1. Alcoa's Tin Man
There is no better time to troll for dumb news than on a Friday before a three-day holiday weekend. And there is no better time, apparently, to appoint Stanley O'Neal to your board.
The mind pauses.
, the aluminum giant, slipped the news out there when they thought no one was noticing, but they could have shouted it in the public square at high noon on a Wednesday, and the mind would have taken a brief pause, made an attempt at sober contemplation, and then giggled uncontrollably at the very idea of O'Neal being named director of anything.
As Simon Constable pointed out earlier this week: Isn't inviting O'Neal to advise you on the future course of your business a bit like sending your daughter out on a date with Dracula? It's bound to end badly...and probably before morning.
When last seen in the public square, O'Neal was busy draining
of its lifeblood. Stan, you'll remember, is the purported bond man who let momentous losses in fixed income splatter a once-proud firm. Merrill's professional identity used to be the bull. Now it's just beleaguered shareholders who say "bull" after Merrill takes another $10 billion or so in write-offs and swears it's the last.
One wonders, in the scheme of things, what this man has to contribute to a firm that already has a history of poor management. Perhaps it's a mad inversion of the concept of reflected glory, and the board thinks sitting next to O'Neal will help the other directors gain in stature. Or maybe they have a plan to mail him to the competition, like a letter bomb. One wonders how proud the company is of this move, as they all but announced the appointment under cover of night. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt and promise to reconsider if the aluminum giant suddenly starts making big bets on subprime loans.
Dumb-O-Meter Score: 93. Said Alcoa Chief Executive Alain Belda in the top-secret press release announcing the appointment: "Stan is a straightforward leader who focused on improving the operations of the business during his tenure at Merrill as part of his broader strategic vision for the firm," To which my daughter, who would never be allowed out with Dracula, might respond: "Whatever."
2. Break In: Financial Stocks At Risk
Timing is everything in life -- it's just not much for Wall Street analysts. Take the recent barrage of "thanks for nothing research" reports downgrading the financial guarantors. Some of these companies -- like
-- were selling for about $70 a few months ago, when they were favorably regarded by Bank of America analysts. And now that the stocks have dropped toward, into and around the single digits? Eh, they downgraded.
"The macro environment," these analysts wrote in a report full of flummery, "is swiftly deteriorating." Call me a stickler for the correct tense, but I could have sworn that, what with the write-offs and ratings agency troubles, things have, uh, already deteriorated. That's why the stocks went from $70 to a few twitches from zero. But rest assured that the great analysts of Wall Street are still hard at work, America.
Later in this report, they finally get on to the essential work of appraising risk ... in a section called (I kid you not) "risks to our downgrade." Follow these analysts and you will ride a stock from $70 to a mortally wounded price around $10. Then you "throw in the towel," as they so eloquently advise. And when the stock pops back up on word of a cash infusion or takeover and you call to complain, the analysts can say "we warned you about the risk to our downgrade." Other analysts at other firms, including Citigroup, pulled similar stunts on the bedraggled financials, but dipping our toes into one abomination at a time seems sufficient.
Dumb-O-Meter Score: 88. "We continue to believe that the municipal bond insurance business model is viable in the long run for bond insurers not facing significant subprime losses," the Bank of America analysts also wrote, a line in the early running for the year's "Firm Grasp of the Obvious" award. Do remember, though, that these analysts get paid big bucks for their thoughts, which calls into question whether the dummy is them ... or any one of us who works for a living.
3. The Second Coming of Lord
What does it take to finally humble the Lord? (I speak of
CEO Albert Lord, before you send the heresy emails.) Well, apparently it takes a $1.6 billion fourth-quarter loss and an increasingly curious
Securities & Exchange Commission
As background, please realize that this column has no better friend than Lord, may he be granted a long and public life. For all of 2007, My Sweet Lord was given a first-ever
Dumb-O-Meter Score of 100, a perfect score demarking idiocy in its purest, most unadulterated form. Lord blamed hundreds of millions of dollars in losses on the distraction of takeover talk, had to sell most of his SLM stock due to what he claimed were margin calls and, at the end of the year, signed off a conference call with cuss words and threats to analysts.
This week, though, Lord humbled himself, apologizing to analysts ... as only he could, by leaving puzzled blinks in his wake. "My closing comments were offensive," he said on a Wednesday call, referring to the cusses and threats. Then the brow furrower: "They were not meant to be my closing comments." It does not take a Freudian to wonder if Lord was saying they were not meant to be his closing comments, but that he should have led with them. Or woven the cusses and threats into the middle of his comments, where they could have taken on a more subtle form. Perhaps the apology was simply a bit indelicately framed. Whatever the case, in an attempt at reputation salvation or, better yet, a fire sale of the company, Sallie Mae brought on the well-regarded and bright Anthony Terracciano, known to have an itchy sales trigger, to replace Lord as chairman. Terracciano announced the creation of a chief credit officer, which might take all the fun out of shareholder guessing as to what Sallie Mae's loans are even worth and why. Lord, for one, said the company lent too much money to dopey kids from crummy schools who did not graduate. Meanwhile, the SEC is asking about director and executive stock sales.
Dumb-O-Meter Score: 80. "We have a very good business, and it will continue to be a good business," said Lord, on his best behavior but puzzling investors just the same.
4. A Bridge Loan to Nowhere
It's always fun to chew over the phrases that become popular as a way to explain inane and incompetent financial behavior. And this week I found one that stuck between my teeth like a sesame seed: pier loan.
See, for starters, many banks make bridge loans, which help bridge the gap till deal closure. But when a bank finds itself incapable of syndicating the debt on that bridge loan, then guess what?
The language mavens in the big bad world of business, where math skills normally rule, have taken to calling what results a pier loan. Got that? A bridge to nowhere is akin to a pier. If you take a long walk on a short pier, you eventually plunge off. This choice of phrase is almost poetic in the meaning it packs so eloquently into so little space.
But ironies do still abound. It seems abundantly clear that an industry able to fix the perfect words to the perfect fix should be able to avoid trouble in the first place. But as someone who actually gets paid money to analyze the verbal side of the numbers -- well, maybe I should be careful what I wish for.
Dumb-O-Meter Score: 79. Without quirky turns in business language, I'd be on my own pier to nowhere.
5. Nuclear Crappies
Nuclear power is now at the forefront of the movement to wean America off of foreign sources of energy, but it might all be felled because of ... fish and mud.
That's right. Many nuclear plants use what are called open-cooling systems, which means they take in tons of water from nearby rivers or lakes to cool their systems, before spitting the water back out. But we were hearing this week, with increasing alarms from the southeastern portion of America, where there is a drought, that nuclear plants might have to close down, lest they suck in riverbed mud and suffocating fish through their massive underwater intake pipes. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has regulations on minimum water levels and, besides, shallow water often isn't cool enough.
Could this mean that
, a nuclear plant operation, or utilities like
could be adversely impacted by shallow puddles of lukewarm water that used to be great lakes and rivers? Might
, which makes plenty of products, including nuclear equipment, be in the same difficult straits as a fat threeridge mussel or black tie crappie, seeing its watery homes getting downsized by the day? It bears noting that nuclear power opponents have tried to play the fish card for years, claiming that the process of sucking water up and spewing it out kill millions of fish.
So there you have it. The nation's energy independence, not to mention safety from an errant nuclear plume, this week centering around pace of raindrops and the health and welfare of your average flathead catfish.
Dumb-O-Meter Score: 73. Only on Wall Street would the crappie hit the stock.
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;
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