The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street This Week

1. Salton the Wounds

Another week of earnings season has gone by.

You know what that means, of course: another story about a company allegedly stage-managing its quarterly conference call with Wall Street.

On Monday, Daniel Loeb, CEO of hedge fund Third Point, sent an open letter of complaint to Leonhard Dreimann, CEO of struggling appliance marketer Salton ( SFP).

Among the several accusations in Loeb's letter, one passage in particular caught our eye.

Loeb, who says Third Point is one of Salton's two largest shareholders, said the company blocked him from speaking on Salton's Feb. 9 conference call, which came after the company reported disappointing results. Loeb further asserted that Ken Sgro, Salton's outside investor relations representative -- Loeb actually called him Dreimann's "lackey" -- "insult ed my intelligence by blaming the slight on 'a conference call administrator malfunction.'"

Strong stuff. So on Thursday we called Sgro, who works at the investor relations firm CEOcast, to get his side of the story. Sgro told us he had no idea where Loeb got this insulting-the-intelligence story. "I never spoke with him personally," Sgro insisted.

We called Loeb to double-check. "I stand by every word in that letter," said Loeb -- though he subsequently admitted that "conference call administrator malfunction" wasn't a direct quote but his own Janet Jackson-esque phrasing.

During the call, said Loeb, he had spoken directly to the conference call administrator to check that he was in line to ask a question. "They said I was in the queue," he said. He had wanted to ask a number of questions about Salton's refinancing, its sales deterioration and what he calls the company's "bloated" operating expenses. But he never got the chance.

Sgro "called me personally after the call, and he apologized," said Loeb. "I told him I didn't accept the apology."

Hmm, we thought. Loeb has a clear memory of an apology from Sgro. But Sgro says it didn't happen. Odd, that.

Well, things cleared up a little later, when Sgro called us back. "I was completely mistaken," he says. He did indeed talk to Loeb afterward. But Sgro insisted there was nothing purposeful about Loeb's exclusion.

"The operator on the call didn't tell us he was ready to ask his question," he said. It would be irrational for Salton, he said, to deliberately ignore Loeb. "Every shareholder is important to us," said Sgro. "Why mess with one of the bigger ones?" (Salton, another spokesman told us, "has always been willing to directly speak to Mr. Loeb in the past.")

Loeb, suspicious of Sgro's changing recollection, calls him a liar.

"If the point of the conference call is to disseminate information publicly, and to have an open give-and-take with shareholders and analysts, how can they censor their largest shareholders?" Loeb asks. "It seems to me more like Soviet-style PR presentation, where only those people friendly to management are allowed to ask any questions."

2. A LeapFrog in Our Throat

Leave it to a learning technology company to teach us something new about communicating on Wall Street.

We're talking about LeapFrog Enterprises ( LF), developer of the LeapPad -- which, depending on your point of view, is either a revolutionary educational toy or simply the latest fad in the history of gadgets marketed to parents seeking a stealthy way to make their kids smarter.

Things got particularly gloomy at LeapFrog this week. Both a director and the company's chief operating officer resigned. The company announced layoffs of 180 employees. And it reported much-worse-than-expected fourth-quarter results. Shares in LeapFrog, which traded as high as $47.30 in late 2003 but has dropped like a stone in a pond since then, were trading at $10.76 Thursday, down 14 cents.

But what cheered us up was the explanation that LeapFrog CEO Tom Kalinske gave for part of the disappointment. LeapFrog was hurt not only by operational issues and increased operating costs, he said, but also "by an industrywide lack of retailer reorders around the critical Thanksgiving period."

More Like a Tadpole
No princely sales for this LeapFrog

"Lack of retailer reorders around the critical Thanksgiving period"? Is that some kind of fancy-pants way of saying, "Much to our surprise, people weren't buying what we were selling"?

A LeapFrog spokeswoman pretty much confirms that, yes, it is. "Demand was down across the board for all toy retailers," she says.

Jimmy Dean ... Rock On
Gives Sara Lee a frosty reception

3. Guarantee and Sympathy

As if he were singing a ballad, singer and sausage-entrepreneur Jimmy Dean this week showed a major corporation just how darn angry you can get when your woman up and leaves you.

On Wednesday, Dean -- whose fame derives not only from hits like Big Bad John but also from the meat company he founded in 1969 -- announced he'd won an injunction barring food giant Sara Lee (SLE) from using the singer's personal guarantee or endorsement on Jimmy Dean products.

So Sara Lee, which bought Dean's company in 1984, can forget about using the "Jimmy Dean Quality Guarantee" used in 1990s ads: "Every Jimmy Dean product meets my highest standards for taste and goodness. And I personally guarantee it."

A Sara Lee spokeswoman says the company had begun phasing out Dean's guarantee in 2003, though the company believes it still has a right to use it.

As for why Jimmy Dean might no longer want to guarantee Jimmy Dean products, look to Sara Lee's 2003 decision to end Dean's longstanding consulting agreement with the company. If Dean is not associated with the company, says a spokeswoman for Dean, he doesn't want to be endorsing or guaranteeing its products.

Dean says Sara Lee was going after a younger customer; denying that, the spokeswoman says that the company had shifted its marketing focus away from the person Jimmy Dean toward Jimmy Dean products, particularly "value-added products" that "our consumers were desiring."

Whatever. All we know is that we'll never be able to listen to Sara Lee's classic baked-goods jingle the same way. The man who wrote "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee" apparently never met Jimmy Dean.

4. Mamma.com Told Me Not to Come

Every now and then, we have to remind ourselves that the stocks that we write about aren't simply ticker symbols with prices attached to them. They're actually companies.

At least we think they are.

Case in point: Mamma.com ( MAMA), the Montreal-based search-engine company that said Wednesday it probably wouldn't file its year-end 2004 financial statements on time, owing to its parting of ways with auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Mamma.com, which bills itself as "The Mother of All Search Engines," says the PwC split arose from the Securities and Exchange Commission's informal investigation into the "intense trading activity" in Mamma.com stock last year -- intensity which returned this Tuesday, when the stock jumped 36% on nearly 20 times its usual trading volume.

But for all the times we've mentioned Mamma.com, we realize that we've never actually used the darn thing. So we gave it a shot this week.

Our verdict? Mixed. Mamma does a decent job of giving you a reasonable selection for general topic searches. Typing in "used books," for example, gives you a decent view of the used-book landscape on the Web. It's roughly the same top results you'd get with Google ( GOOG).

But if you're looking for exhaustive results, you'd better look elsewhere. If you search for something not so mainstream -- say, "dumbest things on Wall Street" -- Mamma.com delivers 36 examples in no discernible order. Type in the same phrase on Google, and you find 95 times as many entries.

So Mamma may be the mother of all search engines, but she doesn't quite get around as much as the rest of them.

5. Lanny Davis Blues

Though we at the research lab aren't permitted to invest in individualstocks, we have developed some guidelines about where in the stock marketpeople should not be putting their money.

Rule No. 1, for example, is to never invest in technology companiesbased in Boca Raton. Rule No. 2: Avoid stocks with cutesy ticker symbols.

Well, we just added a new commandment to our list:Think long and hard before investing in a companyrepresented by Lanny Davis.

Davis, to refresh your memory, achieved his greatestfame as special counsel to Bill Clinton during theMonica Lewinsky scandal. But what's more relevant hereis the attorney's usual specialty -- serving as publicrelations adviser for companies in desperate needof some good public relations.

Why, just last week Davis -- these days a partner at Orrick, Herrington& Sutcliffe -- was speaking to the Associated Press on behalf of InnovativeCommunication Corporation. The Virgin Islands-basedtelecom company apparently aroused the wrath of thegovernment of Belize by buying the country's biggesttelephone provider last year but neglecting to forkover the $57 million purchase price.

But that's only the tip of Davis's iceberg. Over thepast few years, Davis has counseled all of theseeyebrow-raising companies:

  • HealthSouth and its former CEO RichardScrushy, now on trial for fraud.
  • Fog Cutter Capital, which, when its CEOwent to prison for two felonies, agreed to pay him notonly his full salary, but also a $2 millionbonus.
  • NovaStar Financial (NFI), thesubprime lender last year accused by critics -- andthe state of Nevada -- of spotty compliance withlending laws. (Earlier this month, the company'sexecutives were overheard congratulating themselves for avoiding painfulquestions on their earningscall -- except for one that got through from "oned--khead.")
  • First Command Financial Services, afinancial services company ordered in December to pay$12 million in fines for its habit of sellinghigh-cost mutual funds, with the help of misleadingsales pitches, to captive audiences of militarypersonnel.
  • Allied Capital (ALD), abusiness development company accused by short-sellersof inflating the value of its assets.
  • The granddaddy of all high-tech stock frauds,Lernout & Hauspie -- the Belgian speechrecognition software developer that collapsed afterbooking millions in suspect revenue from suspectrelated-party companies.

Now, we're not saying that all these companies areactually guilty of everything people have accused themof. Nor do we begrudge these companies the opportunityto get the best combination of attorney and crisispublic relations manager they can get.

But given Davis's illustrious client list, it's occuring to us thathiring Davis to solve a PR crisis creates a whole new one: It sets offalarm bells that a company may have done something way beyond the pale of arespectable business.

Davis, you may not be surprised to hear, disagrees with ourinterpretation. He says it's important to remember that he isn't just apublic relations specialist, but an attorney whose attorney-clientprivilege enables him and his team to do the best job helping a company getbad news out in crisis situations. "We have a track record," he says,"where we are in many instances able to turn bad news into better news bybridging the gap between attorneys and public relations."

Discussing the importance of the tranparency that he advises hisclients to embrace, Davis cites the example of two companies -- broadcaster Cumulus Media ( CMLS) and the seismic mapping firm Seitel -- whose stockemerged either relatively unscathed or higher after he advised them ontheir release of restated financials.

Davis implies that focusing on his misrepresents the extensivebehind-the-scenes work he does. "Ninety-nine percent of the clients I workfor, nobody knows I work for," he says.

And Davis suggests his name is actually a plus on Wall Street. "On therare occasions where I allow my name to surface," he says, "people in theworld of journalism and in the public markets have told me that when theylearn we've been hired, it's an indication that the company will handle itscrisis. And our track record has demonstrated that."

So be it. We still can't help thinking that if you're reaching out toLanny Davis for your problem, it must be a very big problem indeed.

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