Through the course of business history, whether we are talking about oily oil outfits, flimsy Internet firms or, say, ethanol companies, investors have always been well advised to err toward caution when looking at companies that started as Pink Sheet penny stocks in totally unrelated businesses.
Not that a Pink Sheet stock in the toilet paper-cozy business that becomes a shell in search of a hotter business before landing one and seeing its stock price soar isn't a good long-term investment.
It's just that The Business Press Maven, who has seen it all, hasn't seen that.
That's why I am giving my coveted "Nod of Approval" award this week to the
New York Post
. It's for a small story, and it's the first time the
has ever been in the winner's circle. But it's well deserved.
is one of the latest companies in the ethanol-fuel tulip craze and the
gets kudos for bringing its particular, peculiar circumstances to light in, of all things, an understated way.
Xethanol "says it's a leader in converting garbage and plant waste into ethanol," the article notes, before drolly pointing out that while Xethanol lost $11 million on sales of $4.3 million last year, the stock had a recent market value of more than $250 million.
And what of this highflier's pedigree?
"The company drifted through the 1990s as a pottery commune -- Mile Hi Ceramics and Zen Pottery Equipment -- headed by Zen Zechariah Pool III, his embroidery-artist-wife Susan and their local insurance agent, Walt Nelson," the
reports. "None drew salaries, and all took just a few thousand dollars in expenses from selling about $20,000 a year worth of Zen Raku Kilns."
A group of investors bought out the hippy-dippies, plus this garbage-conversion technology and, lo and behold, the American Stock Exchange had its latest highflier. (Folks, you can't make this stuff up.)
Again: Potential might be great. But if past is prologue, this sort of long strange trip of a story from Pink Sheets to faddish business normally turns out to be, in the end, less highflier than firetrap.
And as The Business Press Maven has been noting with increasing alarm lately, there is reason to believe that the recent ethanol excitement is way premature. Ethanol, don't forget, is an additive that is still more expensive than gasoline. How much of a market can there really be for a supplement that is more expensive than what it replaces? It would be as if Hamburger Helper were pricier than beef.
Now ... so much for our minimum daily requirement of good business journalism. Let's move on to a disturbing small item within a decent larger story. But make no mistake about it: The small item is representative of something the business media, after all we've been through with Wall Street analysts and their machinations, still don't get. And I cannot let investors get misled in any way. So the small item, all by its lonesome, earns
The New York Times
the dreaded Business Press Maven "Back of the Hand" award.
While writing of the difficulty many video-game producers like
are currently having, the
talks to an analyst:
"'There are more industry concerns than ever, and that's what you're seeing in the stock prices,' said Justin Post, an industry analyst with Merrill Lynch. And yet, underscoring the complexities of assessing the industry, Mr. Post has a buy rating on shares of two of the major publishers..."
Oh, won't God ever grant The Business Press Maven tender mercy from these Wall Street analysts and the wool they pull over people's eyes? I thought all the recrimination and renumeration in the wake of the analyst scandals that sprung (or seeped out) from the 1990s would set things straight, but what do I know?
Apparently, not much. Because they can still have more concerns about a business' future than they can adequately count and still rate the thing a buy. Post, after all, is the same analyst who recently ratcheted down profit numbers on a troubled company and still rated it a waffle, uh -- neutral. And journalists will still naively write off the discrepancy as a complexity, an interesting anomaly.
They're jive talking.
Analysts, like journalists, don't want to offend their sources, and nothing offends like a sell rating -- which we still hardly ever see. And with investment banking business still a factor, if less directly, in what an analyst says and when -- well, let's just say that they have even less of an incentive than many journalists to tick off a source. But here, even with some possibly positive factors lurking in the future, with all the negatives the analyst is already aware of, shouldn't the rating at least be a waffle, uh -- neutral?
A Business Press Maven can dream, can't he?
More importantly, if you, the investor, are reading something that has a journalist describing the reason that a business is rife with well documented trouble as "complex," but the analyst still rates it buy, please remember: The analyst might be a counterintuitive genius. Or the situation is more complex than the journalist knows.
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 website 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.