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The 5 Dumbest Things on Wall Street This Week: Oct. 11

2. Bye-Bye, Ballmer

Farewell, Steve Ballmer. For our own selfishly dumb purposes, we hate to see you go.

Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) shareholders, however, not so much.

Shares of Mister Softee were a rock solid $54 -- or a pre-split $108 -- when Ballmer took the CEO spot from founder Bill Gates in January 2000. And while the company has delivered more than $200 billion in operating profit in the past decade under Ballmer's reign, shareholders never really saw those dollars flow into their pockets in the form of capital appreciation. Shares of the $276 billion tech-giant finished Monday near $33.

Sure Microsoft stockholders pocketed a decent dividend in the past 10 years, around 3.3% at last check. Microsoft launched its dividend program three years into Ballmer's term when it announced its ninth stock split since the firm's founding in 1986.

Still, a staid old coupon payment is not why investors wanted to be in a supposedly cutting-edge tech company. They wanted cool products. They wanted growth. Heck, they expected growth and they were told they were going to get it when that first-ever dividend was announced in January 2003.

"Declaring a dividend demonstrates the board's confidence in the company's long-term growth opportunities and financial strength," said John Connors, Microsoft's CFO at the time. "We see enormous potential for growth in the software and technology sector, and remain committed to attracting investors who share this enthusiasm and take a long-term view of the company's growth opportunities."

Alas, the dividend remained, but the growth did not arrive and Microsoft morphed into a so-called value stock. In the end, all that Ballmer delivered was bad theatrics (the dancing, singing and screaming), broken promises (a higher stock price, a Bing that could beat Google (GOOG)), bad deals ($8.5 billion lost on Skype, $6.3 billion squandered on aQuantive), missed deals ( Twitter, Yahoo! (YHOO)) and me-too technology (the Surface, the Zune).

Make that me-three technology.

And that's perhaps the saddest part of the Ballmer era and why we also felt a bit melancholy while reading his farewell letter to the troops Monday. Microsoft had all those billions to spend and all those high-priced engineers on its payroll, yet the company still could not make an innovative product (save Xbox Kinect, to give credit where it's due).

A decade ago, Ballmer and his company talked about growth. On Monday, however, he told his employees that the company's new focus will be on "high-value activities."

"What is a high-value activity? Think of the experiences people have every day that are most important to them -- from communicating with a family member and researching a term paper to having serious fun and expressing ideas," wrote Ballmer. "In a business setting, high-value activities include experiences such as conducting meetings with colleagues in multiple locations, gaining insight from massive amounts of data and information, and interacting with customers. Microsoft will enable these types of high-value activities with a family of devices -- from both Microsoft and our partners -- as well as with our services."

Value, value, value. That's what he sees in Microsoft's future where he once envisioned growth, growth, growth.

Who knows? Now that he's leaving, Microsoft may finally get it.
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