(Editor's note: To access some of these stories, registration or a subscription may be required. Please check the individual links for the site's policy.) First off, The Business Press Maven is filing for an extension. I've spent several days reviewing Conde Nast's new business magazine, Portfolio. But I need a little bit more time to read through the thick and splashy tome to officially rule that it lacks a single actionable insight. Several days deep into the search, it does not look promising. But I will, in service to my readers, courageously forge on. Since I can't rightly give Portfolio the dreaded Business Press Maven "Back of the Hand" on the technicality that the solitary useful morsel might be buried on page 1,423, right between an advertisement that has a guy landing a jet he fractionally owns on a kid's soccer field, apparently without scattering the younguns, and what seems to be the middle of 14 articles on hedge funds, I will, as a backup, grant the BOTH to Fortune. Did Fortune really take Dell ( DELL) founder and again-CEO Michael Dell's name in vain when writing about Jeffrey A. Citron's return to the CEO post he once held at Vonage ( VG)? The Business Press Maven is always critical of storylines that mislead investors by drawing false parallels between something that happened this time and the last time something like this happened, whether it was just a few weeks ago or many months ago.
History does repeat itself, folks, but not in this tidy a manner. Don't tell that to the folks at Fortune, who headline an article about the return of Vonage's founder to the CEO post he probably left in name only: "Jeffrey Citron pulls a Michael Dell." Dell might have the challenge of his lifetime in front of him. But to draw any parallel between him and Citron because they both started companies young and returned to them (well, Citron never really left) is making too much of age. In terms of substance, longevity and ethics, there seems to be no comparison. Even Fortune seems to run from the inane comparison by the end of the article, but -- again -- since so many perceptions are gleaned from headlines, the damage was done. Fortune, enjoy your "Back of the Hand" award. Put it on your mantel and invite the Portfolio people over to visit. The Business Press Maven is a volunteer firefighter, and recently my crew used some earth-moving equipment to drive through rushing floodwaters to pick up people who were stuck. That's nothing compared to the selfless heroism of pushing through an issue of Portfolio for my readers, but I mention it both out of self-aggrandizement and also to mention what a quality outfit Caterpillar ( CAT) has always been.
It has also been a lucky outfit in recent years. Some of the factors that are going its way: housing, the popularity of corn, the Bush administration's funneling money to the farm states and the development of China and India with the weak dollar amplifying the strength of overseas sales. In short, Cat's got it going on. The planets aligned perfectly. But while others fixate on numbers, The Business Press Maven also looks at words -- written, verbal signs that a company may be losing touch. Though Cat's numbers were good -- raised 'em -- I detected reason for a note of caution going forward, due to certain verbal signs of vanity and overconfidence. Cat's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jim Owens was quoted in the company's earnings press release all but declaring the company a hero for defying the odds -- with the first small bit of macro challenge the company has had to deal with in ages. "Despite major headwinds in North America related to housing and the sharp drop in demand for on-highway truck engines," Owens said, patting himself on the back and overstating the challenges, which were relatively minor moves off of ridiculous highs, "Team Caterpillar stepped up to deliver a solid first quarter." Again, in and of themselves the words give no reason to worry. But in raising numbers for 2007, the company was also predicting that the Federal Reserve would reduce interest rates by 50 basis points. The company, very dependent upon interest rates, is echoing some of the entitled thought out there in the market that any blip in the housing market must be greeted by a sharp decrease in interest rates. It is unrealistic and foolhardy. Moreover, it won't happen. These are not economic "headwinds" we have hit, and the Fed knows it. It's not going to risk inflation to keep the housing market at all-time highs. If you see this interest-rate prediction written about with a slightly raised eyebrow as it should be, do let me know. I'll be here, heroically finishing Portfolio.