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Who is Jordan Belfort? True Story of “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Who Is Jordan Belfort? True Story of "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Diana
Paluteder
2 weeks ago
19 mins read

The guide will examine the life and fraudulent activities of Jordan Belfort, whose real-life events inspired the movie “Wolf of Wall Street“. It will delve into Belfort’s career, particularly his time at Stratton Oakmont and the financial schemes that eventually led to his downfall. 

Who is Jordan Belfort?

Jordan Belfort is an American entrepreneur, former stockbroker, motivational speaker, author, and financial criminal. In 1999 he was indicted for fraud and money laundering concerning his firm Stratton Oakmont’s market manipulation schemes that evaporated millions of investor dollars.

Belfort spent 22 months in prison, during which he found his passion for writing. Soon after his release, he published his first memoir, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” recounting his time as a stockbroker, later popularized in the 2013 Martin Scorsese film, in which he is depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio.

After various scandals and a term in prison for fraud, Jordan Belfort has reinvented himself as a motivational speaker, his primary topic being the distinction between greed, ambition, and passion on Wall Street.

NEW YORK-DEC 17: Writer Jordan Belfort and fiancee Anne Koppe attend the premiere of “The Wolf of Wall Street” at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 17, 2013, in New York City.

Investing beginners’ corner:


Jordan Belfort’s early life 

Jordan Belfort was born in 1962 in the Bronx, New York City, to Jewish parents, who were both accountants. Around 16, Belfort and his close childhood friend earned $20,000 selling Italian ice from styrofoam coolers at a local beach. 

After graduating from American University with a degree in biology, Belfort planned on using the money earned selling ice cream to pay for dental school, subsequently enrolling himself at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. However, he dropped out on the first day after the school dean warned the students saying: “The golden age of dentistry is over. If you’re here to make a lot of money, you’re in the wrong place.”

Jordan Belfort’s career

Sales

At 23, Jordan Belfort became a door-to-door meat and seafood salesman on New York’s Long Island, dreaming of getting rich. He grew his business to a string of trucks and several employees, moving 5,000 pounds of beef and fish a week. But as he expanded too fast, the lack of capital ultimately failed the business, and he filed for bankruptcy at 25.

Wall Street

After the meat and seafood business went bust, Belfort’s interest turned to Wall Street, where he got a position as a trainee stockbroker at L.F. Rothschild. However, he was later let go after the company experienced financial difficulties due to the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987.

Stratton Oakmont

Jordan Belfort eventually ended up at Investor Center, a small brokerage firm on Long Island, in 1988. There, he was introduced to penny stocks (high-risk securities with small market caps that typically trade for a low price over-the-counter (OTC) and are therefore less regulated than stocks traded on a major market exchange), which would later propel him to success. 

A year later (1989), Belfort started an over-the-counter brokerage house in the franchise “Stratton Securities” with partner Danny Porush. Within five months, the two had earned enough to buy the whole Stratton franchise, renaming the company Stratton Oakmont. The company essentially functioned as a boiler room that marketed penny stocks and defrauded investors with pump-and-dump stock sales.

Stratton Oakmont did astonishingly well over the next several years, at one point employing over 1,000 stock brokers, and was linked to the IPOs of nearly three dozen companies. However, during his years at Stratton, Jordan Belfort led a life of lavish parties and intensive recreational drugs (especially methaqualone under the brand name “Quaalude”), which resulted in addiction.

Jordan Belfort’s famous sales pitch 

Part of Belfort’s strategy was to teach his brokers his infamous sales pitch, the “Kodak pitch,” by which they were directed to cold-call clients and entice them with a trusted blue-chip company, only to then recommend stocks with higher margins for the seller, such as penny stocks.

The name came from using the blue-chip company Eastman Kodak as the bait. The goal of the pitch was solely to gain the client’s confidence in the trustworthiness of their firm by recommending a familiar household name that larger brokerage houses such as Merrill Lynch might recommend. 

From there, the client would receive future updates on Eastman Kodak and new stock pitches involving a penny stock that Jordan Belfort was illegally manipulating and funneling money through. Unfortunately, the penny stocks often had little or no actual fundamental value and later crashed, obliterating the client’s investment while Belfort and his company pocketed millions. Naturally, during these events, Belfort claimed that he only tried to help his clients invest in the future of America.

Recommended video: “Don’t hang up until the client buys or dies”

Steven Madden, Jordan Belfort, and Stratton Oakmont

Steven Madden was introduced to Stratton by Danny Porush (the key partner at Stratton) and welcomed into the firm with a $500,000 early investment. Next, Stratton organized an IPO that gave themselves up to 85% (illegal as the underwriter of the public offering) of the company, subsequently dumping the shares almost right after the company went public to their clients, banking $20 million

Madden eventually paid millions to the government and spent considerably more time (30 months) locked up in federal prison than Belfort (22 months).

The irony here is, however, though Steve Madden was taken public at a ludicrous valuation at the time (3 million shares worth $15 million), yet, as Madden writes in his memoir: “if you bought Steve Madden stock that day, even at the inflated price, and held onto it, you would be very rich today.”

Meanwhile, Eastman Kodak, the original blue chip company that served as bait to potential investors, has since filed for bankruptcy. Interestingly, in a twist of fate, the bait stock went bust, and the scam penny stock could have turned relatively small retail investors into millionaires today.

Jordan Belfort’s legal troubles 

Law enforcement officials targeted Stratton Oakmont throughout its lifetime. Finally, in December 1996, the National Association of Securities Dealers (now the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) expelled Stratton Oakmont, forcing it out of business. Jordan Belfort was subsequently indicted for securities fraud and money laundering in 1999.

Belfort’s demise can largely be attributed to his private attempts to move his money out of the U.S., smuggling it to Swiss bank accounts to be laundered. Eventually, however, the FBI agents (led by Greg Coleman and Joel Cohen) investigating Stratton and Belfort convinced witnesses to give them information about the move and were ultimately successful at also getting notoriously secretive Swiss banks to cooperate. 

With solid evidence, both Belfort and Porush were arrested in September 1998 and convinced to collaborate with the investigation. Eventually, Belfort pleaded guilty, and after the case had taken years to come to trial, in 2004, he was convicted. However, Belfort ultimately served only 22 months of a four-year sentence at the Taft Correctional Institution in California in exchange for a plea deal with the FBI.

Jordan Belfort was ordered through his restitution agreement to pay 50% of his income until 2009 towards restitution to the 1,513 clients he had defrauded (totaling approximately $200 million in investor losses), with a total of $110 million in restitution further mandated. As late as 2013, complaints had been filed by federal prosecutors regarding his payments, leading to Belfort making a separate deal with federal authorities to complete the restitution payments.

During his time in prison, he shared a cell with comedian Tommy Chong, who encouraged him to tell the story of his experiences as a stockbroker. On his release in 2006, Belfort realized there was interest in his life story and so began pitching his manuscript, which eventually got picked up by Random House, who rewarded him with a $500,000 advance. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the book that inspired the Jordan Belfort movie, was on bookshelves within a year of his release.

Chong and Belfort remained friends after their release from prison, with Belfort crediting him for his new career path as a motivational speaker and writer. Belfort commented on his wrong-doings in his memoir, stating:

“I got greedy. … Greed is not good. Ambition is good, passion is good. Passion prospers. My goal is to give more than I get, that’s a sustainable form of success. … Ninety-five percent of the business was legitimate. {…} It was all brokerage firm issues. It was all legitimate, nothing to do with liquidating stocks.”

Yet federal prosecutors and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) officials involved in the case insist: “Stratton Oakmont was not a real Wall Street firm, either literally or figuratively.”

Jordan Belfort’s books 

Belfort published two memoirs: “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Catching the Wolf of Wall Street,” also issued in approximately 40 countries and translated into 18 languages. In 2017, Jordan Belfort released a self-help book, “Way of the Wolf.” 

The former Federal prosecutor who led the investigation of Belfort has insisted that much in his memoirs is a fabrication embellished by aggrandization of his own persona and adoration by others and that “the real Jordan Belfort story still includes thousands of victims who lost hundreds of millions of dollars that they never will be repaid.”

Motivational speaking

Ultimately Belfort reinvented himself as a motivational speaker. When he first began speaking, he focused mainly on motivation and ethics in the financial world but then moved his focus to practical sales skills and entrepreneurship.

The primary subject matter of his seminars is what he has referred to as the “Straight Line System,” a system of sales advice and persuasion skills, boldly stating: “You’re either a victim of circumstance or you’re a creator of circumstance.” 

Recommended video: Jordan Belfort Reveals How To Sell Anything To Anyone At Anytime

Jordan Belfort’s schemes explained

Let’s now briefly explain the various financial schemes, Jordan Belfort, together with Stratton Oakmont, partook in, including a boiler room and pump-and-dump operation, as well as money laundering.

Boiler room

A boiler room is an operation in which brokers apply high-pressure sales tactics to persuade investors to purchase securities with false or misleading premises. Most boiler room salespeople contact potential investors by cold calls. While this means the potential client has no reason to trust the caller, it also means they have no background information to refute their claims.

Part of the pressure sales approach includes making exaggerated assertions about the investment opportunity that the client cannot verify, encouraging the investor to buy the stock immediately. In addition, the salesperson might insist on immediate payment, including taking an aggressive approach and threatening the prospect to act, lest they “lose an opportunity of a lifetime.” In fact, promises of high returns and no risk are essential to pressuring clients to invest.

Boiler room scams typically sell fraudulent, speculative securities, typically penny stocks, i.e., small companies that trade for less than $5 per share. Penny stocks are too small for major stock exchanges and are only traded over-the-counter, meaning that a relatively small amount of buyers can cause a significant price rise. 

In a typical penny stock scam, fraudsters would first accumulate a small-cap stock at a low price and then use boiler-room methods to gather buyers for an inflated price. In such a scam, victims may think they are buying on the open market when in reality, they are purchasing the shares directly from the scammers. The commission and the stock’s easy manipulation are the primary incentives for brokers to trade penny stocks.

Boiler room operations, if not illegal, unquestionably violate the rules of fair practice set forth by the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD). 

Pump and dump

Much like a boiler room operation, a pump-and-dump is a manipulative scheme to boost the price of a security through false, misleading, or greatly exaggerated statements. In a typical pump-and-dump, fraudsters use cold-calling, message boards, or social media to reach potential investors and convince them to buy the asset, with promises of guaranteed profits. Then, as the price rises, the scammers sell their shares, leaving investors holding the bag.

These schemes generally target micro- and small-cap stocks on over-the-counter exchanges that are less regulated than traditional exchanges as well as easier to manipulate. The practice is illegal based on securities law and can lead to heavy fines. 

Note: Cryptocurrencies, mainly due to the lack of market depth and effective regulation in the industry, have seen a proliferation of pump-and-dump schemes.

Money laundering

Money laundering is the illegal process of concealing the origin of money obtained from illicit activities, i.e., making “dirty” money appear legitimate. The method of laundering money typically involves three steps: 

  • Placement: Injecting the “dirty money” into a legitimate (cash-based) financial institution;
  • Layering: Concealing the source of the funds through a series of transactions and bookkeeping tricks;
  • Integration: Withdrawal of the “clean” money as needed.

For example, Belfort attempted a money laundering method known as “bulk cash smuggling,” based on moving “dirty” money, in its physical form, over the border to another country (in this case, Switzerland), where the bank secrecy laws are much more stringent. 

Jordan Belfort’s boiler room

Ronald L. Rubin, the SEC enforcement attorney assigned to put together the case against Steven Madden, got a first-hand account from Jordan Belfort and Porush as “cooperating witnesses,” in which they explained the finer points of how they used their brokerage firm to steal millions of dollars from investors. 

Rubin breaks Belfort’s signature fraud technique into five steps:

“1. Create IPO Stock;

2. Line Up the Victims;

3. Bait and Switch;

4. Market Manipulation;

5. Sell High and Shut the Door”.

Let’s summarize his findings outlined in the WSJ article. 

1. Create IPO Stock

First, they needed a business to sell, and the definition of business, in this case, was very loose. What was required was not an actual business but rather a business entity with a story that could be transformed into publicly traded stock through a Stratton IPO. 

Notably, the Stratton IPO stock was not actually sold to the public but to Stratton. To avoid securities laws that forbid underwriters from buying more than a small percentage of the IPO stock they issue, Stratton sold all of its IPO stock to friends (flippers), who immediately sold the stock back to Stratton for a small profit. 

The IPO stock was typically issued to flippers at $4 per share and then sold back to Stratton for $4.25 per share – a lucrative deal for the flippers, who could pocket $50,000 from an IPO without risking a loss.

2. Line Up the Victims

Stratton’s brokers would first gain investors’ confidence by letting them make a small profit on one or two Stratton IPOs. Then, once trust had been established, the Stratton salesmen would inform these customers of a new hot IPO with a $4 issue price and wait for them to take the bait.

Like all Stratton IPOs, the stock’s price was expected to skyrocket after its release. So, for example, an eager customer with $100,000 of savings allocates the Stratton broker to purchase 25,000 shares of that IPO stock (with a $4 issue price) and then transfers the $100,000 to his Stratton account, offering Jordan Belfort and his cronies an exact picture of how much buying power they have.

3. Bait and Switch

Shortly before an IPO, the Stratton broker would call these customers and inform them that the IPO was so desirable that they could offer only a few shares at the $4 IPO price. However, the promise was still that they create purchase orders to be executed as soon as the stock began trading on the market, resulting in many customers assuming that such orders would result in stock purchases near the issue price ($4).

The pressure put on these investors was immense, especially since they had already consented to buy the same stock at the issue price, so they agreed to whatever was being shoved at them. 

4. Market Manipulation

The company could have made millions just by selling its customers penny stocks for $4 per share, but after a few such IPOs, investors and regulators would have grown suspicious. So instead, Jordan Belfort used the stock market to disguise his fraud.

Let’s imagine Stratton issued one million shares of the IPO stock, but its customers had already pledged to purchase $12 million of the stock in the aftermarket. 

The goal was thus to have the stock price rise from $4 to $12 per share before selling it to them. Then, having repurchased all of the IPO stock from the flippers, Belfort and Porush could cause the stock to trade in the aftermarket at any value. The simplest way to achieve that would have been to trade shares between Stratton accounts at increasing prices, but that would have been too conspicuous. 

So instead, they had their flippers buy small amounts of stock using “market orders,” which buy shares at the lowest price offered by any seller. Of course, the only seller was Stratton Oakmont. 

Flippers began placing these small market orders right when aftermarket trading kicked off on IPO day. At the same time, Stratton would sell its stock using “limit orders,” which offer stock for sale only above a fixed minimum price. After each of these sales, the firm would place another limit order with a slightly raised minimum price, resulting in the market orders executing at a higher price.

The market recorded a steady progression of trades at $4.25, $4.50, and $4.75, up to the $12 target price (all accomplished in mere minutes). And since this was the typical first-day trading pattern for legitimate hot IPO stocks during the 1990s, the manipulation wasn’t blatant.

5. Sell High and Shut the Door

When the IPO share price reached the $12 target, Stratton executed its customers’ buy orders. Had investors holding the inflated stock attempted to resell it quickly on the market, they would have found almost no genuine buyers, the stock price having nosedived about as fast as it had risen. 

However, such an early price crash was rare for legitimate IPO stocks and would have drawn regulatory scrutiny and scared away future Stratton customers. To combat this, Stratton sustained the high price, typically for a month, by purchasing any of its IPO stock for sale on the open market.

Still, letting customers sell their stock for $12 while Stratton Oakmont was almost the only buyer would defeat the purpose of the scheme. So, investors had to be discouraged from selling too soon. This was done by showering more hyperbole onto customers who called to place sell orders (Stratton operated before Internet self-service brokers, which enabled investors to place their own orders).

Most sinister of all, if customers couldn’t be persuaded into holding on to their stock, their sell orders would simply be lost and their phone calls ignored. Or, when the sell orders were finally executed, the lack of buyers would cause the stock to crash, resulting in the customers’ funds being totally wiped out. But, of course, by that time, Belfort had the following IPO ready and was lining up new prey for his schemes. 

Jordan Belfort in the “Wolf of Wall Street” movie

Based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name, “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) is a biographical black comedy crime movie directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Terence Winter, recounting Belfort’s perspective on his career as a broker in New York City. 

In 2007, Leonardo DiCaprio and Warner Bros. won a bidding war for the rights to Belfort’s memoir, with Belfort banking $1 million from the deal.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” synopsis

After trying out a few entry-level jobs on Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, still in his 20s, decides to establish his own firm, Stratton Oakmont. With his trusted right-hand man and a motley crew of brokers, Belfort and his brokerage make an immense fortune by defrauding investors out of millions. However, while Belfort and his cronies indulge in a hedonistic concoction of sex and drugs, the SEC and the FBI gather evidence for his eventual comeuppance.

Recommended video: “The Wolf of Wall Street” trailer

Note: Though the film garnered awards and nominations in various categories, including five Academy Award nominations, it couldn’t escape controversy. Jordan Belfort’s “Wolf of Wall Street” movie received criticism for the morally ambiguous portrayal of events, lack of compassion for victims, as well as graphic sexual content, depiction of hard drug use, and extreme profanity. In fact, it set a Guinness World Record for the most instances of swearing in a movie, specifically 715 times. 

In conclusion 

All in all, Belfort’s infamy has proved lucrative. He has picked himself up from the ruins of his fraudulent empire and built a brand new one by utilizing the media’s glorification and obsession with him as the embodiment of Wall Street greed.

FAQs about Jordan Belfort

Who is Jordan Belfort?

Jordan Belfort is a former Wall Street stockbroker who, in 1999, was indicted for fraud and money laundering concerning his firm Stratton Oakmont’s market manipulation schemes that evaporated millions of investor dollars.

Jordan Belfort has since reinvented himself as a writer and motivational speaker, most famously publishing “The Wolf of Wall Street” in the wake of his time and release from prison, later adapted to the screen by Martin Scorsese, starring actor Leonardo DiCaprio. 

What did Jordan Belfort do?

Stratton Oakmount ran a boiler room to pump the value of penny stocks. Belfort’s brokers were trained to pressure inexperienced retail investors to buy shares of companies that Belfort owned, artificially inflating those stock prices and allowing Belfort to sell his shares at a high profit.

What Is a Pump and Dump Scam?

A pump-and-dump is an illegal market manipulation scheme in which scammers artificially raise the price of their own shares to sell them at a profit. In a typical pump-and-dump, fraudsters use cold-calling, message boards, or social media to reach potential investors and convince them to buy the asset, with promises of guaranteed profits. Then, as the price rises, the fraudsters put in sell orders, leaving investors scrambling.

What is a boiler room?

A boiler room is an operation in which brokers apply high-pressure sales tactics to persuade customers to purchase securities. Most boiler room salespeople contact potential investors by cold calls. Notable boiler room tactics include making extravagant unverifiable claims on the stock, demanding immediate payment, or threatening non-compliance.

What are similar films to "The Wolf of Wall Street"?

There are various films that are both entertaining and educational that depict the greed and excess of Wall Street, such as:

  • “Boiler Room”;
  • “Wall Street” and its 2010 sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”; 
  • The Big Short“;
  • “Margin Call.”

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Diana Paluteder
Author

Diana is an economics enthusiast with a passion for politics and investing. Having previously worked as a financial translator, she provides in-depth articles and guides on the world of finance and commerce.

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