Friday, July 25, 2014

Book review: "Selling America Short" by Richard Sauer

Richard Sauer worked for years as an SEC lawyer, left to join a corporate law firm, and later worked for a hedge fund that specialized in short-selling. Selling America Short is a chronicle of his varied career. The book recounts his experiences with a bunch of controversial companies, several of which went out of business following accounting scandals. Among the companies the books mentions are Lernout & Hauspie, Aremissoft, ACLN, Overstock, Novastar, and Fairfax Financial.

As a writer, Sauer is artfully deadpan. He doesn't indulge in hyperbolic descriptions the way business journalists often do. He also gives the impression of being objective and even-handed.

For instance, he mentions Sam Antar, the perpetrator of a major accounting fraud in the 1980s who later recast himself as corporate watchdog and fraud-fighter, claiming that he wanted to make up for his past sins. Although Sauer compliments Antar's analysis of Overstock, he implies that Antar's reformed-con persona was mainly a self-promotional gimmick.

The book's final chapter describes how the hedge fund Sauer joined was stabbed in the back by Goldman Sachs, its prime broker, after the Lehman crisis. Goldman forced the fund to cover its short sales at an inopportune time, saddling it with large losses when it had made a lot of money in the year to date and stood to make a lot more.

I was already familiar with all of the accounting frauds that the books describes, but I hadn't read a detailed account of the fund's demise before. It was eye-opening.

This is a quick read and worth checking out.

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