1. Deadwood Logic From the Dead Tree Press
Is Wall Street plugging its ears to the great prospects of newspapers? Keep in mind, the dead tree press has even longtime investors like Warren Buffett cracking wise that every time he goes to a funeral, he knows papers have lost a customer they won't replace.
Yet Mary Junck,
chairman and president, claimed with smiling serenity this week, "There is a profound misunderstanding on Wall Street about the strengths and future of our business."
Do tell, Mary. I love newspapers. I get paid by them, after all. And I certainly know Wall Street has missed a lot in terms of new developments, so I'm prone to fall for even a shakily stated premise about unrecognized upside. So what's the bull's take on papers? Eyeballs.
Yes, folks, here we go again. Back to the future in terms of the intellectual rigor mortis that is the concept that where eyeballs go, so too one day will profits. Pennies a share emerge from the pupils!
"We are really not losing readers," Junck said about her company, which is suffering declining revenue and profits but attracting a raw count of customers who will check out the goods as long as they are free.
Wait, can't this be a network television model: free and fortified with advertising? No. With zero barriers to entry, it's worse than cable. More problematic: the free online readers are sapping the only thing that will sustain these companies long term: subscribers, who pay hundreds for the paper and are worth, proportionally, 10 times more to advertisers.
Lee'e CFO, taking a turn with a death grip on a failed justification for a higher stock price, spent time bragging about how his company's losses weren't as bad as some others. Gee, break out the bubbly. But don't let the cork hit you in the eye, that iris will be worth something to Lee someday.
Dumb-o-meter score: 91. Buffett's joke about being at funerals and thinking of newspaper readers brings up the side question: Where is that dude's mind when the priest is speaking? Have some respect, Warren.
2. Homeowners! Remain Calm!
Rejoice ye of little faith. Homeowners and you real misfortunates -- holders of housing stocks like
-- can celebrate that as the housing market slides its merry way into oblivion, small-town government officials are on board to keep everyone calm.
Witness the genius in the rough of J. Michael Jones, the city marshal and chief administrator of good old Lavon, Texas, about a half hour from Dallas. The housing boom laid siege to good old Lavon, with McMansions replacing every last blade of wind-blown wheat.
But then, as has been documented, the housing bubble popped in the wind, and now the only things going up in Lavon are "for sale" signs, which brings us back to the pressured or perhaps slightly overworked J. Michael Jones, the local politico keen on maintaining calm in his town.
City government, now light of money, has scotched plans for everything from a new City Hall to street paving. Jones sprung into action, weighing in with a public relations strategy the CEOs and portfolio managers might do well to heed. Jones, eminently aware that news of potential layoffs of city employees is like a fright mask to homebuyers, allowed: "I say that very quietly, because I don't want to panic our citizens or employees." And where did Jones say this very quiet thing, perfectly calibrated not to panic the masses?
The New York Times
Dumb-o-meter score: 85. It would have been higher, but we have to give Jones credit for his understated use of the newspaper of record.
3. Some Coffee in Your BUD
When that Friday drunkenness
and Miller Brewing encourage so often hits its preferred level at around 9 o'clock every Friday evening, who doesn't think to themselves: Boy, I'd like a caffeine jolt.
That is why Anheuser-Busch and Miller took it on the chin this week for a product innovation dumb enough to be tagged with a diagnosis for schizophrenia: beer and caffeine. That's right, folks, the nation whose mark of greatness had been combining peanut butter and chocolate to create a marketing juggernaut has now in its long march toward irrelevancy been reduced to this: mixing what dials you down with what dials you up.
Beer, which blessedly makes you fall at your own feet, infused with caffeine, which makes you hop through life scratching at your own skin. I am not impressed by this conflict in a bottle. How can red-blooded Americans drown their recessionary sorrows in peace?
Fortunately, authorities, apparently sensing that this concoction can send our impressionable youth to hell in a basket (actually, beer barrel) were roused to action. This week we learned that the worthy attorneys general of several states have asked -- nay, demanded! -- documents from the beer companies about how these drinks are marketed. They are worried about the caffeine element enticing kids, but from my blurry vantage point on the couch, I'm just worried about the many adults who, with an unneeded jolt, will be forced to find another escape hatch to life.
Dumb-o-meter score: 82. This raises a deep philosophical question. If I wanted to be animate, wiggy and full with antic fervor for life -- well, why would I drink in the first place?
4. Mattel Angers Toy Buyers
When a friend or dear aunt gives your child a gift, your heart overflows with sentiment and gratitude for their kindness. But if that gift is battery-operated and makes the same noise incessantly, you wish the agonies of a portfolio of subprime mortgages upon them. (I'm still plotting dastardly ends for a lifelong friend who gave a kiddie guitar that plays antagonizing solos relentlessly, through day and night.)
That is why it was a bit curious -- not to mention altogether idiotic -- to see Neil Friedman,
evil leader, trumpet from the Toy Fair this week about how many of his company's dark creations will be infused with life -- the sort of mechanically, maniacally laughing, stuffed electronic life that engenders dreams of taking one's own life.
Friedman said that about 80% of Mattel's cringe-producing toys will now "come to life." This, he said, will add joy to children. Nothing about Mom and Dad being held captive to an unstoppable level of pandemonium. Moreover, as anyone with a sense of business (not to mention three children) might wonder, with so many Apple iPod, Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox type gizmos, maybe traditional toy companies can do well with some throwbacks. Talk about sentiment, maybe toy companies can partner with parents to bring us back to a time when interactive play meant picking up two well-made figurines and making them talk. Not to mention, that the people who buy most toys are, the parents.
Dumb-o-meter score: 79. The toys, said Friedman, "bring imagination to the child." And death to the kindly Aunt Rose.
5. So You Want to Be An Analyst?
Assuming a fake identity to gain entry into a rarified high society event is one level of pathology, but it's no mystery what someone would get out of it. There are women with diamond drop earrings and trust funds to meet and, failing that, hors d'oeuvre trays to pick clean.
But to become an impostor in order to ask nonsensical goofball questions on a Wall Street analyst call? Well, the level of pathology required might just be beyond easy description. In fact, CEOs at companies from
would like to call the guys from the laughing academy to throw their butterfly nets around Joe Herrick of Gutterman Research -- if only they knew who he was.
A man using that identity has been crashing analyst calls, which are normally as lively as snuffed wicks, and asking questions that sound, on the surface, quite normal (by the low standards of these calls.) For instance, identified by the operator by another name, our Irregular Joe struck on a
call recently: "Yes, this is actually Joe Herrick with Gutterman Research. A couple of things for you guys. Mark
Ketchum, CEO, regarding your operational improvement initiatives for 2008, what are going to be your top initiatives regarding lean, mean manufacturing, keeping in the Six Sigma? What effects do you see benefiting the bottom line?"
There seems no pattern of the companies Clueless Joe hits: from MKS Instruments to Molson Coors. Sometimes, the CEO or CFO in question--earnestly, endearingly--tries to answer the unanswerable. Sometimes other analysts chime in to tattle (isn't that what got you guys beaten up in high school?) The real question, though, is what is the point of this financial performance art?
Is it to spoof the jargon that often stands for thought on these calls? Perhaps, but as was pointed out in
The Wall Street Journal
this week, some of his jargon sounds like it comes more from a business consultant wonk than a financial analyst wonk. Is it to shed light on how hard it can be to actually ask a question on these calls -- you have to wear a mask of a major analyst, then pull it back to reveal a Regular Joe. That seems a reach. And considering that it's all done over the phone, I'm assuming the hors d'oeuvre trays are out. To find out, I'm going to do the one thing no one else on Wall Street dares do. I'm going to come out and say: Joe, call me.
Dumb-o-meter score: 65. Actually, email. You scare me a little.
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He also did back-up beat coverage of The New York Knicks for the paper's Sports section for two seasons and covered other professional and collegiate sports. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections, including National, Metro, Escapes, Style, Real Estate, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Money & Business, Circuits and the Op-Ed Page. For his "Business Press Maven" column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz website at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
to send him an email.