michael milken's commute -- 4/2/18

Today's selection -- from Predators' Ball by Connie Bruck. In the early 1970s, a young Wall Street employee with unusual work habits began to focus on high-yield, non-investment-grade corporate bonds. Those bonds came to be referred to as "junk bonds," and by the 1980s, Michael Milken had built a junk bond empire of staggering power and wealth. By the early 1990s, the junk bond market had crashed and he was serving time in prison for securities fraud:

"At 5:30 A.M. each weekday in the early 1970s, a bus pulled up to a stop in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and a young man lugging a bag that bulged with papers mounted its steps. He was making the two-hour commute to New York City, where he worked at the investment­ banking firm of Drexel Firestone. The train would have provided a more comfortable and faster ride; but, for those very reasons, it also offered more opportunity to meet other Wall Street acquaintances. They would want to engage in the kind of idle small talk that commuters share to pass the time. The thought must have been intolerable. He did not wish to be rude, but he wanted no interrup­tion.

Mike Milken at work.
Photographer: Jim McHugh

"As soon as he had settled into his seat, being sure to take one with an empty one adjacent, he unloaded a mountain of prospectuses and 10ks (annual Securities and Exchange Commission filings) onto the seat next to him. On winter mornings the sky was still pitch black and the light on the bus was too dim for him to be able to read. He wore a leather aviation cap with the earflaps down; he had been bald for years, and although he wore a toupee his head always felt cold on these frosty mornings. Now over his aviation cap he fitted a miner's headlamp -- strapped around the back of his head, with a huge light projecting from his forehead.

"Michael Milken was as anomalous at the impeccably white­-shoe Wall Street firm of Drexel Firestone to which he traveled each day as were the low-rated bonds that he traded there. He came from a middle-class Jewish family. He had no aspirations to climb any social ladder. He was painfully uncomfortable, moreover, in most purely social situations. He was oblivious to appearance -- not car­ing what kind of car he drove, or what kind of clothes he wore, or, whether his aviation cap and miner's headlamp made other passen­gers stare at him. Milken was occupied, at every moment, with his own thoughts, and those thoughts were riveted on the bonds."

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Connie Bruck


The Predators' Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the JunkBond Raiders


Penguin Books


Copyright Connie Bruck 1988, 1989


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