1. Restoration Comedy
We're all huge fans of Bill Clinton here at the Five Dumbest Things Research Lab. But we do have our limits.
We bumped into one of them Tuesday while listening to veteran journalist Marvin Kalb conduct a lunchtime interview with the former president at the Plaza Hotel.
Part of a Conference Board conference titled "Progress Report on Restoring Trust in Corporations and America's Financial Markets," the conversation was an enlightening exploration of stock market declines, corporate scandals, George W. Bush's tax cuts and the future of American foreign policy.
Clinton, for example, claimed Tuesday he foresaw the telecom, dot-com and Nasdaq declines. "I was always afraid of some sort of meltdown," he said, though it's not clear whether he advised Al Gore, or anyone else, of his concerns at the time.
Anyway, Kalb asked a lot of good questions, except for the one that was on the mind of every single Republican and Democrat packed into the room: Which was, Why the heck are we listening to Bill Clinton talk about restoring trust?
Just to refresh your memory, Clinton was the President of the United States who told the cameras five years ago, "I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I am going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky."
Yes, this is the same President of the United States who, under oath in a grand jury deposition, justified a denial of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky using the now-classic explanation "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
is the guy who's telling us he's on the side of trustworthy financial statements? Uh, is that supposed to be any different from his policy on just plain trustworthy statements?
Relevantly, Clinton explained Tuesday why he believes higher-ups in the Bush administration made some bad foreign policy decisions in recent months. "Sometimes when people are under stress, they hate to think," as
The Globe & Mail
recorded Clinton saying. "And it's the time when they most need to think."
Hmm. We may have been imagining it, but it felt like a moment of awkward silence descended on the lunchtime crowd, as people reflected whether a certain former President of the United States in that particular room may have chosen not to think at a certain stressful time -- at least not with his brain.
Which got us thinking. As
reported Tuesday, Clinton says his only regret, financial regulationwise, was that
he didn't call Republicans' bluff and shut down the
Securities and Exchange Commission
, just in the way Washington closed up shop during the budget fights of 1995.
Now, as you students of lurid political history will recall, it was during that 1995 government shutdown that
Monica Lewinsky first modeled her thong underwear for the President of the United States, and it was during that shutdown that the President of the United States first found a new way to occupy himself while talking on the phone with various congressmen.
So what would Bill Clinton have been up to during an SEC shutdown? Or Arthur Levitt? We get a queasy feeling just thinking about it.
2. Burning Down the House
We were feeling less queasy earlier Tuesday at that same gathering, when New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer shared his idea for financial scandal prophylactics.
No, not those kind.
Anyway, Spitzer suggested that American investors would benefit if every accountant, CEO and business school graduate were required to do one simple thing: read
The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Yes, the 1987 Tom Wolfe novel about how a bond trader's life falls apart after the self-styled Master of the Universe takes a wrong turn with his Mercedes in the Bronx.
Reading that book, said Spitzer, "should pierce that balloon of invincibility that many folks have."
Yo, Eliot! In case you haven't noticed, the Nasdaq is down 73% over the past 3 years. How much more piercing do you think we need?
3. Our Estimates Flu Out the Window
There's one itty-bitty problem with running a healthcare company: If enough people don't get sick, you will.
We learned that lesson Tuesday, when
, the nation's largest hospital operator, warned of lower-than-expected first-quarter earnings. The news sent the company's stock down 20% in a single day.
The chief culprit for the shortfall, according to HCA, was good health. People didn't fall ill as often as the company expected. Specifically, HCA's says it suffered a "significant decline in pulmonary and flu-related admissions of approximately 9 percent ... which, the Company believes, was due to a weak flu season."
Gosh, that's refreshing. Especially at a time when so many companies are attributing poor results to external factors that
CEO Scott McNealy -- referring to his own company's shortfall -- this week felt compelled to say, "We want credit for not blaming SARS or the war."
Yes. With all those companies blaming too much bad news, it's sweet to see HCA blame too much good news instead.
4. E*Trade, but E Couldn't Do It
just came up with a shocking discovery: The go-go days of Wall Street are over.
That's got to be the only explanation for the online broker's announcement Tuesday that it's shutting down the E*Trade Center, its flagship storefront on Madison Avenue in New York City.
Of course, as
ace brokerage reporter Matthew Goldstein has pointed out, the temple of trading was doomed the moment it opened for business. That debut was in April 2001, little more than a year after the above-mentioned Nasdaq peak.
Yes, even then
Goldstein knew the world would little note nor long remember the E*Trade Center, a place where you could day-trade in the basement, sip a latte in the cafe, or buy $6 E*Trade brand mint tins in the gift shop.
Back when it opened, an E*Trade executive spouted this classic bit of marketing gobbledygook in a company statement: "E*TRADE Center is a premier physical touch point designed to deliver a richer E*TRADE experience to consumers."
"Premier physical touch point"? Which reminds us: One of the great things about busted bubbles and pierced balloons is that we don't have to read pronouncements like that anymore.
Anyhow, we couldn't help noticing that E*Trade Center's Web site suggests, "Enjoy fine food and drink at our gourmet cafe by Mangia. All that investing can make you hungry!"
Well, yes, it can. Anybody who has been day-trading at the center over the past two years, we bet, doesn't have too much money left over for food.
5. Dennis Kozlowski's Double Trouble
As we read in the
New York Post
this week, court papers released this Tuesday indicate yet more malefaction at
, the conglomerate formerly headed by highflying and helicopter-flying CEO Dennis Kozlowski.
At some point back when Kozlowski was still in power, allege prosecutors, Tyco made two inappropriate payments simultaneously: $100,000 each to Kozlowski's wife and to Kozlowski's mistress.
We at the research lab are shocked. $100,000 to your wife is fine. $100,000 to your mistress is OK, too. But $100,000 to each of them? That's just being greedy.