Berenson, Alex 1973-
Berenson, Alex 1973-
Born January 6, 1973. Education: Graduated from Yale University, 1994.
Writer, novelist, and journalist. New York Times, New York, NY, business reporter, 1999—. Worked for the Denver Post and TheStreet.com.
Edgar Award for best first novel, 2007, for The Faithful Spy.
The Number: How the Drive for Quarterly Earnings Corrupted Wall Street and Corporate America (nonfiction), Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
The Faithful Spy (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2006.
The Ghost War (sequel to The Faithful Spy), G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 2008.
Alex Berenson is a business reporter and investigator who wrote The Number: How the Drive for Quarterly Earnings Corrupted Wall Street and Corporate America. The book describes the scandalous manipulation of quarterly earnings per share that helped turn the 1990s stock market into a bubble that ended with the loss of trillions of dollars in stock-market valuations. Berenson offers a reminder that as of March of 2002, "Osama bin Laden had hardly slowed the American economy. Dennis Kozlowski and Bernard J. Ebbers of WorldCom and Kenneth Lay of Enron brought it almost to a halt." A Kirkus Reviews critic called the study "deserving of wide circulation in a time of corporate fraud and official look-the-other-way policy."
Berenson begins by reviewing the bull and bear markets since the 1920s through the 2002 passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which increased the budget of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and created an accounting oversight board. He also provides a broad history of the 1990s stock market, with its dot-com bubble and escalating CEO pay and stock options. As to his main thesis, he writes that "earnings per share is the number for which all other numbers are sacrificed."
Rob Walker noted in the New York Times Book Review that the 1990s bull market "was a time of pennies. … If a company announced that its quarterly earnings per share were just one penny better than expected, its stock would soar. Those who came in one penny below expectations saw their stocks take a beating. Could a single penny really matter so much?" As Berenson demonstrates, it could and did. Walker felt that Berenson's book "is much more than the story of how ‘the number’ became so important. Its real theme is that accounting matters. … Enron was just a warm-up act for a series of disasters traceable to accounting ‘gimmickry’ during which, Berenson says, 4.3 trillion dollars in ‘market wealth—$15,000 for every American—simply evaporated.’" Walker also commented on the importance of Berenson's footnotes, asserting that "they contain several of the most persuasive arguments in the book."
Berenson demonstrates how "the number" can be overstated when options are not counted as expenses. Earnings can also be inflated through fraud that is overlooked by company auditors. Robert Frick wrote in Kiplinger's Personal Finance: "To make his point, Berenson looks beyond quarterly earnings and recaps how big players—such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the brokerage industry, and the accounting profession—developed blind spots over the years."
Gary LaMoshi commented on Asia Times Online that Berenson "meets the enormous challenge of writing engagingly and insightfully about accounting. He emphasizes that, contrary to popular belief, accounting is an inexact science that relies on professional judgments. … Accounting's clubby world of the 1950s was transformed into a more competitive, lucrative, and blatantly dishonest pseudo-profession by the end of the 1990s." LaMoshi felt the book should be read by corporate managers, accountants, and regulators "who contend that the system is fine except for a few rotten apples and urge a return to business as usual. That song-and-dance number will never play again for any investor who reads The Number."
Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Anthony Day wrote that "more and more frequently in the 1990s, quarterly earnings reports were tweaked, stretched, and then downright concocted, made up of phony numbers, just so it would look as if the company was doing well. ‘By overstating their profits,’ Berenson writes, ‘Cisco and Nortel and Lucent and WorldCom and Global Crossing and Motorola and Computer Associates and Microstrategy and America Online and all the rest encouraged investors to pour trillions of dollars into other technology and telecom companies. Much of that money was simply wasted, and the U.S. economy is suffering as a result.’"
There were other reasons for the bubble, Berenson points out. With the continued lowering of interest rates by the Federal Reserve Bank and its chairman, Alan Greenspan, investors were more easily lured into the perceived bigger profits in stocks. A Publishers Weekly contributor remarked that Berenson's "portrait of the boldness and reach of corporate fraud … is a clarion cry for reform." The writer added that Berenson's discussion of the failures of the SEC "shows the agency, created to protect investors from exactly what happened, in the direst state of emergency."
"We have all read the avalanche of news stories about bad behavior at Arthur Andersen, Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco, and other enterprises that commanded unquestioned respect only a few years ago," wrote Dan Seligman in Commentary. "It is still not quite clear whether we should think of this highly publicized [dishonesty] as representing a small basket of bad apples or as betokening disastrous systemic corruption of our financial markets. Berenson does not squarely address this distinction, but as his subtitle foreshadows, the book tilts unmistakably toward the systemic view." Eric Torbenson commented in the Dallas Morning News that Berenson's "breezy narrative helps broaden the book's appeal to anyone who needs an insightful autopsy of the bubble market."
Berenson turns to fiction with his debut novel, The Faithful Spy. In a Bookreporter.com interview, Berenson explained his motivation for taking up fiction. As a reporter, he stated, he was obligated to focus on the facts of the story he was covering. "But sticking to the facts can be frustrating," he stated in the interview. "Sometimes you can't get the facts, no matter how hard you try. You have to leave questions unanswered. I wanted to see how it would feel to build a world where for once I had all the facts, and I knew what everyone was thinking."
The novel focuses on Cental Intelligence Agency (CIA) special operations agent John Wells, whose deep undercover work has taken him into the al-Qaeda terrorist camps in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Wells's mission has kept him in Afghanistan and Chechnya for years, where he has lived and fought with the terrorist groups who operate there. Wells has been in the field for so long that he has become a Muslim convert, and one who is highly skeptical of the actions of the United States. Unexpectedly, he is contacted by Omar Khadri, an al-Qaeda mastermind, and is dispatched to the United States to help carry out a series of carefully orchestrated coast-to-coast attacks on the United States. Upon his return to the United States, he soon discovers that his CIA contacts no longer trust him, believing that he has become one of the terrorists he was supposed to be opposing. Worse for Wells, he is also distrusted by his terrorist contact in the United States, a Pakistani who is hard at work preparing the spectacular attacks on major U.S. cities. After Wells escapes from the CIA safe house where he has been interrogated, neither side knows whether he will assist with the attacks or help thwart them, and both groups must find the fugitive before any decisive action is taken. "Berenson's chronicle of Wells's return is a superlative in a novel full of them," commented Bookreporter.com reviewer Joe Hartlaub. Readers "could hardly ask for a more skillful, timely, and well-rounded translation of our worst fears into satisfying thrills," observed Booklist critic David Wright. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel "well done throughout, and sure to be noticed." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "mounting suspense, a believable scenario, and a final twist add up to a compelling tale of frightening possibilities."
With The Ghost War, Berenson offers readers a sequel to his Edgar Award-winning thriller The Faithful Spy. In this volume, Chinese General Li Ping has set out to raise China's global status and, with this goal in mind, works to firm up his own status and power through a series of plots to take place in North Korea, England, and Afghanistan. Agent Wells finds himself piecing together a number of odd occurrences, including the bungled extraction of one of the United States's most valuable spies from North Korea and a rise of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, all of which ultimately point to Li. Wells's girlfriend, intelligence agent Jennifer Exley, helps Wells work to prevent Li's success. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews praised the sequel for its "terrific and relentless suspense and action in a reasonably credible plot." Barbara Conaty, writing in Library Journal, opined that the book is "guaranteed to buttress Berenson's niche as one of the stars in the suspense firmament." Booklist contributor Jeff Ayers found the action in Berenson's book "as vividly real and scary as nonfiction or the nightly news."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 15, 2006, David Wright, review of The Faithful Spy, p. 30; February 1, 2008, Jeff Ayers, review of The Ghost War, p. 31.
Commentary, April, 2003, Dan Seligman, review of The Number: How the Drive for Quarterly Earnings Corrupted Wall Street and Corporate America, p. 76.
Dallas Morning News, July 6, 2003, Eric Torbenson, review of The Number.
Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 2006, Gilbert Cruz, review of The Faithful Spy, p. 141.
Kiplinger's Personal Finance, June, 2003, Robert Frick, review of The Number, p. 28.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2003, review of The Number, p. 120; February 15, 2006, review of The Faithful Spy, p. 144; December 15, 2007, review of The Ghost War.
Library Journal, April 1, 2003, Lucy Heckman, review of The Number, p. 111; April 1, 2006, Ronnie H. Terpening, review of The Faithful Spy, p. 80; January 1, 2008, Barbara Conaty, review of The Ghost War, p. 78.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 25, 2003, Anthony Day, review of The Number, p. 36.
New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2003, Rob Walker, review of The Number, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, February 10, 2003, review of The Number, p. 176; February 13, 2006, review of The Faithful Spy, p. 63.
Alex Berenson Home Page,http://www.alexberenson.com (April 21, 2008).
Asia Times Online,http://www.atimes.com/ (January 25, 2004), Gary LaMoshi, review of The Number.
Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (July 12, 2007), author interview; Joe Hartlaub, review of The Faithful Spy.
Faithful Spy Web site,http://www.thefaithfulspy.com (July 12, 2007).
MediaBistro.com,http://www.mediabistro.com/ (March 14, 2003), Jesse Oxfeld, "Q&A with Alex Berenson."
Star Tribune Online,http://www.startribune.com/ (May 18, 2003), Eric Wiefering, review of The Number.