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The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street This Week

No 'Lockup' on MSO Future
Stock boosted by diva's TV plan

1. Someone From NBC Is in the Kitchen With Martha

We appreciate that Martha Stewart is paying her debt to society. But it sure looks like the founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) will come out ahead on the deal.

On Wednesday, MSO announced that Stewart will star in a new TV show starting in the fall of 2005. The show will be produced by reality TV maven Mark Burnett and distributed by General Electric's (GE) NBC Universal.

Shares in MSO, which traded at $16.59 before Stewart reported to prison Oct. 8, continued their upward climb Thursday, jumping $1.48 to close at $25.91.

Wow. We know Martha reported to jail before necessary so she could be done serving time next March. But given the stock's performance while she's been behind bars in West Virginia, she should beg the U.S. attorney to extend her sentence. Add a few more months to her jail term, and MSO will be hotter than Travelzoo (TZOO).

2. Get Well Soon

You know, we're beginning to feel sorry for the folks at Merck (MRK).

We don't know what damage Vioxx may have caused people who took the drug. We don't know what decision-makers at Merck knew about Vioxx's dangers before it ended up withdrawing the drug.

But we do know that Merck is in a heap of legal trouble, and it will be for a long time.

We do know that if you type Vioxx into Yahoo! or Google, you'll be overwhelmed with advertisements for lawyers who'll help you sue the company.

We do know that Merck's board said Tuesday that a special board committee will be studying the Vioxx affair, and to figure out how to respond to Vioxx-related shareholder litigation.

And we do know that Merck said this week it couldn't begin to estimate the number that is key to valuing the company going forward: the legal liabilities the company faces from all of its unhappy shareholders and dissatisfied Vioxx customers.

Perhaps you've heard General Motors (GM) described as a finance company with an auto manufacturer attached.

Well, for the next few years, Merck is a lawsuit with a pharmaceutical company attached.

Vying For Vioxx Plaintiffs
Merck's legal morass

3. At 18 Miles You Hit the Wal-Mart

What do we talk about when we talk about Wal-Mart's (WMT) problems? Maybe the wrong thing.

For the past week or two, we at the research lab have been talking about Wal-Mart's problems as a pricing issue. On the one hand, we hear, Wal-Mart has cut its prices so low that the strategy has had counterproductive, diminishing returns. On the other hand, Wal-Mart didn't cut prices enough on items it could have used to generate traffic to the store over Thanksgiving weekend.

Wall to Wal-Marts
If you build it, not on top of each other...

But this week we read a Goldman Sachs research report that gave us pause. Forget pricing, argued analyst George Strachan, who reduced his rating on Wal-Mart from outperform to neutral. (Goldman has done banking for Wal-Mart in the past 12 months.) The real issue is self-cannibalization. Wal-Mart's same-store sales are weak, Strachan argues, because Wal-Mart is building new stores so close to old stores. It isn't Target (TGT), say, that's necessarily stealing sales from Wal-Mart; it's Wal-Mart.

Now, we don't know for sure that self-cannibalization is the key to Wal-Mart's malaise. But because everything written in recent weeks indicates the problem is pricing, we're tempted to believe it's something else.

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