Drexel-Burnham was founded in 1935 as Burnham and Company, a small New York City-based retail brokerage. It was founded by I.W. "Tubby" Burnham, a 1931 graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He initially started with $100,000 of capital, $96,000 of which was borrowed from his grandfather and the founder of a Kentucky distillery.
It became one of the more successful brokerages in the country, eventually building its capital to $1 million. Burnham eventually branched out into investment banking. However, the company's ability to expand was limited
by the structure of the investment banking industry of that time. A strict, but unwritten set of rules assured the dominance of a few large firms by controlling the order in which their names appeared in an advertisement for an underwriting. Burnham, as a "sub-major" firm, needed at the very least to link up with a "major" firm in order to further expand. They found a willing partner in Drexel Firestone, an ailing Philadelphia-based firm with a rich history.
Even though Burnham dominated the merged firm, the more powerful investment banks (whose informal blessing the new firm needed to survive on Wall Street) insisted that the Drexel name come first as a condition of joining the "major" bracket. Thus, Drexel Burnham and Company, headquartered in New York, was born in 1973 with $44 million in capital.
In 1976, it merged with William D. Witter, a small "research boutique" that was the American arm of Belgian-based Groupe Bruxelles Lambert. The firm was renamed Drexel Burnham Lambert, and incorporated that year after 41 years as a limited partnership.
According to Dan Stone, a former Drexel executive, the firm's aggressive culture led many Drexel employees to stray into unethical, and sometimes illegal, conduct. The firm was first rocked on May 12, 1986, when Dennis Levine, a Drexel managing director and investment banker, was charged with insider trading. Levine had spent virtually his entire career on Wall Street trading on inside information, unknown to Drexel management when he was hired in 1985. Levine pleaded guilty to four felonies, and implicated one of his recent partners, super-arbitrageur Ivan Boesky. Largely based on information Ivan Boesky promised to provide about his dealings with Michael Milken, the Securities and Exchange Commission initiated an investigation of Drexel on November 17. Two days later, Rudy Giuliani, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, launched his own investigation. Ominously, Milken refused to cooperate with Drexel's own internal investigation, only speaking through his attorneys.
For two years, Drexel steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the criminal and SEC cases was based almost entirely on the statements of an admitted felon looking to reduce his sentence. However, it was not enough to keep the SEC from suing Drexel in September 1988 for insider trading, stock manipulation, defrauding its clients and stock parking (buying stocks for the benefit of another). All of the transactions involved Milken and his department. The most intriguing charge was that Boesky paid Drexel $5.3 million in 1986 for Milken's share of profits from illegal trading. Earlier in the year, Boesky characterized the payment as a consulting fee to Drexel. Around the same year, Giuliani began seriously considering indicting Drexel under the powerful Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, under the doctrine that companies are responsible for an employee's crimes.
The threat of a RICO indictment unnerved many at Drexel. A RICO indictment would have required the firm to put up a performance bond of as much as $1 billion in lieu of having its assets frozen. This provision was put in the law because organized crime had a habit of absconding with the funds of indicted companies, and the writers of RICO wanted to make sure there was something to seize or forfeit in the event of a guilty verdict. Unfortunately, most of Drexel's capital was borrowed money, as is common with most Wall Street firms (in Drexel's case, 96 percent--by far the most of any firm). This debt would have to take second place to this performance bond. Additionally, if the bond ever had to be paid, Drexel's stockholders would have been all but wiped out. Due to this, banks will not extend credit to a firm under a RICO indictment.
By this time, several Drexel executives--including Joseph--concluded that Drexel could not survive a RICO indictment, especially after Princeton Newport Partners, a small investment partnership, was forced to close its doors in the summer of 1988. Princeton Newport had been indicted under RICO, and the prospect of a huge performance bond forced its shutdown well before the trial. Joseph said years later that he'd been told that if Drexel were indicted under RICO, it would only survive a month at most. Nonetheless, negotiations for a possible plea agreement collapsed on December 19 when Giuliani demanded that Drexel waive its attorney-client privilege, as well as arbitrarily decide Drexel wasn't living up to the terms of any plea agreement. He also demanded that Milken leave the firm if the government ever indicted him. These terms were far too much even for those who had advocated a settlement from the beginning, and Drexel's board unanimously rejected the terms. For a time, it looked like Drexel was going to fight.
Only two days later, however, Drexel lawyers found out about a limited partnership, MacPherson Partners, they previously hadn't known about. This partnership had been involved in the issuing of bonds for Storer Broadcasting. Several equity warrants were sold to one client
who sold them back to Milken's department. Milken then sold the warrants to MacPherson Partners. The limited partners included several of Milken's children, and more ominously, managers of money funds. This partnership raised the specter of self-dealing, and at worst, bribes to the money managers. At the very least, this was a serious breach of Drexel's internal regulations. Drexel immediately reported this partnership to Giuliani, and its revelation seriously hurt Milken's credibility with many at Drexel who believed in Milken's innocence--including Joseph and most of the board. With literally minutes to go before being indicted (according to at least one source, the grand jury was actually in the process of voting on the indictment), Drexel reached an agreement with the government in which it pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to six felonies--three counts of stock parking and three counts of stock manipulation. It also agreed to pay a fine of $650 million--at the time, the largest fine ever levied under the Great Depression-era securities laws. The government had dropped several of the demands that had initially angered Drexel, but continued to insist that Milken leave the firm if indicted--which he did shortly after his own indictment in March 1989. Most sources say that Drexel pleaded guilty, but in truth, Drexel only admitted that it was "not in a position to dispute the allegations." Nonetheless, Drexel was now a convicted felon.
In April 1989, Drexel settled with the SEC, agreeing to stricter safeguards on its oversight procedures. Later that month, the firm eliminated 5,000 jobs by shuttering three departments--including the retail brokerage operation. In essence, Drexel was jettisoning the core of the old Burnham & Company. The retail accounts were eventually sold to Smith Barney.
Due to several deals that didn't work out, as well as an unexpected crash of the junk bond market, 1989 was a difficult year for Drexel even after it settled the criminal and SEC cases. Reports of an $86 million loss going into the fourth quarter resulted in the firm's commercial paper rating being cut in late November. This made it nearly impossible for Drexel to reborrow its outstanding commercial paper, and it had to be repaid. Rumors abounded that the banks could yank Drexel's lines of credit at any time. Unfortunately, Drexel had no corporate parent that could pump in cash, unlike most American financial institutions. Groupe Bruxelles Lambert refused to even consider making an equity investment until Joseph improved the bottom line. The firm posted a $40 million loss for 1989--the first operating loss in its 54-year history.
Drexel managed to survive into 1990 by transferring some of the excess capital from its regulated broker/dealer subsidiary into the Drexel holding company--only to be ordered to stop by the SEC in February out of concerns about the broker's solvency. This sent Joseph and other senior executives into a near-panic. After the SEC, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York cast doubts about a restructuring plan, Joseph concluded that Drexel could not stay independent. Unfortunately, concerns about possible liability to civil suits scared off prospective buyers.
By February 12, it was obvious Drexel was headed for collapse. Its commercial paper rating was further reduced that day. Joseph's last resort was a bailout by the government. Unfortunately for Drexel, one of first hostile deals came back to haunt it at this point. Unocal's investment bank at the time of Pickens' raid on it was the establishment firm of Dillon, Read--and its former chairman, Nicholas F. Brady, was now Secretary of the Treasury. Brady had never forgiven Drexel for its role in the Unocal deal, and would not even consider signing off on a bailout. Accordingly, he, the SEC, the NYSE and the Fed strongly advised Joseph to file for bankruptcy. Later the next day, Drexel officially filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. DBL Trading, a subsidiary, was involved in the temporary gold loan default with the Central Bank of Portugal at that time.
Even before the firm's bankruptcy, Tubby Burnham spun off the firm's funds management arm as Burnham Financial Group, which currently operates as a diversified investment company. Burnham was reportedly still arranging deals until his death at age 93. The rest of Drexel emerged from bankruptcy in 1992 as New Street Capital, a small investment bank with only 20 employees (at its height, Drexel employed over 10,000 people). In 1994, New Street merged with Green Capital, a merchant bank owned by Atlanta financier Holcombe Green.We currently have the following pieces in our inventory that were issued to this once proud firm: