The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street This Week

1. The Lady and the Trump

Want to be like Donald Trump? Well, do so at your own peril.
You're ... Fricasseed
Money money, Martha!

Now, we're not referring simply to his bizarre hairstyle. Nor are we talking just about his management style -- specifically, the style that led Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts into bankruptcy.

No, we're thinking of Wednesday's announcement that Martha Stewart, following her release from federal prison, will star in a spinoff of the Trump-centered reality TV franchise The Apprentice.

Yes, soon after Stewart is released from jail in March, a gaggle of executive wannabees will vie on-camera for a position at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO).

Well, as much as people are rooting for Martha's rehabilitation, and as much as her company's stock has soared while she's been in prison, we just don't get it. The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, we suspect, will go the route of previous Apprentice-copycat shows starring Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and British adventurer/entrepreneur Richard Branson: It'll deflate faster than one of Branson's hot-air balloons.

See, the primal appeal of The Apprentice is the joy of watching a bunch of ambitious punks brutally fight over money in the presence of a guy who celebrates the culture of money.

But while Stewart, a former stockbroker, is indeed a moneymaker with a lot of drive, her public persona has nothing to do with money or ambition. It's all about family, friends, food, decorations and happy homes. Her public focus is on the good times that money can't buy -- happiness in a cozy home, not a rat-race workplace.

So we don't understand how you can have people ruthlessly compete with one another to be paragons of domesticity. It's too paradoxical to contemplate.

Nor do we see the appeal of watching the behind-the-scenes, no-nonsense businesswoman that Martha Stewart undoubtedly is. We prefer the gracious hostess that Martha plays on camera, even if it is an act.

No, we don't want Martha Stewart to star in a reality show. It's the unreality that is her genius.

2. Being Sold a Bell of Goods

What's sadder: The possibility that the venerable AT&T ( T) brand could become a footnote to the voracious communications behemoth SBC ( SBC)? Or the fact that no one cares?

Yep, it's kind of sad. AT&T is a historic company, one that is central to the development of communications in America. It played a highly respected, glorious role in the economic life of the 20th century.

But as much as we'd like to get upset about AT&T's passing, now that SBC has announced plans to buy Ma Bell, we find that we just don't care. The historic role of AT&T, we find, just doesn't translate into sentimental value.

We're not sure why. Maybe it had something to do with the ruthlessly efficient manner in which AT&T, in its prime, tried to stamp out all perceived intruders on its turf. This is a company, for instance, that had its lawyers spend about seven years to prevent a company from selling a piece of plastic you could snap onto the mouthpiece of a telephone handset. (AT&T insisted that the gadget, called a Hushaphone, would degrade its network.)

Under AT&T, you may recall, long-distance rates were far higher than the competition-induced rates people enjoy today. If AT&T had continued its reign, countless Americans likely would still be waiting until 11:01 p.m. on weeknights to make cross-country calls at a reasonable price.

Not that the SBC brand name gets us all warm and fuzzy. But AT&T strikes us as one of those classics of English literature we were supposed to read in college, but never did: Yes, it's highly respected, and it's been around for years. That doesn't mean we actually like it.

3. Citi on the Dock of the Bay

Gosh, we're getting old. We've been around so long that we're witnessing not only the Before and After of major mergers, but the Before, the After and the After-the-After, when things go back the way they were Before.

Case in point: Monday's announcement that Citigroup ( C) is selling its Travelers Life and Annuity unit to MetLife ( MET).

Why, it was nearly seven years ago that the company then known as Citicorp announced its plans to merge with the financial services conglomerate known as Travelers Group, in a deal valued by The Hartford Courant at $37.3 billion.

But here, Citigroup -- which in 2002 sold off Travelers Property Casualty --is selling off the last vestige of the Travelers insurance business.

This led to a burning question: What happens to the red umbrella?

We're referring of course, to the Travelers logo -- the icon of protection (the equivalent of Allstate's "good hands") that served as Travelers' symbolic representation for years and years.

But while the red umbrella is visually synonymous with Travelers, the situation has gotten sticky in recent years. For instance, the umbrella is clearly referred to in Citigroup's consumer logo, in the form of a red arc over an umbrella-handle-resembling "t."

So we asked a Citigroup spokeswoman what would happen to the umbrella after the Travelers sale. "We'll be keeping it," she said.

"How can you?" we protested. "It's closely associated with Travelers."

"It's closely associated with Citigroup," she countered.

We disagree -- as would, we believe, nearly anyone born before 1998. You can't reassign an icon just like that.

But, hey. We suppose if we spent $37.3 billion on a merger, we, too, would want to walk away with a souvenir umbrella.

4. I'm With Stupid

So, now that the Richard Scrushy and the Bernie Ebbers trials are under way, we get to see the I'm Stupid defense in all its glory.

Both of these men, you see, stand accused of participating in conspiracies to cook the books at the companies they used to head -- Ebbers when he was atop WorldCom (now MCI ( MCIP)) and Scrushy at HealthSouth.

Actually, to say each of these guys "used to head" a particular company isn't precise. Rather, Scrushy and Ebbers built their respective companies from scratch. Each ran his company for nearly two decades. Each was nearly synonymous with the company he ran.

See No EBITDA ...
... hear no GAAP

And now each is saying he had no idea that bunches of executives passed in the halls each day were cooking the books quarter after quarter.

The implied stupidity is twofold. Not only do Ebbers and Scrushy separately contend they had no idea that the wool was being pulled over their eyes, but also the men say they had no idea that their companies regularly hired crooks who -- in contrast to them, the leaders of their companies -- had no moral compass and were so easily tempted into a life of crime.

To which we ask this question: If these guys were that stupid, how did they end up building their empires from scratch in the first place?

We eagerly await the rest of the trials for an answer.

Grasso-tronomic Delight
Talk about worker's comp

5. The Grasso Is Greener on the Other Side of Wall Street

After more than a year of stonewalling, the New York Stock Exchange released Wednesday an internal report concluding that the NYSE did a terrible job of keeping ex-chairman Richard Grasso's pension and benefits under control.

Surprise, surprise. We had to wait a year to learn that?

As is usually the case with these fact-finding reports at Good Organizations Gone Bad, the fascinating parts lie not in the general conclusion but in the lurid details.

Our favorites: The disclosure that Grasso's outsized compensation had some trickle-down effects. Specifically, the 2003 report noted that Grasso's executive assistant was paid approximately $240,000 annually over the prior three years, and that he "used the services" of two drivers on the NYSE payroll, each of whom earned $130,000 a year.

Poetically enough, we also learned this week that the producers of The Apprentice -- the Trump version, mind you -- are scheduled to be setting up shop Friday at the Trump building on 40 Wall St., about 50 yards from the Exchange. The producers' goal is to find participants for another round of the show, in which people will again compete for a job with The Donald.

Well, now we know everybody's lining up at the wrong building. If people really want to make big bucks being a gofer for an insufferable rich guy, maybe they should head down the street to the NYSE.

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