As banker Frank Quattrone was sentenced on Sept. 8 to 18 months in prison and a $90,000 fine after being convicted of obstruction of justice, it was tempting to regard the former head of technology banking at Credit Suisse First Boston as one of the prime culprits.
After all, he orchestrated initial public offerings for everything from all-time hits such as Amazon.com to epic flops like Corvis, the now-staggering telecom-gear startup once valued at more than General Motors. The National Association of Securities Dealers charged Quattrone in a civil complaint last year with pioneering practices like slipping CEOs shares of hot IPOs to secure future banking business and pressuring analysts for favorable reports on banking clients. His team ran 138 tech and Web IPOs from 1998 to 2000, nearly as many as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley combined.
However, the criminal case against him boiled down to a single e-mail he sent on Dec. 5, 2000, endorsing a colleague’s note telling bankers to clean out their files to forestall lawsuits over cascading stock prices. A jury decided that note constituted advice to obstruct a federal probe of Credit Suisse First Boston. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and other white knights of justice like to focus blame for the bust of 2000 on the likes of Quattrone. After a slew of criminal cases and convictions, investors have been promised “reforms” — who could be against reforms? — as an assurance that it will never happen again.
As Quattrone prepares to serve his time — presuming he does, since he’s appealing his conviction — let’s look in the mirror: The Internet boom and bust was the fault of everyday stock buyers, from the small investor down the street to the mutual-fund manager. By late 1999, broadcaster Don Imus was handicapping IPOs on his radio show, which was my own touchstone for when investors had lost their collective minds.
The most important remedy was not a list of Sarbanes-Oxley restrictions on when stock analysts and investment bankers can be in the same room without lawyers present, or banks’ keeping lists of their analysts’ contacts with reporters. The needed corrective was people losing their shirts. That has made investors smarter — and safer — in ways U.S. District Court Judge Richard Owens’ sentence never could, even if it had been twice as harsh or come three years sooner.
Losing money, not Spitzer & Co., made people stop taking stock tips from disk jockeys and chat rooms. And that’s the real difference between today’s sane IPO market and the crazy one back then. “Fund managers who didn’t buy deals at 20 times revenue, because that’s insane, were getting fired,” says Barry Randall, manager of US Bancorp’s First American Technology Fund in Minneapolis. “Now people have time to actually do due diligence.”
Indeed, reform hasn’t changed all that much. Wall Street is still perfectly willing to shovel companies with few sales, no profits, and other huge business challenges into any public market that looks willing buy them. The Street is in the business of generating deals, because deals generate fees. And Wall Street firms still routinely guarantee research coverage to banking prospects — though today, there’s no guarantee the coverage will be positive.