1. Weill You Were Out
We at the Five Dumbest Things Research Lab guess we were supposed to be impressed after the
levied a fine of $5 million on the Salomon Smith Barney unit of
See, the brokerage industry self-regulatory was all proud Monday that it had taken Solly to task for issuing "materially misleading research reports" on Winstar Communications as the telecom firm slid toward bankruptcy last year. The NASD alleged numerous problems with the research issued by -- surprise! -- ex-Solly telecom analyst Jack Grubman. Salomon, for example, kept a $50 price target and a buy rating on Winstar on its trip all the way down to 14 cents. The reports failed to adequately disclose the risks of investing in Winstar, says the NASD. Rebuttals of rival analysts' opinions in the reports were "false and misleading." All hard-hitting stuff.
But $5 million? We know that's a lot of money to most people, but to Salomon Smith Barney, that's a paltry sum. It leaves untouched most of the $24 million that the conflicted Salomon made over 2 1/2 years from raising money for Winstar.
Heck, Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill could pay the bill with little more effort than it would take us to pick up the check for a dinner at Applebee's. Excluding stock options, he's taken home about $70 million over the past three years. His Citigroup holdings are worth $960 million.
Meanwhile, the NASD trumpets that this SSB settlement is the third largest in NASD's history. Well, if we were the NASD and we wanted to strike fear in the hearts of brokerage firms, we would have kept that little statistic a secret.
The only consolation we can take from this episode is the NASD's statement that the Winstar settlement "does not address other, larger Salomon-related research analyst investigations currently under way by NASD and other regulators."
Five million here, five million there. Maybe soon we'll be talking about real money.
2. Gold Mine or Yours?
Speaking of well-paid executives, we got an interesting follow-up to last week's item about the rosy comments made by
CEO Dick Brown.
You'll recall that Brown was awfully chipper about EDS' prospects, despite a preannouncement that chopped 53% from the company's share price in a single day last week. "The gold is in the hills," he told analysts.
And things in fact are looking better this week -- except for that little problem where EDS' shares lost 29% Tuesday after news broke that the company had made disastrous bets on the direction of its stock price.
Perhaps, speculated one correspondent, Brown's sunny disposition has more to do with his take-home pay than EDS' business prospects. From 1999, when Brown joined EDS, through 2001, he took home $46 million in salary, bonuses and restricted stock, plus more than a million stock options. And as we read his retirement plan, he's due to get about $1.4 million annually once he decides to spend more time with his family.
Hmm. Maybe the gold isn't in the hills; it's in Dick Brown's pockets.
3. I'm All Lost in the Neuer Markt
Think we have it bad in the U.S.? Well, misery has company.
As several wire services reported Thursday, the operator of the Frankfurt stock exchange said it would dissolve the Neuer Markt, the New Economy stock exchange launched in 1997 as Germany's answer to the Nasdaq.
See, just as the tech-heavy Neuer Markt followed the tech-heavy Nasdaq on the way up, it followed its American colleague on the way down. Then it ran past it. The Nasdaq may be down 76% from its March 2000 peak, but the Neuer Markt has fallen about 95% from its apex that same month.
Now, doesn't that cheer you up just a little?
Anyhoo, the Associated Press says the Neuer Markt has lost 23% of listed companies to delisting or bankruptcy.
quotes a source saying that 90% of the remaining companies have no liquidity.
All we can think of is that if we had a nickel for every publicist who called to tell us over the past few years about a cool tech company listed on the Neuer Markt, we'd be rich. Or at least richer than 99% of the investors in the Neuer Markt.
4. Another Dot-Com Casualty
Speaking of how things aren't so bad after all, let's take a moment to consider the fate of Shelley Molyneux.
As numerous British papers reported this week, Ms. Molyneux was yet another citizen who saw her dreams for riches melt away in the dot-com downfall. Except unlike less serious investors, she took some drastic measures in the name of capital preservation.
Murder, She Wrote
See, Molyneux was married for 21 years to one Jon Molyneux, former CEO of U.K.-based dot-com directory Scoot.com, the remnants of which
appears to be in the process of shutting down.
For a little while there during the boom years, Ms. Molyneux thought she'd be fabulously wealthy. But things didn't work out as planned: Scoot hit the skids, Mr. Molyneux stepped down, and the couple divorced, to boot.
So Ms. Molyneux did what any rational investor would do in such a situation. She hired a hit man to kill her ex-husband so she could collect on his life insurance policy.
Unbeknownst to Ms. Molyneux, the "hit man" she hired was, in fact, someone even more fiendish than that: a newspaper reporter masquerading as a hit man. Once he collected some juicy evidence on tape, she pleaded guilty to "soliciting to murder."
5. E for Evasion
What's dumber than paying $44,000 for Enron's tilted "E" logo sculpture at the company's bankruptcy auction?
Read on and you'll find out.
So there we were in the Five Dumbest Things Research Lab's lunchroom Wednesday, nuking some popcorn in the microwave and watching some fool overpay for some chrome monument of stock market excess.
Talk about throwing good money after bad. No doubt the purchaser of this crud is going to wake up in a few weeks with an ugly case of buyer's regret.
Anyway, while we munched, we wondered why that tilted E looked so familiar. That is, why would we think we'd seen it before, even if we hadn't seen it in the news around 1,200 times over the past 12 months?
Of course! Because we
seen it before! In another logo that's engraved on our consciousness: the one from
Signs of Trouble
Which got us thinking. What's the connection between Enron and Dell, other than they're both from Texas? Has the Dell E been sullied by Enron's escapades? And if a one-letter logo from Enron is worth $44,000, does that mean we could buy Dell's four-letter mark for $176,000?
So as soon as our snack break ended an hour and a half later, we got back to work. We called up Dell, where a spokeswoman expended a suspiciously large amount of effort to tell us how dumb we were to even think of pursuing this story. The similarity between the two companies' logos "is really of no consequence," she said, "and the comparison is ludicrous."
What happened next, however, made us wonder whether Dell was trying to hide a monstrous conspiracy. In an obvious effort to demoralize those of us trying to publish original research, the Dell operative said that both the
had written about this a few months ago. "It's old news, and it's an old observation to us."
So we would have dropped our investigation and thought no more of it, except for the glaring problem we soon unearthed. In fact, neither the
has ever written about the E similarity, according to our exhaustive search of a computer database. We called the spokeswoman back and confronted her with the evidence. She backtracked. Perhaps she
mistaken about the
, she admitted. But she was sure the story was in
. She'd get back to us with the exact reference.
Of course she couldn't find that one, either. That made us wonder what they're hiding at Dell. Why they were so fast and so furious about denying any connection to Enron.
And we'd still be chasing this story down, until some nice person at
found the two inconclusive sentences on the subject that the magazine had published in its March 4 issue.
So, we sadly conclude, perhaps this week's edition of the FDT won't win us the Pulitzer. Then maybe next week's will. After all, the gold is in the hills.