-- as if he could personally feel the pain these "people" were in. As everyone in the room fully realized, the staggering change he was talking about was the one he himself had brought about-- the junk bond revolution.

"One way to insulate yourself is to deny change is occurring. You lash out at people, and whose easiest to lash out at...Wall Street."

He is thin body was suddenly taut with nervous energy. He looked at his supporters, who knew that he was explaining, in his own code, why the government was about to come crashing down on him.

"Much of American business has run to the [government] and said, 'Let's change the rules, we don't want competition, we don't want pressure....Where the corporate officer has denied the market place its right of judgment, and put up barriers to change... and become an ostrich, eventually change becomes violent.

Milken left the conference mobbed by supporters. Just as they had put their faith in his new bonds-- and profited by doing so-- they accepted his message: the establishment was after him because they feared change. As one supporter stated, "Corporate America is hoping to indict Mike it can go back to sleep for another 30 years." It was, to them part of "the war" on Wall Street.

Whatever the reason for the powerful reaction against Milken, one thing was certain: he was no ordinary financier. In a few short years, he had reshaped the financial world in a way that no one else had done since J.P. Morgan in the nineteenth century. What he did almost single-handily was destroy the dam of traditional restraints that had effectively penned in a half-trillion dollar reservoir of capital. When this pool of funds, known as the bond market, which had been retained for more than a century as the private fishing pond for Fortune 500 and utility companies, suddenly was channeled by Milken into new hands-- including non-traditional entrepreneurs and corporate raiders-- it changed not only existing relations on Wall Street but the hold of management over publically-held corporations. For better or worse, it threatened to irreversibly alter the balance of power in corporate America. How one man, an outsider without any connections, could bring about changes of this magnitude, and make perhaps a billion dollars for himself in the process, is a story of American capitalism.

Only a decade earlier, Milken was getting his business degree from the Wharton School. Now, he was the central figure in a struggle for control of a vast part of the corporate wealth of America. "I never saw myself as a revolutionary...all the revolutionaries I know are dead," he told me.

What Milken had sought throughout his remarkable rise to power, he explained, was not chaos-- but control over the things around him. "I don't like it when they change my seat at work, it probably disorients me for a week," he explained. When he moved his 20 man bond trading department from New York to Los Angeles in 1978, he found, when he sat at the center of the new X-shaped trading desk he found it difficult to see the two employees on the corners of the desk. He stormed out of the office, ordering the entire office to be redesigned so that he could see everyone from his seating, at all times. Subsequently, he moved his trading room to the building that houses Gump's on Wilshire Boulevard-- a building that he, and his partners, own. "I have no private office," he said to me, "I never had one in my life."

Ever since he had been a teenager in the San Fernando Valley Milken found one means of getting control was simply working longer hours than anyone else. At high school he was both head cheer leader and Prom Chairman, and earned money for himself working nights at a diner, at Berkeley, he made Phi Beta Kappa while moonlighting at the accounting firm of Touche Ross. He then enrolled at Wharton, where he commuting on a greyhound bus from Philadelphia to New York to trade bonds at Drexel. He told Frederick Joseph, who is now CEO of Drexel, "I don't know if I am smarter than anyone else but I can work 25 per cent harder."

He undertook, as a matter of routine, to work a fifteen hour day. He usually arrives at the trading room at 4:30 a.m.-- toting two dog-eared canvas bags full of reports and memos that he had taken home to read-- and remains there until at least 7:30 at night. "Lunch," usually a sandwich and soda, is brought in on a tray for him, and everyone else, at 10 a.m. He neither smokes or drinks-- not even coffee, explaining, "I don't need stimulants." Three assistants, who work in relays, starting at 4 a.m., try to keep up with him.

He uses the telephone as another means of extending his control. As young women in jeans move around the trading room passing scribbled notes to him, he relentlessly phones clients to tell them the "story" on companies whose bonds he is "placing." His pitch is often in the form of long monologues.

Keeping visitors waiting for audiences is another means of maintaining control. Not uncommonly, corporate executives begin cuing up in the conference rooms outside from early in the morning to late at night. They come typically to discuss borrowing money for their company in the junk bond market. Often, they then wait for over an hour. When Milken finally strides into the room, he is accompanied by a host of his aides, relevant financial experts and executives from Drexel's corporate finance department. There is, not uncommonly, more than twenty people sitting around the oval-shaped table.

According to executives who have gone through such "audiences," Milken usually listens patiently and courteously to their case for getting access to junk bond financing. He then, in another act of control, dismisses from the room all but four or five participants. In this smaller group, he then presents his own analysis of, and strategy for, the company seeking money in the bond market. One industrialist who sat through such an audience was "stunned" as he described it afterwards, by Milken's intimate knowledge of his company's financial situation. Then, suddenly, the audiences would be over and Milken would disappear back into the trading room.

Nominally, Milken is merely a minor executive at Drexel--the vice president in charge of its Beverly Hills branch office. In fact, in an extraordinary arrangement, he operates what is tantamount a company within a company. By moving his staff to LA, he was able to operate outside of the sought of direct supervision that he might have to contend with in N.Y. His inner circle includes Lowell Milken, his younger brother and a lawyer by training, Peter Ackerman, his right-hand man and a Fletcher School Ph.D. and Richard Sandler-- his personal lawyer. He also has his own accountants and consultants. He also takes a large part of Drexel's profit: In 1986 alone, he, and his staff, reportedly got over a quarter billion dollars in bonuses-- much of which was invested in Milken's extramural ventures-- and highly-aggressive tax-shelters. In these investments, he has made many of these top aides multi-millionaires in their own rights and partners of his.

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