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dole out backdated options to a dead executive
did, but the way things are developing along Hewlett-Packard Way, maybe they spied on a deceased board member.
More on this morning's delicious Cablevision news about the dead in a moment, but first the larger point. Hewlett-Packard has officially become a case study on why any stock traders worth their salt have to pay strict attention to the quality of media coverage on any company they are thinking of investing in.
Journalism is a human enterprise, and few of the humans writing about business actually have much experience investing. So ask yourself as you read anything: Is this story accurate, and will the conclusions make me money, or has the story line been superimposed on events, and will buying into these assumptions turn me into a financial chump?
From the start of the Hewlett-Packard spying mess, The Business Press Maven has performed rough justice on business journalists who were nearly unanimous in declaring early on that the issue would not be a big one.
Nonsense, I shrieked, warning people away from the stock.
When so little is known about the issue in question (pretexting) and the issue seems so strange and creepy, the conclusion to the story will never be neat, tidy and quick.
Propped up by the false hope this coverage encouraged and a strong market, the stock hung in there. But when there is a spread between story lines and reality, reality always wins. Yesterday we heard the latest: CEO Mark Hurd, who was credited with the company's turnaround and even named chairman when Patricia Dunn got her foot caught in the spying ring, leading everyone to conclude that Hurd was clean, may have been a creepy little executive, too.
That's when the market finally realized, two weeks late, that this thing was not blowing over and the stock began to tank. This morning's papers are filled with scary but inevitable talk about subpoenas, indictments, congressional testimony, what could be a make-or-break press conference for Hurd today and the involvement of high-powered private lawyers, including the one who represented Johnny Taliban, John Walker Lindh, the American who famously (and despicably) fought for the Taliban.
For a company that used to preen about the "Hewlett-Packard Way," this is a public relations nightmare that makes
exploding computers looks like glitter and glue, especially coming as H-P had just engineered a solid turnaround.
So where do things go from here? And are the emerging story lines matching reality now?
I would still avoid this stock for the foreseeable future, and if Hurd doesn't survive -- I put his chances at somewhere between zero and nil -- we have to appraise the competency of whoever follows. But the one thing you can always expect from the business media is that if they miss a story on one side, they will overreact on the other.
Hell hath no fury like a business media that was wrong -- they'll ride the story both ways, overreacting as much as they originally underreacted.
The first and worst example of this comes from
This is fitting, as The Business Press Maven pointed out on
Sept. 9 the ridiculous level of confidence
had that the story would blow over. I low-lighted this headline: ""H-P seen suffering little from board-spying flap: Leak probe fallout's 'really more of a sideshow,' says analyst." This time,
starts on a good note, by pointing to the high-in-iron-y fact that H-P is ranked second on
magazine's list of best corporate citizens of the year. Ugh, if they are No. 2, I'd hate to see Nos. 3-100.
But rather than having a little fun with the irony and remarking on how H-P might be a stock to be avoided in the near term until the issue plays out and new management is in place,
goes with this overblown thesis:
"No matter what is announced or said, however, the damage to H-P is done. Ethical violations of this magnitude are like rape charges: once they are alleged, impressions are never the same again."
Rape charges? Look, these executives were trying to eavesdrop on a few ink-stained wretches. That is creepy and wrong and there should be consequences, but rape?
Six months out, if a consumer is choosing between an exploding Dell and an H-P that might have a listening device implanted in it, guess what? They are going to decide on price. Stay away from the stock short term, but if coverage sways too far in this lunatic direction and pummels the stock, I'd be a buyer.
Stock backdating, incidentally, is almost a twin issue to pretexting. It was thought of as no big deal, but because it was weird and an unknown, you knew it would have legs and cause a little more grief for shareholders than was originally assumed. But Cablevision broke new ground -- or dug it -- with the news today that it granted options to a vice chairman after his 1999 death, but backdated them. This made it appear that he had gotten the options when he was alive. No word on whether the vice chairman wrote a thank you note from that big executive dining room in the sky.
In other news, the
International Herald Tribune
reports on the same-old, same-old:
more delays on Airbus's A380
. And everyone and their brother is reporting that
will be the first time the retailing giant has helped lower health care costs. The Business Press Maven, who has purchased plenty of cheap over-the-counter drugs there, knows it's been saving the little guy money in this regard for a long time.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children.