Maven: Making a Target out of Wal-Mart

Politicians' populist campaigns against big companies often present buying opportunities.
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How bad have things been going for

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

? Well, thanks to a public comment by one of its officials this week, even Arabs and Jews are agreeing: They hate Wal-Mart. That makes what

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

has been doing, what with its portables apparently igniting ammo stashes in customer's pickup trucks, look like fun in the sun.

But let's back up for a moment and be careful not to run over any toes.

It started to become clear this week in the wider media that Wal-Mart is becoming a populist target for politicians running for office this year, and that the company and its practices might remain a bogeyman for the coming presidential election. As The Business Press Maven has noted recently, Wal-Mart doesn't need any more trouble, even though it got some this week when Andrew Young, a civil rights leader the company hired to help burnish its image, said that Jewish, Arab and Korean shop owners have been stealing from urban communities for years.

What burnish. And you thought Wal-Mart had problems with its fashion mix.

As awful as Young's comments were, the larger issue is the demagoguery coming at Wal-Mart from all Democratic directions -- even from Hillary Clinton, the ingrate, who used to sit on their board. Didn¿t anyone give her some backdated options to keep her happy? Isn¿t what those things are designed for? In any case, since the wider media doesn't focus on the investor, and the business media, if they ever pick up on this story, won't offer historical perspective, let me do it succinctly here.

Public demagoguery is often a buying opportunity. From John Edwards' "Two Americas" to Al Gore¿s "People vs. the Powerful" and back, populist political campaigns usually fail. Investors probably won't be dealing with the consequences of the rhetoric. And if you think the politicians themselves fail, take a look at the industries that have been targeted by big, noisy populist political campaigns. Though investors may have been scared off in the short run, long term you probably could not have done better than buying the targeted industries. Steel. Big Oil. Drug companies. HMOs. Chemical companies. Credit card companies. Oy, could I go on. In the years after each populist, anti-industry campaign, stocks in most of those industries flourished. So listen: Wal-Mart has plenty of other troubles, but if politicians paint a short-term target on its back, remember what has happened to such companies in the past.

Regarding

PepsiCo's

(PEP) - Get Report

appointment of a woman, Indra Nooyi, to its top executive spot, let The Business Press Maven cautiously spread praise in the general direction of the business media. I know this is going to come back and bite me -- maybe even swallow me whole -- but in the very early going, reporters have done a decent job covering Nooyi, which is to say they have not portrayed her as either perfect or horrible.

Of all the many honors and accolades given The Business Press Maven, the one that could save investors the most bucks came when

The Week

, a publication that summarizes the best of each week's journalism, deemed a certain article I wrote as that week's best business editorial.

The

editorial was called "CEO Dearest" and served as a primer on how, from Martha Stewart to Carly Fiorina to Tina Brown to Anne Mulcahy and on, coverage of women CEOs is either slavish and worshipful or cruel and overly harsh. In other words, when it comes to female business leaders, coverage is a variation of the Madonna/whore complex.

Well maybe it's still early and once longer features start getting written or earnings come out, things will change. Or maybe reporters have been keeping my thoughts in mind as they write. Or maybe it's just that Nooyi -- a former rock and roller who last year essentially said America was giving the middle finger to the world -- offers a mix of an engaging personality and cause for concern.

I'm not ready to give out a coveted Business Press Maven "Nod of Approval" for any of this coverage¿ we'll have to wait to see if the improvements holds. I am, however, giving one out for coverage elsewhere. And for only the second time since stocks were traded under the old buttonwood tree, the "Nod of Approval" is going to a

Street.com

writer, Melissa Davis.

As you may know, there are two distinct camps on Wall Street when it comes to the fate of former highflier

Xethanol

(XNL)

, an ethanol outfit. Even on

TheStreet.com

, The Business Press Maven has been very open about his disdain for the company, while John Layfield has been a big proponent. That's a market: Intelligent minds disagree and, in the end, one changes their mind or is at least proved wrong. (Please let it be John, please let it be John...) In any case, into the fight last week came ShareSleuth.com, the Mark Cuban investigative site, which called the company a fraud -- and the company, which issued a strongly worded though slightly vague denial.

Who was right? Well, you should read Melissa Davis'

story -- and not just because it shows that I might be right. Look at how she handled the situation, speaking to both sides. (Well, uh, she tried to speak to both sides, but the company refused to talk.) And how she did not take ShareSleuth¿s negative claims as articles of faith, but looked to verify. I'll let you read the rest, but look -- I know a lot of individual investors have chased the ethanol craze -- but please listen to your friendly neighborhood Business Press Maven and walk a wide circle around this 'un.

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.