5. D&B's China Syndrome Remember The China Syndrome? The movie based on the premise that a nuclear plant meltdown could burn its way through the earth's core and spread all the way to China? Well, after the recent slew of corporate apologies in China, we here at the Five Dumbest Lab believe a new definition for the term is in order. From now on we suggest The China Syndrome refers not to the threat of radiation rapidly spreading all the way from the U.S. to the Middle Kingdom, but to foreign companies apologizing from now till kingdom come because they screwed up and are deathly afraid of contaminating themselves in the eyes of Chinese authorities. Business information provider Dun & Bradstreet ( DNB), for example, joined the ranks of those afflicted with our newly redefined Syndrome Monday after it swiftly shuttered its Chinese division following allegations that it violated local consumer privacy laws and bribed local officials. Of course, to us it's a cruel joke that the Chinese government -- an entity that unabashedly and unashamedly snoops on its own citizens -- is forcing D&B to completely capitulate over a privacy issue. Really, if that's not just the pot calling the kettle black -- and then stamping "Made in China" on it -- well, we don't know what is. And as for the idea that it violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by paying off Chinese authorities, give us a break. That's the cost of doing business over there. By now they might as well add a line item to corporate income statements called "Chinese Bribe expenses." But to D&B this episode is clearly no laughing matter, which is why they, like McDonald's ( MCD) and French retailer Carrefour last week, refused to counter the claims head on, choosing instead to wholeheartedly submit to the will of Chinese authorities. Both McDonald's and Carrefour were accused of selling expired chicken products in separate incidents and neither made a cluck about the less-than-explosive charges. In the McDonald's case, a restaurant in Beijing was charged with selling chicken wings 90 minutes after they were cooked, while the company's rules set a 30-minute limit. Oh man! Those wings really must have been atomic, because McDonald's went nuclear over what was most probably a minor restaurant snafu. And in our eyes that's a clear indication that the company has come down with a screaming mad case of the China Syndrome. You see, once you've got it, the last thing you want to do is start playing chicken with the folks in Beijing.
4. Apple's Premature Pay Day Listen up folks. Before we get started, please note for the record that we are not calling Apple's ( AAPL) dividend/buyback plan dumb. Far from it. Hey, these guys were smart enough to bank $100 billion in first place, so who are we to mock them for giving it back to investors. The tech giant aims to start paying a quarterly dividend of $2.65 per share, sometime during its fiscal fourth quarter, while also undertaking a $10 billion share-repurchase program in the company's fiscal 2013. Once again, bully for them! An Apple dividend a quarter keeps the "Can Tim Cook fill Steve Jobs shoes?" questions away -- at least for a while. That's because it's harder for the increasing number of Apple's value-oriented shareholders to complain about the company's cash hoard when their coupon checks keep coming in. That said, and then repeated, while Apple's decision to announce a dividend was not the dumbest thing we witnessed on Wall Street this week, we also can't say that it was the smartest thing either. Why? Because as TheStreet's ( TST) very own Jim Cramer alertly points out, Apple's dividend announcement upstaged the news that it sold more than three million new iPads over the weekend. "For those of us who waited in line to get one we understood that something so special was going on that the dividend stole the thunder from the actual story, a new device that I think is taking America by storm," wrote Cramer over on Real Money. Said differently, Apple does not release a mind-blowing new product every day, so Tim Cook probably should have saved that nugget of good news for a rainy day should the company -- heaven forbid -- release a new gadget that fails to thrill the throngs. Look, we know it sounds impossible for Apple to swing and miss with a new product, especially considering the roll it's on. But remember folks, the Newton is not a figment of our imagination. And Tim Cook may need to milk that dividend for all its worth to wash away the taste should such a flop happen again.
3. Icahn Goes Hungry Here's one for all you Dumbest fans that like to follow the so-called "smart money." Shares of Lions Gate Entertainment ( LGF) approached an all-time high this week of just under $16 a share based on the massive expectations for its upcoming release, The Hunger Games. Wall Street analysts say the futuristic film, which focuses on mortal combat between teenagers, will likely gross over $300 million and spur a $2 billion franchise. Sadly, a lot of investors missed the run-up after they left the stock for dead last summer. You see, when activist investor Carl Icahn, one of Wall Street's oldest and best known warriors, dumped his 44 million shares for $7 apiece in August 2011 as a result of a feud with the company's management, he took a lot of hot money with him. "We made $2.5 billion last year for our investors," Icahn told Reuters about his Lions Gate whiff. "You never want to get out early, but we did pretty well." True Carl, but all those bandwagon barbarians who tried to storm the gate with you are probably a bit peeved right now seeing the stock where it is, especially after the ruckus you made on CNBC two years ago. You may choose to forget, but we certainly remember you publicly maligning Lions Gate vice chairman Michael Burns, accusing him of overspending and under-delivering. Well Carl buddy, a simple chart check shows that once the company stopped fighting with you and got back to business, it really showed its management mettle. For all your gripes about the company's spending, even you can't argue with the bump in the stock after it bought Summit Entertainment's "Twilight" vampire movies for $421 million in January. Icahn, who said he roughly broke even on his initial Lions Gate venture, continues to own 3.4 million shares of the company, according to Bloomberg. Despite his sizable stake, however, we don't hear him roaring at Lions Gate's brass the way he used to. He may not want to admit it, so we will: It's game over Carl and you left hungry.
2. Ivan's Killer CompVerizon ( VZ) did well in 2011. The telecom giant's stock returned 12% for the year, or 18% when you factor in its hefty dividend. The S&P 500, on the other hand, finished the year dead even and only up 2% if you throw in the coupon. Yep, 2011 was a very good year for Verizon shareholders. And what we learned this Monday is that it was an even better year for Verizon's former CEO Ivan Seidenberg. According to an Associated Press analysis of a Verizon regulatory filing, Seidenberg earned $26.4 million in 2011, up from $18.1 in 2010 and $17.5 million in 2009. Yes indeed it was a very good...Wait a second! We made a mistake. Let's back it up a second. Actually, let's back it up five months because Seidenberg only served as the company's CEO until the end of July, and after that he served as executive chairman until year end. So in truth, Seidenberg banked that $26.4 million for only seven months of work, not a full year. Hmmm. That's a pretty egregious paycheck even by Wall Street standards, especially considering the guy didn't even work the full year. Don't you think? But you know what? Let's give old Ivan the benefit of the doubt because his company beat the index. So he deserves every penny. Wait another second! Our bad. Let's back it up again. Actually, let's back it up to July 29, 2011. On that date, which was also Seidenberg's last day as CEO, the stock was at $35.29. And the stock started 2011 at $35.78. Hmmm. The stock goes down 49 cents for the seven months Seidenberg is on the job and the real capital appreciation occurs in the five months after he takes off. Nevertheless, he still gets a massive bump in pay. That's not terrible Ivan, not terrible at all. And on top of that, Seidenberg's successor, Lowell McAdam, earned $13 million in 2011, net of $10 million in restricted stock, which breaks down to about $1 million per month for each of his five months as CEO. So, by our very rough calculations, Verizon spent $31.7 million on its two CEOs last year, or $13 million more than its far larger rival AT&T paid its CEO Randall Stephenson. You know what? That's just plain egregious by any standard.
1. Meg's Marty McFly Moment Honestly, we don't know if Hewlett-Packard's ( HPQ) move this week to merge its PC and printer divisions is dumb. Clearly the company needs to slash costs as its revenue -- especially its hardware sales -- continues to shrink. And for all we know right now, this could be Meg Whitman's first real managerial masterstroke in her quest to turn this once-proud tech titan around. For the record, the printing and PC units together made up about half of HP's $30 billion revenue in its fiscal first quarter. Revenue from the printing division was down 13% in 2011 to $25.8 billion from a high of $29.6 billion in fiscal 2008, while sales in the PC division have dropped 6.4% over the same period to $39.6 billion in 2011. That said, while we can't assess how dumb Meg's reorganization plan is at this point in time, we guarantee you this Dumbest fans: It will be dumb at some point. Maybe next month or maybe next year. Or we may even have to wait ten years to revisit Meg's maneuver. But mark our words folks, there will come a moment when an HP restructuring will be Dumbest-worthy, so we might as well get it over with now. How do we know this? Why are we so certain? Well, let's rev the Dumbest DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour and go back to the future, shall we? In September 2001, in what former HP CEO Carly Fiorina calls a "decisive move" to provide "significant cost structure improvements", the company purchases Compaq Computer for $25 billion and merges it with its printer division. HP sales double over the next five years, however, 80% of the company's business remains printer-related and the company's board never forgives Carly for the deal. Fast forward to February 2005: Carly gets canned, complete with a $42 million exit package. Enter new CEO Mark Hurd, who splits the printer and PC businesses into separate divisions in order to lessen the company's dependency on printer-related items. He also lessens the number of employees at the company, slashing headcount at the company's once-vaunted R&D operation. Fast forward to August 2010: Hurd gets canned, complete with a $34 million exit package. Enter new CEO Leo Apotheker, who tries to get rid of the entire PC business through a sale or spin-off. Everybody thinks Leo is just plain loony. Fast forward a mere 11 months to September 2011: Apotheker gets canned before anybody even learns to pronounce his last name, complete with a $25 million exit package. Enter former eBay chief Meg Whitman as CEO and fast forward to this past Wednesday. "This combination will bring together two businesses where HP has established global leadership," said Whitman in a statement about the new road HP intends to take. Or should we say old road since this is simply a return to the Carly days? Then again, to paraphrase Back to the Future's Doc Brown, where they're going, they don't need roads. Think about it. Who needs roads when you repeatedly throw your entire business up in the air and your CEO out the door? -- Written by Gregg Greenberg in New York. Readers Also Like: >> Why Apple's Still a Buy >> Cramer: I Say 'Meh' on Oracle