The great thing about Wall Street in a bull market is, the longer the delirium continues, the higher the bar goes for investor stupidity.
We've seen companies go public on products ranging from space-age tampons ( Ultrafem (UFEMQ)) to a cure for the common cold ( Quigley (QGLY)). There have been the debut of Oliver North as a captain of industry ( Guardian Technologies International (GRDN) and the postretirement resuscitation of Lee Iacocca as a chicken sandwich restaurateur.
And, almost without exception, investors in these deals have been shorn as smooth as the head of that short guy in Puff Daddy & the Family. At one point, Ultrafem reached 34 on its plastic tampons story; now it's bankrupt. At the height of the craze for zinc cold lozenges two years ago, Quigley sold for 22; now you can't give the stock away for 5. It just goes on and on like that.
But, even as the undertakers haul the bodies out the back, the line in front keeps growing longer. Eighteen years into the longest bull market in the history of the republic, Wall Street is now overflowing with investors who will buy literally anything. This week's case in point: a Long Island, N.Y., "health care and entertainment" company going by the name Juniper Group (JUNI).If you've never heard of Juniper, it would appear -- sorry to say -- that you missed the boat on what was, during much of the summer, one of the fastest-rising stocks on Wall Street. This Nasdaq-listed, fully reporting company soared 500% in value -- to nearly 8 from slightly more than 1 1/4 -- on nothing but Internet chat-room hype and a couple of press releases. A few (very few) insiders made out big in the surge. The company's chief executive for the past 12 years, Vlado Paul Hreljanovic, a sometime associate at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island, has seen his 340,000 shares surge to more than $2 million in value. And his sidekick at the company, a Columbia Law School-trained economics professor at Yeshiva University named Harold Horowitz, has also done well. But the biggest buying in the stock came -- as it always does in these situations -- when the price was topping out, which means that most investors just threw their money out the window. Surprised? Did you really think anyone would bother to read Juniper's financials before parting with his or her money? I myself think all anyone read was a press release by the company that announced plans by this so-called "health care and entertainment" outfit to take an "equity interest" in a California Internet company bearing what is, I am sure, the wholly apt name of Netdive. They read that and they thought, "Oh boy, it's dot-com time -- where do I sign up?!" Many may even have confused it with the similar-sounding Internet highflier Juniper Networks (JNPR), which had then only recently gone public. In any case, what "NetDIVE Inc." (as they spell it) is or does or claims to have plans to do in the future (other than come up with graphically goofy ways to write out its name), I am not sure. According to the press release, Netdive is in the business of "providing real time collaborative communication on the Web using proprietary Internet technology." Do you know what that means? I'm sure I don't. On the other hand, it would not seem that "real-time collaborative communication on the Web" is all that valuable an undertaking whether you use "proprietary Internet technology" to do it or not. The best evidence of that would appear to be Juniper Group's ability to obtain its equity interest in Net for the princely sum of a mere 200,000 smackeroos. But Juniper is not exactly General Motors (GM), either. In fact, it's not even a broom closet in a Chevy dealership in Clinton, N.J. The company has seven full-time employees, conducting its affairs out of 2,000 square feet of office space in Great Neck, N.Y., that is rented from Juniper's CEO, Mr. Hreljanovic. According to Juniper's latest quarterly financial report to the Securities and Exchange Commission for the period ended June 30, the company had less than $4,000 of cash on hand, no working capital, a mere $141,000 of quarterly revenue, close to $400,000 of operating costs, no lines of credit, $1.2 million worth of unpaid bills and seemingly nothing available that could be sold to raise cash. The biggest single asset on Juniper's balance sheet is $2.9 million worth of film licenses. But since the company has earned all of $36,000 in revenue from the library in the past year, just how valuable can the asset really be? Take the film library and the goodwill out of the picture and Juniper becomes a business with a busted balance sheet that, at most, should be selling for 5 cents or 10 cents per share. So, let us now turn to the nub of the matter: Why this obviously doomed business -- whose own financials say the wolf is at the door -- would soar 500% in value in the midst of announcing that it plans to take an equity interest in an obscure Internet operation so desperate for money that it seems willing to sell out for a mere $200,000. After all, here we have the corporate equivalent of a couple of Bowery drunks trying to help each other stand upright. Then suddenly you get an exploding stock price that, with 5.1 million Juniper shares outstanding, creates a market value of $40 million out of virtually nothing at all. Here is what I think: In my constitutionally protected opinion as the official fringe crank of Wall Street, I think Juniper's price has been manipulated skyward as part of an orchestrated pump-and-dump scam by a ring of international stock operators. Everyday investors are then left holding the bag when the stock collapses, as it inevitably will. Typically, pump-and-dump operations are run using over-the-counter bulletin-board stocks as bait. These so-called nonfiling companies don't provide audited financial statements to anyone, so it's not possible for most investors to check the accuracy of the preposterous claims that gush from the price-hyping press releases. But the Juniper case looks to be different. Here we have a fully reporting, nearly bankrupt mess of a company, whose price seems to have surged based on what looks to be a calculated bet that no one would ever bother to read the company's financials. Exhibit A, in support of the charge, is an announcement by the SEC back in mid-July, when Juniper's shares were first starting to soar, that it was filing securities fraud charges against a Miami firm named Globus Group for issuing false and misleading press releases about a variety of companies on the Internet. Juniper was identified in the SEC release as one of the companies, though Hreljanovic subsequently issued a press release saying he'd never heard of Globus. Be that as it may, Hreljanovic has certainly chosen to do business with some curious investors as his company's finances have soured. To raise cash in the past year, he has sold 4.5 million shares to offshore companies domiciled in tax haven countries like the Isle of Man and Mauritius. The biggest single shareholder of the company is currently listed in Juniper's SEC filings as Bluffdale Corp., which turns out to be nothing more than a post-office box in Panama. The box is registered to the name of something called the Harris Organization. That would appear to refer to one Marc M. Harris, who was profiled in Business Week last year as the head of a Panama-based business that advises wealthy Americans on how to set up offshore companies in order to dodge U.S. taxes. Now frankly, that's about all I know regarding Juniper Group and its sudden streak through the summer limelight on Wall Street. But, frankly, it's all I need to know. Not only are the company's vital life signs about as convincing as fingernails growing on a corpse, but the cash to keep the business afloat looks to be coming from fishy-smelling offshore shell companies, where upstanding folks just don't put their funds. Do you know any respectable people with money in Mauritius and Panamanian shell companies? I don't. I hasten to say that I am sure -- as the lawyers here at Eye to the Keyhole doubtlessly hope I am -- that any named individuals in this story are as pure as the driven snow regarding the inexplicable rise in Juniper's value this summer. But somebody was obviously buying this stock -- and selling into its rising price -- when, just as obviously, it wasn't worth even a fraction of what the market was pricing it at. And with 4.5 million shares in the hands of those offshore shell companies, and another 340,000 or so in the hands of Hreljanovic, only 215,000 shares were readily available in the public float -- meaning that cornering the market in Juniper shares would have been a duck shoot. And that is exactly what I think happened. I think a ring of stock manipulators got together and got a corner on Juniper Group. Then, when the company unfurled its ridiculous announcement about an equity deal with Netdive, they rode the price into orbit on the mindless buying of Internet daytraders -- who, as predictably as the tides, will be left with nothing but anger and shame when the sharks have finally eaten their fill. So, make a mental note to follow this stock for the next six months, and let's see where things stand when the grass starts to turn green again in Central Park. The bull markets, they come and they go. Yet on Wall Street, one truth endures through it all: Only the smart survive. By next spring, it ought to be pretty clear who outsmarted whom in the strange little tale of Juniper Group.