Maven: Discounting Wal-Mart

It may be time to review retail sales ex the faltering giant. Plus, MGM's new partner.
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Companies can always do a good snow job on the business media when it comes to numbers because the verbal little souls are so much better with words than figures.

The Business Press Maven is, of course, equally adept, but even so -- and though I've never before met an issue about which I could not form an instant and bombastic opinion -- I'm lost on this and I need your help.

The answer is essential to our understanding of both retail sales and the economy going forward.

With the giant

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

appearing to enter a long period of slowed growth, should retail sales figures be looked at ex-Wal-Mart, just as inflation numbers are seen ex-food and energy?

The majority of retail chains reported sales below expectations for the month of October, so results weren't great, I guess.

But factoring out Wal-Mart, the results go from very tepid to very good.

I am suspicious of redefining numbers, but can we look at these both ways?

The

Los Angeles Times

does

this morning

, even in a subheadline:

Excluding the giant chain, whose main stores saw very limited growth, the industry expanded at a 4.9% pace.

What's the answer?

Write me (no crayon, please).

This morning, any investor, thanks to

The Wall Street Journal

, can see the

text

of a press release from

MGM

on the purported rebirth of its United Artists studio, which will come about like a dead-couch bounce thanks to a deal with Tom Cruise.

It's important to read this press release not because it contains any underlying long-term truths, but to illustrate how the jargon and overblown claims of such press releases can make their way straight into articles on the subject, misleading and misinforming investors.

Hey, didn't someone just say that the business media were better with words than numbers?

You really expect me to believe

that

after seeing how easily the business media swallow press-release wordplay whole?

Before The Business Press Maven lays siege to some of the MGM coverage, though, let's point out how such press-release nonsense was transcribed (bad stenographers, bad) into recent coverage of

Ford

(F) - Get Report

, misleading investors there.

Mark Solomon -- a Business Press Maven reader who was once a journalist and now runs a public relations firm out of Roswell (Georgia, not New Mexico) -- is always on the lookout for funky corporate lingo (look for the contest named for him that will be unveiled in The Business Press Maven's weekend column).

This week, he sent me a gem. A Ford official uttered this in a company statement:

We are very serious about aligning inventories with demand.

For anyone familiar with the English language and the ways of business, of course, this means nothing.

From a car company to kids running a lemonade stand, anyone with a product to sell tries not to let too many products pile up before they are sold.

Saying that you are serious about aligning inventories with demand is like saying you are serious about making more money than you spend.

It is, of course -- or I guess -- the right of any company to mouth such dim-witted jargon in a press release.

But check out this earnest little outtake from an

Associated Press

story

, or "story" (forgive the condescending quote marks, but when you've transcribed utter ridiculousness from a press release, you've earned them) that followed just a few hours later:

"We are very serious about aligning inventories with demand," Al Giombetti, sales and marketing president for Ford and Lincoln Mercury, said in a written statement.

Wire services, which hold increasing sway over investors in today's world of shorter new cycles, news aggregators and newspaper cutbacks, aren't always completely gullible.

A

Reuters

headline picked up where the MGM press release left off:

Tom Cruise, MGM to revive United Artists studio

But the story that followed was at least noncommittal.

It spoke about the curious recent behavior by Cruise that has turned off much of the public. And it spoke about how much power the man who acts so curiously will wield, able to say yes to expensive productions.

It mentioned that UA had recently been "dormant" and "moribund." The story even quoted, for historical context, UA's reputation (I kid you not) for being run, as a famous Hollywood producer famously uttered, by "lunatics

who have taken charge of the asylum."

While

Reuters

strayed from the press release's party line, any investor who reads

Variety

will just get a rewritten press release. The headline:

UA lighting the Cruise fuse

Never mind that the Cruise fuse may be permanently wet; the subheadline assumes that signing a deal is tantamount to turning a company around:

MGM revives 'artist-friendly' label for producing duo.

The lead pants as heavily as the press release:

Nearly a century after United Artists was founded by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as a studio run by and for artists, it's in for an auspicious rebirth.

And The Business Press Maven is in for good cry after seeing how little perspective can be added to self-serving corporate claims.

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.