Wall Street History: Al Capone Vs. The IRS

By Andrew Beattie | May 05, 2010 AAA
Wall Street History: Al Capone Vs. The IRS

This week in financial history marks the end for one of the most notorious American gangsters, the birthday of Warren Buffett's mentor and much more. (Missed last week's article? Check out Wall Street History: May Day and Voodoo Accounting.)

IN PICTURES: 4 Biggest Investor Errors

Party Like It's 1999
On May 3, 1999, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 11,000 for the first time in its history. Like many of the Dow milestones, this one wouldn't be important, except for the fact that Wall Street celebrated passing the 11,000 mark again this April - 11 years after the first time. What happened in between, of course, was a one-two combination involving the internet bubble in stocks and the subprime mortgage mess. Despite the "lost decade" between then and now, Wall Street was joyous to see 11,000 again - and to have an excuse to put Prince back on their playlists.

The Taxman Takes Down Capone
You can get away with murder, just don't cheat on your taxes. At least, that's the lesson Al Capone learned on May 4, 1932. The Chicago mob boss got away with slaughtering seven men in the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, but he was convicted for the less than sensational crime of tax evasion. Capone was sentenced to 11 years in jail and fined $80,000. Capone lost control of his organization because of his incarceration and complication due to syphilis. Although many officers of the law sought Capone in connection with hundreds of crime, it was his tax filing that did him in. Well, that and syphilis.

Happy Birthday, Karl
On May 5, 1818, Karl Marx was born. Marx is often seen as a foil to Adam Smith, a kind of father of communism as Smith is to economics and capitalism. Though his ideas were well-intentioned, communism was destructive when put into practice. (Find out how former Iron Curtain countries used private enterprise to join the world financial markets in State-Run Economies: From Public To Private.)

Although defenders of Marx often point to almost half of the people in the world living under communism within a century of his death, it's telling that those nations have historically lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of development, lifespan and, of course, freedom. It's a great irony that it is people living under capitalism campaigning most loudly for communism - the people living under communism are too busy trying to escape or survive.

Filings Go Digital
On May 6, 1996, the SEC changed its filing requirements to use the new Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system (EDGAR). All of the approximately 160,000 publicly traded companies in the U.S. now need to send their financials in electronic form. This seemingly insignificant update from paper to digital unleashed the power of computers to sift through all the financials for certain criteria.

Although this vastly speeds up the process, many successful investors still flip through hundreds of paper copies to evaluate investments - Warren Buffett is one notable Luddite in this respect. (You may think the recent financial meltdown changed things, but don't be fooled: those unfussy sayings from the Oracle of Omaha still rule. Don't miss Rules That Warren Buffett Lives By.)

The Morning After
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. On May 7, 1998, Daimler-Benz chained itself to Chrysler in one of the largest mergers in history - a $38 billion dollar marriage that would last less than 10 years. The cultures never melded and no synergy could hide the fact that Daimler had acquired the faltering Chrysler, no matter what the press release said. Daimler sold Chrysler off to Cerberus Capital Management.

Chrysler went bankrupt in 2009 - again - and the new Chrysler emerged the same year. Now on its second bailout and third name change, Chrysler has shown some skill in enticing investors into its bonds and stocks, and then leaving them with regrets and a lighter portfolio the morning after. (Uncle Sam has saved Chrysler with money from taxpayers' pockets despite the fact that it failed the same test twice. Learn more in Chrysler Bailout 2009: Third Time's A Charm?)

The Birth of the Intelligent Investor
On May 8, 1894, Benjamin Graham was born. Graham literally wrote the book on value investing, The Intelligent Investor, and introduced concepts like intrinsic value and margin of safety. He is perhaps best known for mentoring Warren Buffett. Graham's most famous student has repeatedly referred to Graham's influence as being one of the most important in his life - and certainly the most important in shaping Buffet's investing style. Value investors the world over would have to agree.

That's all for this week. Next week, we'll look at some landmark moments in anti-trust legislation, the power of venture capital and much more. Until then.

Still feeling uninformed? Read this week's financial news highlights in Water Cooler Finance: Buffett's Armed and Greece Keeps Falling.

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