Death stalks king of the junk-bond jungle

Missing Persons No. 10: Michael Milken
  • @dusborne
When greed was good and corporate raids the rage, one man above all seemed to control the planet. He was Michael Milken and that was Reagan's America of the roaring Eighties. This decade has seen him humbled, even cruelly so. He has spent some of it in prison. Now, at 48, he is dying.

It was on 2 March 1992, the very day of his release from a low-security prison in California, that Mr Milken learnt of his affliction. An exhaustive physical, more detailed than any inside, revealed he had prostate cancer that had gone to his lymph nodes. A rate-of-survival chart then gave him two years to live.

His has thus been a dramatic reversal of fortune. In interviews, he has confessed he never took seriously the US government's investigations into his activities as junk-bond king at Drexel Burnham Lambert. He was even surprised when he and the company were indicted on no less than 98 charges of securities fraud and racketeering, and brought to trial.

For years he had thought himself invulnerable. By pioneering the junk bond, Mr Milken helped to finance the hostile takeovers of dozens of America's largest corporations, leaving in his wake a trail of redundancies, plant closures and factory relocations. When the junk bond market, which grew to be worth $125bn (£80bn), collapsed so, too, did many savings and loan organisations and insurance companies that had invested in it. He, meanwhile, had been earning stratospheric commissions; in 1986 his salary was $550m. In the end, Mr Milken, by then held up as the symbol of Eighties' avarice, admitted six charges. He was jailed for 22 months in 1990 and ordered to pay more than $1bn in fines and compensation.

If he underestimated the government, Mr Milken is not repeating the error with his present stalker. Since his release, he has become a crusader against prostrate cancer, pouring much of what remains of his fortune into research and raising public awareness.

This year the disease will kill an estimated 40,400 in the US, second only to lung cancer among men and compared with 46,240 deaths among women from breast cancer. The detected rate among men in America rose 50 per cent between 1980 and 1990.

Through a foundation called CAPcure, Mr Milken is funnelling $25m into research, focusing, in particular, on the University of Washington's development in Seattle of a genetic database to help researchers, through DNA-related inquiries, to understand better how the cancer develops. Until recently, $1,100 was spent on research for each prostrate-cancer death in the US, compared with $4,700 for breast cancer and $52,000 for each Aids death.

Oddly, it could almost be that developing the disease was, as some might speculate, part of his punishment. When reviewing research data soon after his release, he discovered Alameda County, which adjoined the county in which he was jailed, had the country's highest incidence of prostate cancer.

But Mr Milken defends what he used to do, arguing that his financing of corporate raids and mergers was an exercise in redirecting money to where it could do most good. Nor will he accept that his mission as anti-cancer crusader represents some kind of spiritual conversion or redemption. "I think I was a good guy then and I think I'm a good guy now," he said last month.

Meanwhile, he remains active. Asked in a recent New York Times interview how he viewed the prospect that in a year his life might be over, he replied: "I can't even contemplate that. No matter what happens, I'm just not going to lie down and not put up a fight. Everything else will look after itself."

David Usborne