And every time I go to my office in Bondi Junction (Sydney, Australia) I pass - at the entry foyer - a far-flung outpost of Steve Madden Shoes - a reminder of the risks in my business.
I short stocks - and whilst I carefully examine the accounts and sometimes even stake out factories - mostly I find shorts based on people. Brokers and stock promoters with a history of fraud interest me. Lawyers are my favorite of all scumbags because some do the documentation for fraud after fraud after fraud and lawyers seldom get pinged. Stock promoters come-and-go. Lawyers are eternal!
I will short a stock (in very small quantity) based on an association with one suspect lawyer and one suspect promoter. I read the accounts if the stock goes against me - and depending on what I find I either increase my position or cover. If the stock just goes down (which it often does) I just take the profits and wish I had shorted more.
When one goes against me I think - yet again - of Steve Madden and his tarty shoe company. Steve Madden is my eternal nightmare.
But for that you need some background
Stratton Oakmont and Steve Madden
Stratton Oakmont was arguably the most fraudulent stockbroker ever to operate in the United States. Its founder (who went to prison) wrote about it in agreeable first person: The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale of high class hookers (known as "Blue Chips"), Quaaludes and stock fraud.
Every stock taken public by Stratton was a disaster and a fabulous short. They all crashed and burned. Every stock that is except one.
The except one is Steve Madden Shoes (SHOO:Nasdaq). And even that was a close-run thing.
Steve Madden was a small-time shoe designer going nowhere and frustrated with his lot working for larger shoe companies. He struck out on his own.
But he had no money - so - in the great tradition of America - he went cap-in-hand to Wall Street.
But he did not just go to Wall Street, he went to his childhood friend Danny Porush.
Danny was senior at Oakmont Stratton and Steve Madden shoes was dressed up in classic Stratton fashion. In other words the company was over-promoted (even fraudulently promoted) and the stock was manipulated. Jordan Belfort (the CEO of Stratton) had large undisclosed positions (he admits this in his book) and was actively involved in the manipulation of the stock.
Eventually the manipulation scheme comes crashing down. Steve Madden is charged with stock fraud and pleads guilty. He went to prison.
Something strange happens on the way to the stock manipulation
Usually this is the profitable end of a fraud-short. Usually, but not always.
Something strange happened on the way to the stock fraud. That something was Steve Madden. Madden always was first-and-foremost a shoe designer and an outrageous and outrageously successful one. Even by the time Madden was charged Steve Madden Shoes was on its way to being the most successful high-heel shoe company in the world. Teenage girls just love him.
And Madden - from prison - retained his role as design guru for the company. Beyond prison he is back in the saddle - and the success continues. The stock goes up because Steve Madden is good at what he does. The stock is a 25 bagger.
This is a lesson to me
I see fraud in accounts regularly enough. There is no trouble finding fraudulent companies and if you picked Steve Madden as a short you had indeed found a fraudulent company.
But it hardly helps. The money raised by stock fraud at the beginning of Steve Madden Shoes nourished the growth of a truly successful (and valuable) business.
Shorts - and there were plenty of shorts - had a really bad time with this one.
Every company I short I have to ask myself - even if I am sure this is dodgy - how do I know I do not have the next Steve Madden? To me that is the stuff of nightmares.
And here - just to rub it in - is a picture of Steve Madden with Katy Perry. Not only did he get the loot - but he seems to have got the girls as well.
As a shortseller photos like that just rub salt into wounds.