It was probably just weird timing, but Jack Grubman's decision to lower his rating on
just days before the company disclosed epic accounting fraud can only serve to darken the analyst's already shaky reputation.
The Salomon Smith Barney telecom analyst -- who has been responsible for bringing in some of the bank's biggest investment-banking deals -- famously kept a strong buy on the stock through mid-March, despite an 80% drop in its value. On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said that he is looking into the role of analysts' recommendation on WorldCom as part of a probe of conflict-of-interest issues on Wall Street.
Grubman and Salomon weren't available for comment, although Grubman told a
reporter who tracked him down, "What can I say? I am not a part of the company," before accusing the reporter of harassment. Grubman also said, "Nobody saw it coming" and refused to discuss his downgrade.
A onetime figure atop
telecom rankings, Grubman was responsible for bringing in some of Salomon Smith Barney's most-lucrative business -- including WorldCom. The analyst reportedly received a $25 million pay package in 1998 to stay at Salomon, whose parent is
Last Friday, Grubman cut WorldCom to underperform from neutral and warned that the urgency for a recapitalization had increased. He raised concerns about the company's ability to secure a $5 billion credit line. With the stock then trading for about a dollar, some felt his recommendation was too little too late.
On the other hand, Grubman's close ties to the company can't help but cause others to wonder if the timing of his note -- just two days before the telecom giant restated earnings by $3.8 billion -- was just luck.
Securities lawyers interviewed for this story said they doubted he had any information at all about WorldCom's announcement on Tuesday. And there is no evidence to suggest he did.
"I would be surprised if somehow Grubman found out about this thing earlier on and made his recommendation based on that," said Henry Hu, a corporate and securities law professor at University of Texas.
And according to Hu, it would have been too much to impose upon Grubman to come up with the information. "It is a stretch to argue that analysts are responsible for digging up fraud," he said.
Others doubt he could have figured it out.
"I'm not sure a close reading of the financials would have indicated the problem," said Thomas Hazen, securities law professor at University of North Carolina.