Last December, at the height of dot-com mania, Chicago real estate billionaire Sam Zell had 675 music boxes made for friends and associates. Just as Zell isn't any old investor -- he's a self-described "cold-cocked" realist -- these weren't any old music boxes. Zell could easily have spent $1 million on these babies, according to a wealthy investor who was given one. They have become collector's items for the cognoscenti.
now shares Zell's music boxes with the rest of the world.
A 12-inch statue of a middle-aged colossus wearing only specs and a gold crown stands atop each box. This modern-day unclothed emperor stands astride a pile of newspapers. At his feet swirls a tape with the ticker symbols of his winning stocks -- all Internet plays, of course. And as a paperboy hawks his wares, a crowd of little people swarms up the emperor's leg. Hieronymus Bosch meets
Supporting the emperor is a faux marble pedestal with four bull's-head feet. The pedestal appears stable, but look closer and you see dangerous cracks in the base. Check out the back, and you see the problem. A bear, his head only just emerging through the marble, is about to bring it all down. Push the bear's head, and you trigger the music. A Paul Simon sound-alike sings a parody of
Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover
Fifty Ways to Make a Billion
. (Zell's voice-over, the song and lyrics are available at his
You may never see a more sardonic commentary on Wall Street mania. Zell's music box captures it all -- the smugness of the pot-bellied Internet barons, the cheerleading press, the lemming-like retail investors being led to the slaughters and the incipient market debacle to come.
Zell's 3-D metaphor for the market was, in retrospect, dead on. If you had used it as an investment tool, you would have made a bundle. The ticker tape at the emperor's feet has real stock tickers that epitomized the crazy valuations Internet stocks then commanded.
The list reads like a
of short ideas, which it might well have been for Zell and his fortunate friends:
- Amazon.com (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report -- down about 50% this year.
Ask Jeeves (ASKJ) -- off more than 80%.
drkoop.com (KOOP) -- 85% lower.
eBay (EBAY) - Get eBay Inc. Report -- down 17%.
eToys (ETYS) -- 77% below last year's close.
Foundry Networks undefined -- off 28%.
Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) -- the star of the ill-fated group, having lost only 3% so far this year.
Net2Phone (NTOP) -- a 20% loser.
Phone.com (PHCM) -- down close to 40%.
PurchasePro.com (PPRO) -- on sale at about 70% less.
Red Hat (RHAT) -- lower by more than 75%.
Rhythms NetConnections (RTHM) -- reduced 60%.
TiVo (TIVO) - Get TiVo Corp. Report -- down close to 10%.
Women.com Networks (WOMN) - Get Impact Shares YWCA Women's Empowerment ETF Report -- cut down by about 75%.
Were Zell to update his music box, would he use these same ticker symbols? Would he short these same stocks? He isn't saying he would. He isn't saying he wouldn't, either.
The dot-com shakeout is not over. Consolidation is coming. Many will not survive. We are now in the "cold economic light," Zell predicted.
"Are the emperor's clothes on?" he asks. "Will discount flows dictate flight? Because it hit me, can all this 'cyber math' be right? Are there 50 ways to make a billion?"
We are still answering the question.