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3 Ways Companies Try to Trick Investors

One of the companies that I've been following closely for the past few years, the Internet retailer Overstock.com (OSTK), the other day came out with financial results for the third quarter of 2010. The numbers weren't very good, with the loss much worse than expected, and the stock fell 16%. But anyone familiar with this company had a pretty good idea that the company wasn't coming out with good news by simply looking for the earnings release.

There wasn't any.

In contrast to previous quarters when the company had something positive to say, Overstock's usually hyperactive corporate PR machinery, ranging from Twitter feeds to a Facebook page to a PR website personally financed by the CEO -- all were silent.

Overstock's no-release earnings announcement was the latest example of how companies nowadays manage the bad news that has been showering over corporate America in abundance. Overstock's approach was perhaps more extreme than most, but it was an example of one of the common ways company's handle bad news. They ignore it.

People who study these things -- yes, there are such people -- have pointed out over the years the techniques that companies use to mask unsightly blemishes. Issuing earnings releases after the close of trading, for instance, is one widely known method public companies use to hide negative news, or at least delay its impact, by dropping it into the ether when the market isn't open. That's not just common knowledge, but was scientifically proven by academic researchers thirty years ago..

It will be interesting to see what kind of studies come out concerning the latest methods the corporate spinmeisters use to mask, shred or otherwise massage the release (or nonrelease) of bad news. Thus, for the guidance of the next generation of researchers, I humbly submit these examples of corporate bad news management, which fall under three broad categories:

Modified, Limited Hangout.

This was a technique made famous by Richard Nixon right after Watergate. The Nixon tapes showed that Nixon and his aides John Dean and H.R. Haldeman were confronted with the unpleasant fact that, contrary to their denials, there were repeated reports of White House involvement in the Watergate burglary. The solution: a "modified, limited hangout," in which the White House would admit only to things that were known, while otherwise stonewalling as best it could.

This technique has aged like a fine wine over the years, and has been amply used in cases of corporate as well as governmental misconduct. Thus we have Lloyd Blankfein's "apology" for all the naughty things Goldman Sachs (GS) did, back in November 2009. "We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret. We apologize" Blankfein said. That was awfully decent of the gent, you have to admit. But when the SEC settled charges with Goldman over its marketing of CDOs, the bank explicitly failed to admit (or deny) liability. Dick Nixon couldn't have put it better: "I accept the responsibility, but not the blame."

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