5 Dumbest Things on Wall Street: Feb. 27


Obama's Auto-Crats

President Obama's auto industry task force doesn't have to travel farther than its own parking lot to find out why Detroit is flirting with disaster.

Among the eight members named last Friday to Obama's auto team, as well as the 10 senior policy aides charged with assisting their efforts, only two reportedly own vehicles made by American manufacturers, according to the Detroit News.

The newspaper reviewed public records to learn the makes and models of the cars driven by the task force and its staff members. There are still two open positions on the 10-member task force that will be filled by the secretaries of labor and commerce, who have not yet been confirmed.

The auto task force is meeting this week with representatives from GM (Stock Quote: GM) and Chrysler to discuss their viability plans.

The co-chairs of the task force—Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Lawrence Summers, the White House National Economic Council director—both own foreign automobiles. Geithner owns a 2008 Acura TSX, registered in New York. Summers sports a 1995 Mazda Protege that is registered in Massachusetts.

Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag owns a 2008 Honda Odyssey (Stock Quote: HMC) and a 2004 Volvo S60. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson owns a Honda Odyssey minivan and a 2008 Toyota Prius (Stock Quote: TM). ("It's great," Jackson said of her Prius, to the Detroit News.)

Neither Carol Browner, the White House climate czar, nor Energy Secretary Steven Chu own a car. And information as to the rides of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood or Christine Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, was not available.

As for the commander-in-chief, he traded in his Chrysler 300C for a more fuel-efficient Ford Escape hybrid (Stock Quote: F) during the 2008 presidential campaign.

President Obama did not, however, drive his Ford north to Ottawa last week, preferring to take his first international trip on Air Force One. The president traveled to Canada to reassure Prime Minister Stephen Harper that a "Buy American" clause in his new economic stimulus law would not harm trade between the two allies.

We say don't drive yourself to distraction, prime minister. Obama's auto team doesn't seem too worried about buying American. Why should you?


Dumb-o-meter score: 95 -- D.C. Bumper Sticker: My Other Car Is Not From Detroit.

Pepsi's Juice Jumble

Here's a bit of pulp nonfiction: Pepsi is ditching its much ballyhooed new orange juice packaging.

PepsiCo 's Tropicana Products juice division (Stock Quote: PEP) confirmed Monday that it is dropping its new carton just six weeks after introducing the design to great fanfare. Customers blasted the updated packaging as "generic" and complained they were unable to differentiate between the company's pulp-free and traditional juice offerings.

The soon-to-be discarded design features an image of a glass of orange juice, adorned by the phrase "100% Orange." Tropicana said it expects to bring back cartons featuring a drinking straw inserted into its iconic orange within a month.

"We heard our consumers and we listened," said Tropicana spokeswoman Jamie Stein.

Hearing was never the problem. What's plaguing Pepsi is its vision, and the fact that it can't spot an awful design even when it's right in front of its eyes.

Pepsi reportedly spent $35 million on its multimedia push to promote its disastrous new look, complete with the incoherent new slogan "Squeeze—It's a Natural."

The company hired the high-profile Arnell Group, part of advertising powerhouse Omnicom Group (Stock Quote: OMC), to develop the concept and artwork. For those not on Madison Avenue, that's the very same company that botched the revamp of Pepsi's logo last year. Critics vociferously maligned that design, calling it a ripoff of the one used by President Barack Obama during his campaign.

Obama, of course, won the election and now has four years to prove himself. Pepsi's creative team does not have that luxury and should certainly be feeling the squeeze right now.


Dumb-o-meter score: 90 -- Pepsi's new orange juice container is definitely a lemon.



20th Century Faux Pas



Here's our title for Rupert Murdoch's next movie: Honey, I Promoted the Kids.

Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp., will step down when his contract expires June 30, the company said Monday (Stock Quote: NWS). The company's failure to re-sign Chernin clears the way for CEO Rupert Murdoch's son James, the 36-year-old executive currently running News Corp.'s businesses in Europe and Asia, to succeed his father in the company's top spot.

Upon Chernin's departure, News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox movie studio and the Fox broadcast and network businesses will report directly to Rupert Murdoch. Chernin, who plans to start a film and TV production company, will not sever his ties with the company entirely, however. As part of his lucrative severance package, Fox is required to buy at least two motion pictures per year from him over the next six years.

Chernin praised Murdoch in a farewell statement, calling his boss of 20 years "one of the true visionary leaders of our time."

The visionary himself returned the sappy sentiment, calling Chernin's contributions to the company "immeasurable."

What is quantifiable, however, is the devastation in News Corp.'s share price due to a massive advertising slump across all its media properties. The stock has fallen 65% over the past year and now trades around $6.80 a share. Earlier this month, the company booked a $6.4 billion loss in its second quarter after taking a massive writedown in the value of its assets.

We here at The Five Dumbest Lab would think Rupert would want an experienced manager like Chernin to guide News Corp. through the rough patch. But Rupert seems content warming the throne for his heir apparent. And despite Chernin's pledge of undying loyalty to his old boss, we can only imagine that he is thinking the same thing we are: Father doesn't always know best.


Dumb-o-meter score: 85 -- Like Michael Corleone told Fredo in The Godfather Part II: "Never take sides against the family."



Microsoft's Misgivings

Microsoft has whipped up a new recipe for insanity: Add insult to injury, then apologize repeatedly.

Microsoft (Stock Quote: MSFT) announced Monday that it was abandoning its attempt to recoup severance pay from 25 recently fired workers it erroneously overpaid. The software giant, which announced in January a plan to eliminate up to 5,000 jobs, admitted Sunday that it had attempted to force the overcompensated workers to return the extra money.

The former Microsoft employees were informed by letter last week that "an inadvertent administrative error" resulted in their overpayment. Mister Softee then showed anything but a deft touch by demanding the reimbursement of the extra funds, which ranged from $4,000 to $5,000 dollars per employee, within 14 days.

A Microsoft spokesman owned up to the distasteful incident in an emailed statement saying the company "should have handled this situation in a more thoughtful manner." He added that Microsoft is "reaching out to those impacted to relay that we will not seek any payment from those individuals."

While it's awfully munificent of Microsoft to call off the dogs, the Redmond, Wash.-based company is right to be red-faced over this public relations nightmare.

Microsoft's main point of pride lately has definitely not been its profits—which declined 11% in its most recent quarter—but its cash hoard of more than $20 billion. The company could certainly part with the tiniest fragment of that imposing sum on its balance sheet to create some goodwill off it.


Moreover, it's not like Microsoft is averse to tossing a few bucks out the window anyway. A year ago, it made a $44.6 billion offer for Yahoo! (Stock Quote: YHOO), a company now sporting a market value of just above $17 billion. And according to a CNBC report, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is considering another run at the struggling search engine in order to better compete against online advertising giant Google (Stock Quote: GOOG).

We wonder: If Microsoft was willing to waste billions on a bad company back then, what's the point of nickel-and-diming a bunch of good employees now?


Dumb-o-meter score: 80 -- Ballmer bombs again.



AmEx Discards Deadbeats

American Express used to entice its cardholders to spend beyond their means. Now it's bribing them to get lost.

The credit card giant (Stock Quote: AXP) confirmed Monday it will pay a "select" group of cardholders $300 to close their accounts in order to reduce the risk of defaults as the economy worsens. Customers agreeing to AmEx's proposal will be required to pay off their entire credit card balance by April 30, according to the company. Customers seeking to cash in on AmEx's offer have until Feb. 28 to respond.

An AmEx spokeswoman said that only a small group of retail credit card holders with "sizable balances and little spending and payment activity" received the offer as a way to "simplify their finances." Enrolling in the program will also lead to forfeiture of reward points.

Oh please. Save your points and your spin. The real point of this payoff is for American Express—which saw its profit plummet 79% in its most recent quarter—to simplify its own ailing finances.

AmEx was forced to take $3.4 billion from the U.S. Treasury's TARP fund to boost its capital position. Why? Because the company went overboard lending good money to a growing gang of bad credit risks.

Now it intends to recoup its cash by offering the same group a huge kickback funded by taxpayer dollars.

AmEx has long boasted that "membership has its privileges."

For a high class bunch of deadbeats, it certainly does.


Dumb-o-meter score: 75 -- What's next, AmEx? The Fool's Gold Card?




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