During this week in financial history, two major figures emerged; both would have a major impact on the financial world at large. Here we'll look back on the birth and notorious career of a corporate raider, and reflect on the new economist who took the helm of the Federal Reserve in 2006.
February 15, 2006: Ben Bernanke Becomes Chairman of the Fed.
February 15 marked four years since Ben Bernanke met Congress as the new Fed chairman. The "overall economic prospects of the household remain good," he said at the time. However, in the four years since those words were spoken, the American and world economies have seen some of the worst economic turmoil in living memory.
Despite the turmoil, if you could ask the stock market to issue an interim grade for Bernanke's performance, it would no doubt be A-/B+. After a year of significant gains on all the major market indexes, Wall Street has very little fault to find with Chairman Bernanke. Quibbles perhaps. Snide remarks, too. But only few on Wall Street are overly upset. (To read about Bernanke's long-serving predecessor, read A Farewell To Alan Greenspan.)
The media, too, appears rather enamored with Fed head Bernanke, if Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" and other general coverage is any indication. Although there are concerns from some more conservative media outlets, the mainstream consensus seems to be that Bernanke is a hero the likes of former U.S. President (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower or George S. Patton.
From the perspective of the economy at large - and main street, where unemployment persists at levels well above the norm - the grade is less clear. On the one hand, America's economy is expanding at a healthier rate than that of Europe or Japan. On the other, it's still unclear whether a recently unveiled plan to mop up the exorbitant liquidity that Bernanke and Co. injected into the system will ultimately prove successful.
Time and history will be the final arbiters on this, most important grade. We'll mark it a B- for the wildly inflationary potential currently inherent in the system. But we have to concede success to the man for avoiding a complete financial meltdown. On that score, we'll give him a gentleman's B+, which could still be a bit of a blow for a man who obtained an LSAT score of 1590 out of 1600.
February 16, 1936: Carl Icahn, Billionaire Corporate Raider, Is Born.
Carl Icahn has been called many things over the course of his career, but today he's simply the birthday boy. The once-notorious corporate raider who pioneered the practice of greenmail is now better known as a shareholder activist. (For background reading on this notorious investor, read Can You Invest Like Carl Icahn?)
But was it age that softened the Wall Street legend? Indeed, has he softened? Let's take a brief look at Icahn's storied career and startling transformation in honor of his 74th birthday.
Icahn grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York, and attended PrincetonUniversity as an undergraduate where he planned to become a doctor. As fate would have it, though, New YorkUniversityMedicalSchool was not his cup of tea. He left before graduation and headed straight to Wall Street. He never lost his interest in medicine, though, a penchant that would bring him years later to a number of large transactions in the biotech sphere.
After seven years of the daily Wall Street grind, Icahn opened his own securities firm, where he traded options and worked risk arbitrage before ultimately finding his true niche as a takeover specialist.
And it was in that role that he made a name for himself, taking controlling positions in companies as weighty as Uniroyal, Viacom (NYSE:VIA), Trans World Airlines, RJR Nabisco, Texaco and Marvel Comics, to name just a few. In each case, the goal was the same: unlock shareholder value - either through acquisitions or from the sale of underperforming divisions, or in some cases by an outright shakeup of management. (For more insight on this process, read Activist Investors: A Good Or Bad Thing?)
Lately, Carl Icahn has returned to his would-be medical roots, taking an interest in two biotech standouts, Mylan Laboratories and King Pharmaceuticals. He's also turned increasingly toward philanthropy, sponsoring the Carl C.IcahnCenter for Science and Icahn Scholar Program at Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious New England prep school, the C. Icahn Genomics Laboratory at PrincetonUniversity, and the Icahn Medical Institute at Mount SinaiHospital in New York.
To be sure, Carl Icahn is still actively building his wealth, but recent years have also seen him turn increasingly toward the issue of shareholders' rights. His Icahnreport.com is fully dedicated to that end, and currently hosts the United Shareholders of America, a group that purports to address "the egregious mismanagement and reckless incompetence of many American corporate boards."