More Is (Wire)less
1. Bell Curve
global ambitions rang out again this week.
Just four short months after closing on a landscape-changing mega-merger, the San Antonio telecom giant was back on the acquisition trail. This time the road to riches leads through Atlanta, home of regional rival BellSouth (BLS) .
AT&T will fork over $67 billion in stock for BellSouth, which is AT&T's partner in the fast-growing Cingular cell-phone service. The linkup will give AT&T sole control of Cingular and enable it to slash 10,000 more jobs. Consumer groups protested the prospect of an enlarged AT&T, but the company insists the merger "will benefit customers and promote competition."
"This combination is good for our employees, our customers and our stockholders," BellSouth CEO Duane Ackerman (right, in photo above) adds.
The match may also end up being good for AT&T's rivals. Though Cingular is the leading U.S. wireless service, AT&T is hellbent on dropping the name in favor of
the mighty AT&T brand.
"A single brand is much more efficient in the marketplace and more efficient in terms of advertising and support," AT&T chief Ed Whitacre (left, in photo above) told investors on a conference call Monday.
That might be so if the brand in question weren't AT&T Wireless. The name fell into disuse two years ago after subscribers
fled in record numbers, driving the ill-fated company into Cingular's hands.
"AT&T Wireless had some issues,"
chief Gary Forsee noted in a Wednesday morning conference call. "We look forward to competing with that brand again."
So AT&T wants consumers to identify with a name now associated with
tech snafus and
That's certainly one way of promoting competition.
Dumb-o-Meter score: 93. It's getting mighty tempting to brand the AT&T guys as fools.
To view Colin Barr's video take on AT&T's entry in Five Dumbest this week, click here
2. Rogue's Gallery
The Enron trial is getting personal.
Prosecutors are trying to prove that ex-CEOs Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling oversaw a massive fraud at the once-highflying energy trader. The defense claims there was no fraud at Enron -- in spite of the company's conspicuous collapse and the many guilty pleas collected by the feds. And upping the ante, Skilling's lawyer contends that the government's star witness is a lousy family man.
There's certainly no shortage of villains in the case. Skilling is the guy who in early 2001 called an analyst an "a--hole" for questioning the company's accounting. Lay hyped Enron while selling his stock right up to the bitter end. "The company is probably in the strongest and best shape that it has ever been in," he improbably told BusinessWeek two months before Enron's collapse.
On the other hand, prosecution witness Andrew Fastow has admitted to stealing money from Enron and has pleaded guilty to fraud. He faces 10 years in jail. "I lied to Enron," the former finance chief told the jury. Fastow faced off this week with Skilling lawyer Daniel Petrocelli, who earlier claimed in apparent seriousness that Enron "wasn't a crooked company."
Petrocelli says Fastow's lying and plea deal undermine his credibility. At one point the lawyer vented that Fastow's answers sounded well rehearsed,
The Associated Press
reports. "With all due respect, your questions sound very rehearsed to me," Fastow replied.
Petrocelli didn't like that one bit. "We're talking about the fact that your wife, because of your conduct, spent one year doing hard time," he thundered. "And you think that's funny?"
Fastow didn't. "No, sir, it is not funny at all," Fastow said.
He's right. What's funny is the defense's claim that Enron was clean.
Dumb-o-Meter score: 91. Enron "was a company that Skilling to this day is proud to have helped lead," Petrocelli told the jury, again with a straight face.
3. Talk Is Cheap
Flip-flops are in fashion at
The search-engine giant wants to share more information with investors, but the effort hasn't been paying off so far. Twice in recent days, Google has offered up its view on the future -- only to change its tune soon after. The stock has gotten trampled as a result.
The latest about-face came Tuesday afternoon, as the Mountain View, Calif., company
corrected some disclosures tied to its
analyst-day extravaganza. The pratfall came just a week after finance chief George Reyes
scared Wall Street with his slowdown talk, prompting Google to
Of course, Google has long declined to provide formal financial guidance, preferring comments like, "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Even so, the company had to admit Tuesday that a recent posting on its
investor relations Web site looked suspiciously like revenue and margin guidance.
"Our ads business for the moment is healthy and growing and we're on a strong trajectory projected to grow from $6bn this year to $9.5bn next year based purely on trends in traffic and monetization growth," the posting said. "AdSense margins will be squeezed in 2006 and beyond."
Those words paint a fairly specific and rather mixed picture. But Google then rolled out its double disavowal: Not only were the comments not intended for public consumption -- they weren't even accurate.
"The statements regarding $9.5 billion in 2006 ad revenue and AdSense margins were not speaker notes prepared for the Analyst Day presentation, and were inadvertently included in the Analyst Day slides," Google said in a Tuesday afternoon filing with the
Securities and Exchange Commission
. Google adds that the revenue outlook "should not be regarded as financial guidance" and that the margin forecast "does not reflect Google's current expectations."
Google's information may be accessible, but it doesn't seem very useful.
Dumb-o-Meter score: 88. At least we won't have to worry about the click-fraud menace any longer.
Corner of Wall and Blowhard
4. Boo Who?
shares roared out of the gate this week, but that wasn't the loudest noise at the corner of Wall and Broad streets.
The spanking-new stock surged as individual investors finally got a chance to snap up a piece of the iconic stock exchange. CEO John Thain (pictured at right) opened the proceedings Wednesday morning by buying 100 shares on the floor at $67 apiece, Marketwatch reported. By midday Thursday, those shares fetched nearly $85, a nice 27% return over two days.
The historic moment came a day after the NYSE completed its takeover of the electronic transaction processor Archipelago, putting NYSE Group shares in public hands for the first time -- and unleashing a flood of high-flown sentiment.
"The Opening Bell, which has long symbolized the success and vitality of our capital market system, today rings in a new era for the Exchange, our customers, and investors," said Thain in a statement. "We will do our utmost to serve the interests of our customers, our shareholders, and all those who rely on our market," NYSE Chairman Marshall Carter said.
Apparently, the NYSE's utmost isn't enough for some exchange players, though. Many longtime exchange floor brokers see their jobs threatened by Thain's focus on electronic trading, as competition mounts with the
and other big computer-driven operations. Just ahead of Wednesday's triumphant market open, the brokers unleashed a chorus of boos, overwhelming the tinkle of NYSE-issued bells.
"A lot of people are upset because these seat holders are retirees, and these guys have worked 30 years here and they're not getting anything," one broker told
To them, the Big Board's new era is just a bunch of bull.
Dumb-o-Meter score: 85. The Grasso's always greener on the other side.
The Cablevision Thing
5. Cash Cows
Apparently money is no object at
The Bethpage, N.Y., cable-system operator is locked in a turf war with big telco Verizon (VZ) - Get Verizon Communications Inc. Report over Cablevision's tony Long Island customer base. But you'd hardly know it to compare the companies' spending priorities.
Verizon is spending billions of dollars on a fiber-to-the-home network build-out that will enable it to sell television, phone and Internet service on one bill. The so-called FiOS project has thrifty Wall Street types breaking out in return-on-equity rashes, and Cablevision has been equally dismissive. "They are building a me-too product at a great expense," executives said on last month's earnings conference call.
Even so, Verizon at least seems
intent on investing in its business. The same focus hasn't always been apparent at Cablevision, where the big accomplishment in recent weeks was to
nail down a credit line enabling the payment of a
$3 billion dividend.
As luck would have it, about $600 million of that money stands to go to the founding family led by CEO James Dolan and his father, Charles, the chairman. They famously earned their keep last year by crossing swords over the money-losing VOOM satellite TV project and launching a bizarre and fruitless lowball bid for Adelphia.
Of course, Cablevision had meant to fork over the big dividend earlier. After last June's plan to take Cablevision private ran aground, the Dolans decided in October that they preferred the idea of lining their own pockets. But a
technical default on a credit line delayed the handout.
Now, only technicalities such as establishing date-of-record and pay dates stand in the way of the Dolans' fat paycheck. The coming cash-out brings to mind James Dolan's reply to a conference-call question about the board's deliberations. Dolan allowed that the board was discussing the dividend, "but there is no guarantee it would move forward with that, or move in any direction."
That sounds all too believable in Cablevision's case.
Dumb-o-Meter score: 80. The Dolans remain unscripted.
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