USA: BOOK REVIEW - Sackcloth and ashes - an insider's account of wall street.

USA: BOOK REVIEW - Sackcloth and ashes - an insider's account of wall street. - Inside Out: An Insider's Account of Wall Street.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Inside Out: An Insider's Account of Wall Street.

By Dennis Levine with William Hoffer.

Century; 431pp; £17.99.

Review by Robert Dawson.

When a prominent American falls from grace, he takes part in an elaborate social ritual. First there's the liturgy of revelation, denial, confession and punishment, all captured on prime time TV. Then a period for reflection before the hero once again takes centre stage with his autobiography. We went through it with Watergate in the '70s; now the Wall Street Dodgers are beginning to be processed through the system.

There are differing schools of thought as to the correct form. If you still have the energy you can always try the 'Sure, I took the rap for this one but if people want to point fingers I can name some real names approach, as championed by Olly North. Alternatively, you can go down the 'I don't know what came over me, from a hardworking churchgoing family... Now rebuilding my life thanks to my wife, my children, my lawyer, my agent... route blazed by Charles Colson.

Displaying the investment banker's sensitivity to shifts in public mood, Dennis Levine has put his money firmly behind Option B. Ably assisted by William Hoffer, an old hand at this sort of thing, he has donned the corporate sackcloth and ashes to 'tell the story the way it really happened'.

Just in case you may have forgotten, Levine was a big player at Drexel Burnham Lambert, of junk bond and LBO fame - or notoriety. What makes him special is that, as a sideline, he managed to stash away a cool $10 million in a Bahamian off shore account, courtesy of inside tips shared between a group of friends.

Ever since Ivan Boesky told a class of Berkeley students that 'Greed is all right, by the way...greed is healthy', social historians have been struggling to come to terms with the phenomenon of 1980s high finance. Inside Out isn't going to be much help, as its bulk consists of little more than a catalogue of Levine's deals, where the only progression is an increasing number of noughts. At times the reader begins to feel like a jaded tourist: if it's a $1.4 billion takeover, this must be page 255.

It's not even as if the inside trades required much ingenuity. Indeed, Levine is almost disappointed at the ease with which he amassed his nest egg. About twice a month he might hear a tip, whereupon he would shuffle around the block to a pay-phone and make a simple collect call to the ever obliging Bank Leu.

Unlike many on Wall Street who flaunted their antics, Levine took every conceivable measure to cover his tracks. Ironically, his success was his downfall, for his track record was so good that several of his bankers started shadowing his trades with their own money, though without their client's subtlety. It was only when they got into hot water with the SEC and their superiors back in Switzerland that everything came unstuck.

Once in the hands of the SEC, Levine's priority was to protect himself and his family. This called for cooperation, which he gave with a Capital C, snaring both Boesky and Milken in the net. His reward was a 17-month jail sentence, where the greatest hardship - aside from having to clean a few toilets - was being pestered for investment tips by everyone from the prison governor down. On the other hand, he did have to return the 10 big ones, and his spanking new Testarossa, which can't have been easy.

The only point at which Inside Out attempts to grapple with any moral or ethical questions is when Levine rhetorically asks us to puzzle why a man with a legitimate income of over $2 million, a luxury apartment and doting wife and child, should risk all for money he would never need. Part of the answer, he suggests, lay in a system that was out of touch and out of control, where money was merely points on a scoreboard. But this is a red herring, for when Levine started on the slippery slope he was on a very modest salary, and the risk of being caught looked negligible. And once the network had been set up, well, you might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

In the end, Levine can't prevent his true colours showing. Greed played its part, but essentially it was all about an addiction to risk. Banned from Wall Street, Levine now spends his time lecturing students on business ethics. Although Inside Out never says as much, the reader can't help getting the impression that this is one hell of a comedown.

Robert Dawson is a freelance writer.

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