This Week in Big Numbers

Yes, the war so far in Iraq has cost $2 trillion, the combined unfunded pensions of the 50 states exceeds $4 trillion, and the debt of the United States sits at $17 trillion and counting, yet I submit a monetary amount of nine or ten figures is still a big number – especially when associated with an individual. Consider these stories in “This Week in Big Numbers.”

Art and the Insider Trader

The works of Twentieth-Century sculptor Alberto Giacometti are certified collectables hovering about in the same rarefied strata as Wasily Kandinsky, Egon Schiele and Willem De Kooning. Born in 1901 in Switzerland, Giacometti moved to Paris to study sculpture with an associate of Rodin in 1922, a period when the art world was undergoing radical transformation. Over time his style evolved toward depictions of the human body in super-elongated form, among the most famous being Walking Man I, a life-sized bronze of a man seemingly determined to press ahead. This trophy sculpture was sold at auction in 2010 for $104 million – by far a record for the artist who died in 1966.

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Now, this week in big numbers, another Giacometti has just sold for nine figures at auction – this time it’s Chariot depicting a woman in signature elongated style standing atop a simple two-wheeled vehicle resembling a garden cart. The buyer: none other than billionaire hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen whose company, SAC Capital Advisors has been a bit under the weather lately.

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A steady stream of damning evidence has emerged over several years that suggests the fantastic returns delivered by SAC Capital to its highfalutin clients were just a tiny bit assisted by some illegal insider trading. One of Cohen’s star portfolio managers, Mathew Martoma began a nine year sentence a couple days ago for insider trading on positions with two pharmaceutical companies. His request for bail was denied. Other SAC employees have also been indicted, and the firm has coughed up $1.2 billion in penalties so far to atone for its rude behavior. Prosecutors called SAC Capital “a breeding ground for inside trading activity” and “a veritable magnet for market cheaters.”

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Luckily however, thanks to cleverly insulating himself from the rampant wrong-doing buzzing all around him, Steve-O is out and about, free to throw money around buying famous art, and running Point72 Asset Management, the remnants of SAC Capital which is currently devoted to managing the wealth of just one client: billionaire Steve Cohen.

Given that Martoma’s in prison while his former boss Steve enjoys unalloyed freedom, one cannot blame little Mathew for wanting to shove the pointy Chariot wheels first up Cohen’s ass.

Hamm Sandwiched in Divorce Court

A billion dollar divorce settlement – now that’s a big number. A couple days ago Oklahoma County District Judge Howard R. Haralson awarded the ex-wife of oilman Harold Hamm a tidy sum of $995 million, some of which will be transferred shortly, the rest coming in monthly installments of $7 million until she gets the outstanding (in more ways than one) balance of $650 million. Hamm and his wife Sue Anne (who is 10 years his junior) were married for 26 years during which time he went from a net worth of only multi-millions to $14 billion after fortuitous investments in North Dakota shale, vaulting him into #24 on the Forbes plutocracy list. (Sue Anne has suddenly and coincidentally made the Forbes list of richest women.)

Two camps have emerged: those who argue Sue Ann is simply getting her fair share (and maybe not even that, as a billion is only 7 percent of Harold’s holdings), and those who see patent unfairness in awarding an obscene sum to a person who probably never set foot on an oil-field and couldn’t tell the difference between bitumen and isoparaffinic solvents. Harold himself called the settlement “fair” and I would agree. Look at the man. He’s a bloated, corpuscular blob with the body-fat index of head cheese who would probably prefer to wallow in crude than don a tux. Anyone who had to spend a quarter-century with such a specimen deserves whatever she can vacuum out.

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Billionaire Hamm saves money by renting a ring-bearer’s tuxedo

All You Can Excrete Buffett

Warren Buffett – the investor once known as the “Oracle of Omaha” and who may soon become the “Numbskull of Nebraska” – has lost scads of money investing in old-world companies like Coca Cola and IBM. In the matter of a week or so, Buffett lost about a bil on Coke when the sugary drink maker’s stock dropped 6 percent in one day and another 1.3 bil on IBM after the 100+ year old tech company swooned on a tumult of bad news.

Eighty-four year old Buffett, who prides himself on never putting money into businesses he doesn’t understand, may be wishing he had joined the ranks of 21st Century investors who use modern tools like cellular telephones and pagers, and considered some companies younger than himself.

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Still, at #2 on Forbes list with a net worth of $67 billion, Buffett losing a couple billion is like a bad day at the track for lesser mortals. I’m sure he still gets the best room at the Comfort Inn whenever he stops by Omaha.

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