5 Dumbest Things on Wall Street: Sept. 4

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Boo-Hoo at Yahoo!

Yahoo! (Stock Quote: YHOO) CEO Carol Bartz is telling employees to get over the Microsoft (Stock Quote: MSFT) search deal and get back to work. For his part, billionaire investor Carl Icahn is well ahead of her.

A less than cheerful memo from Bartz was published Tuesday in Dow Jones' All Things Digital blog urging employees to stop debating the merits of Microsoft's revenue-sharing agreement and "focus" on their jobs. The release of Bartz's missive could not have come at a worse time, appearing a day after Icahn's public admission that he recently sold about 13 million shares in the company.

Yes, Carl and Carol really did Yahoo! this week.

Chief Executive Bartz commands her troops in the strongly-worded memo, originally sent in mid-August, to "get out of the sugar low -- we have work to do. Stop staring at our navels, stop arguing with each other. Stop debate, debate, debate and let's focus on the competition."

(Begin humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic here...)

"Let's focus on a great Yahoo!. Our average user is just trying to get through the day ... looking to find out what's going on in the big world and their own world," Bartz continues. "They want their Internet site to be great, and to work."

Yes, we can, Carol! Yes, we can!

Alas, Icahn cannot. But instead of complaining, he is voting with his shares. In a filing on Monday, Icahn Capital said it has reduced its stake in Yahoo! to 4.48%, down from 5.38% as of June 30.

Icahn began investing in Yahoo! last year when Microsoft was trying to buy the entire company, back when the stock was in the mid-$20s. His recent sales were at prices between $14.75 and $14.92. Yahoo! shares closed Tuesday at $14.18, around 17% below where the search deal was struck in late July.

The filing goes on to say that Icahn is unloading shares to better balance his technology portfolio and not because of any doubts in the "wisdom of the Microsoft-Yahoo search transaction" or the performance of Bartz herself.

We don't need a memo to know whether that's debatable.

Dumb-o-meter score: 95 -- Unlike Yahoo! employees, Carl Icahn doesn't shed tears. He sheds shares.






Madoff's Final Chapter

 

The Securities and Exchange Commission is closing the book on Bernard Madoff. Readers, on the other hand, are not opening theirs.

In a report released this week, the SEC Inspector General David Kotz found a whole lot of bungling, yet no corruption in his agency's handling of the Bernard Madoff affair. There has been speculation that Madoff, currently serving a 150-year sentence in federal prison in North Carolina for running a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, had improper ties to the agency and influenced its probes of his criminal enterprise.

The SEC received six "substantive complaints that raised significant red flags" regarding Madoff's operations between June 1992 and last December, according to Kotz's report. Nevertheless, a "thorough and competent investigation or examination was never performed."

Kotz blames much of the oversight on the "inexperienced" staff members who were assigned to conduct the investigations. Even when these clueless newbies caught Bernie in a lie, they "failed to follow up," according to the report, and went so far as to reject whistleblowers' offers to provide additional evidence.

The SEC was blowing off whistleblowers. It surely doesn't get any dumber than that.

Meanwhile, despite mammoth expectations, the sales of books focusing on Madoff have far from matched the scale of his crime, according to Nielsen BookScan this week. Nielsen BookScan tracks about 75% of the market.

Jerry Oppenheimer's Madoff With the Money has sold 1,000 copies thus far. Gerard and Deborah Strober's Catastrophe and Andrew Kirtzman's Betrayal each sold 3,000 to date, and Erin Arvedlund's Too Good To Be True has moved a mere 5,000 copies.

Even the tell-all book by alleged ex-mistress Sheryl Weinstein has been a flop for St. Martin's Press, selling a pitiful 2,000 copies.

"When we made love, I was on fire," writes Weinstein, who lost a bundle to Bernie and hoped to recover it through sales of her book.

Sorry, sweetie. Looks like he burned you again.

 

Dumb-o-meter score: 90 -- Time to turn the page on Madoff.






Cablevision's Snub

Apparently a beggar in the besieged newspaper business can be a chooser. Just ask the folks at Newsday.

While most newspapers are taking any ads they can get, Long Island's Newsday has turned away a lucrative customer in cable provider Verizon (Stock Quote: VZ), according to a Monday story in The New York Times. Of course, Verizon is also a direct competitor of Newsday's parent company Cablevision (Stock Quote: CVC), but that shouldn't stop a newspaper trying to stem the flow of red ink. Right?

Wrong. When it comes to Newsday accepting Verizon's money, it's simple: Better dead than read.

For a long time, Verizon purchased pricey full-page ads in Newsday several times a month for its FiOS Internet and television service. That stopped a few months ago when the paper said it would no longer accept them, according to a Verizon executive. The Times reported that Newsday offered no explanation for its rejection and had not objected to the content of the ads.

Not that anybody really needs clarification. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that the Dolans, Cablevision's controlling family, doesn't want anyone else muscling in on their territory.

The Dolans bought Newsday last year expressly to be their own personal version of TV Guide, paying -- or more rightly, overpaying -- Tribune Company $650 million for the paper, one of the highest prices ever paid for a single newspaper. Never mind the fact that Newsday ran up net losses of $778 million over a three-year period ending in 2007, according to a regulatory filing.

Despite being snubbed by Newsday, Verizon says its ads are still reaching Long Islanders through television and other media, and FiOS enrollment in the market was rising, according to the Times article. So despite losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad revenue, the Dolans still can't keep Verizon off their territory.

On the other hand, at least they can enjoy their morning paper in peace.

 

Dumb-o-meter score: 85 -- Hey, you wouldn't expect the Corleone family to promote the Barzini family's brand of olive oil, now would you?




Lula's Lulu

Let's face it. Lula wants the moolah.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, aka Lula, proposed on Monday giving the state greater control over one of the world's largest recent offshore oil finds, the "subsalt" fields thought to contain at least 50 billion barrels of light crude. But while Lula was declaring a new energy "independence day", the fireworks were fizzling at state-run energy firm Petroleo Brasileiro, aka Petrobras, whose stock fell 3.6% over concerns that the president's plan will dilute shares and stifle profits.

Under Lula's plan, the government will create a new state holding company called Petrosal to manage new projects and a new contract system that gives the state a share of the oil. The government's oil revenue will be directed into a "social fund" aimed at raising money for poverty reduction, science and technology, the environment and education. The plan also calls for a capital infusion of about $50 billion in Petrobras to boost state control over the firm, which is currently 55% controlled by the government.

"If we don't make the right decisions, what appears to be a winning ticket could be a source of enormous problems," Lula said at an event to unveil the plan in Brasilia, the capital.

Problem numero uno could very well be Lula himself.

Lula's case for increasing his control over the oil field's riches is to prevent Brazil from falling victim to the so-called resource curse that would transform the country into the next Venezuela. Critics, however, say that Lula's plan will hasten that very scenario as Lula's own aides will be corrupted by their newfound petro-power. Furthermore, opponents say it will discourage foreign oil majors like Exxon Mobil (Stock Quote: XOM), BP and Chevron from investing in Brazil.

"The subsalt is a gift from God," said Lula.

Enjoy it, Lula. Just unwrap it wisely.

 

Dumb-o-meter score: 80 -- Luckily, Petrobras has an interest in BP's week's huge strike this week in the Gulf of Mexico, far away from Lula's reach.




Southwest's Improper Parts

 

Attention Southwest (Stock Quote: LUV) passengers: You may now pay extra to board early even as the airline begs for more time to fix its unauthorized parts problem.

The Dallas-based discount airline, which unlike other carriers does not offer assigned seating, said Wednesday that for an extra 10 bucks -- each way, mind you -- Southwest passengers can reserve a boarding position before general check-in. The supplementary charge would allow those customers to start boarding the plane after certain elite flyers, who don't have to pay additional fees for early boarding privileges.

Sorry shareholders, don't think those extra dollars from travelers too cool to wait at the gate are going to Southwest's bottom line. Nope, look for that extra dough on the next flight to Washington to pay for what will certainly be a healthy fine over its use of unauthorized parts.

Last week, Federal officials said a maintenance company hired by Southwest Airlines used unapproved parts for repairs on some jets. Aircraft maker Boeing (Stock Quote: BA) and the Federal Aviation Administration determined that the unapproved parts installed by a private contractor posed no immediate safety hazard but still needed to be replaced. The discovery caused Southwest substantial delays across the country last Saturday and cancel 15 flights.

The FAA could have grounded the older-model Boeing 737s equipped with the unapproved metal hinge fittings for good, but instead agreed to give Southwest until late December to replace unapproved parts, and subject them to weekly inspections.

"We concur that this plan is the best and most reasonable manner in which to fulfill the FAA's mandate," said Mike Van de Ven, Southwest's chief operating officer, in a statement.

The FAA said Southwest could still face a fine, although that would be nothing new for the airline. Back in March, Southwest agreed to pay a $7.5 million fine to settle government allegations that it flew planes without performing required safety inspections.

In other words, Southwest comes with a lot of baggage of its own. And this isn't the first time its customers are paying to check it.

 

Dumb-o-meter score: 70 -- Southwest does not have first-class sections on its planes -- just its waiting areas."

 

 

 

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