To the chagrin of many and the joy of at least a few, Cocktail Chatter returns after a two-week absence, which God knows I hope made your hearts grow fonder. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the two weekly recaps that went unwritten would have had to detail a stock market tumbling steadily downhill, a Net sector in which investors appeared to have lost all faith, and interest rates that had reached a two-year high. (Though it's always worth remembering that 6.25 percent is not exactly usurious.) This week, things brightened slightly, for no obvious reason aside from excellent earnings from bellwethers Cisco (a holding of mine) and Wal-Mart (which I don't own but probably should) and a general sense that the market was "oversold."
"Oversold" doesn't mean anything, of course. It just means that prices have dropped pretty far pretty quickly. Unfortunately, sometimes prices drop far and quickly for good reasons. This wasn't one of those times, I think, but "oversold" is not a label that helps you tell the difference. But it's a good word to use at cocktail parties if you want everyone to know you're in the know. Actually, it's a good word to use if you want people to think you're a crackpot. But that can be fun, too. And so, once more into the breach.
1. "This from Bloomberg News: 'Microsoft Corp. said AvantGo Inc., which delivers customized information to handheld computers, will offer Microsoft's Slate online magazine in a bid to widen distribution of the highbrow Web publication ... The push to broaden Slate's distribution is part of a sweeping effort by the world's biggest software maker to strengthen its Internet business and better compete with No. 1 online service America Online, Inc. ... Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Washington, fell 1 5/16 to 83 13/16.' Next we'll be blamed for the fact that Paul Allen is selling two million Microsoft shares."
2. "Southwest Airlines president Herb Kelleher announced that he would be undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, and commentators praised his openness as evidence that companies were no longer as quick to hide potential problems from investors. Gerald Meyers, the former chairman of AMC, told the New York Times, 'It's like erectile dysfunction. Who would talk about that six months ago?' ... So CEOs are now going to tell us when they're erectilely dysfunctional? Can we pass on that?"
3. "General American Life Insurance said that it would be unable to redeem billions of dollars of withdrawals from investors who had entered into so-called 'short-term funding agreements' with the company. Although credit-ratings agencies had always frowned on these agreements, General American always claimed they were a good business to be in. Oh yeah. It's a great business when you can borrow money with no intention of paying it back."
4. "The Wall Street Journal reports, as evidence of tight labor markets, that roofing contractor Jude Laperouse, of Houma, Louisiana, has to turn down jobs because he can't find enough workers, despite offering a starting wage of $6 an hour. Damn! He can't get people to work tarring a roof for $6 an hour? What the hell is wrong with people! How spoiled have we become?!"
5. "Perennial also-ran Advanced Micro Devices, which practically every year comes out with a new product that it says will challenge Intel's domination of the microprocessor market and practically every year has a new explanation for why the previous year's product failed, released the Athlon chip this week. It's faster and more powerful than the Pentium III, yadda yadda yadda. You gotta wonder if the PR firm that wrote the press release touting Athlon wasn't tempted to add: 'No, really. This time we mean it.'"
6. "McDonald's is introducing self-serve kiosks in certain test locations. Someone tell me again: Why did the Automats go out of business?"
7. "Blockbuster Video went public yesterday, and saw its shares budge not at all from their offering price. The headline in Variety? 'First Day of Trading Hardly a Blockbuster.' It's genius, I tell you! Pure genius!"