Minimal disclosure: accounting lessons, dot-come-again, etc.

Minimal disclosure: accounting lessons, dot-come-again, etc.

Minimal disclosure: accounting lessons, dot-come-again, etc.

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
Feb. 21 2002 6:02 PM

Minimal Disclosure: Accounting Lessons, Dot-Come-Again, Etc.

Hey, shareholder America: Have you enrolled in an accounting-basics course yet? You can't just keep having "jitters" about those "potential accounting problems" at businesses you've invested in for years. Roll up your sleeves and get a green eyeshade. It's your responsibility. This, at least, is one lesson that might be drawn from the week's business and market news.

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Where's the problem? Where isn't there a problem? In addition to ongoing favorites like Tyco, IBM has taken a hit. "General nervousness" is affecting Sprint. Computer Associates had its numbers questioned. And now GE has promised to be so forthcoming and thorough in disclosing, to spell out the details of complicated financial workings to such an extent that "if the annual report has to be the size of the New York City phone book, that's life," in the words of CEO Jeffrey Immelt. And so forth. Prediction: At some point investors will begin to complain that companies are disclosing too much and that it's impossible for the layman to find accounting funny business in the thicket of numbers. My solution: All companies should be required to have an easy-to-read section titled "Total Shenanigans," in which they describe, in plain English, why you shouldn't invest in them at all. (This section could include photographs of executives defrauding the company and shareholders, with little devil horns drawn on for effect.) Alternate solution: To keep balance sheets more simple, all U.S. businesses should henceforth be made up exclusively of cash-only Popsicle stands.

Dot-Come-Again: In a brazen demonstration that we have learned nothing at all from the rise and fall of Net stocks, profitless PayPal had a successful IPO. For all I  know, this will become a profitable business at some point, but buying shares in a company that has no earnings is always an act of pure speculation. Good luck, PYPL owners! Shares are already down to $15 or so from the first-day high of over $20.

Asbestos: I wrote earlier about asbestos-related rumors both hurting and helping shares of Halliburton. Late last week a positive (for Halliburton) asbestos court ruling helped shares rise again, but they've slipped in the days since. Aficionados of asbestos litigation are directed to thisFortune story by the estimable Roger Parloff. He makes a compelling case.

FedEx guy update: Not long ago I wrote an "Ad Report Card" about recent FedEx ads in which I wondered about the identity of the "other guy" in the commercial (not Steve Carell). Several readers recognized the actor from a prior E*Trade spot, but the most convincing response came from the actor himself, Joe Narciso. In addition to the E*Trade ad (a guy quits his job after a stock he's bought soars, then has to beg for it back when the share price craters), he's also done guest turns on Law &Order and its Special Victims Unit spinoff (and look out for  him in a small, "possibly very small," Sopranos appearance in the future). Just to reiterate, he did a very nice job in the FedEx ad, so the Moneybox staff looks forward to seeing more of his work.

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Eh? Everyone knows that investors are concerned about firms who buy both audit and consulting services from the same source (as Enron did with Andersen). Along those lines, one pension-fund investor in Disney sponsored a shareholder proposal encouraging the company to stop buying both of these services from PricewaterhouseCoopers. Then Disney, which at first opposed the idea, announced that it had changed its mind and would go along with the request. The proposal was voted on by shareholders anyway. And it lost! More than 50 percent of shareholders voted not to make any changes to the Disney-PricewaterhouseCoopers relationship! A spokesman for the pension fund said it was happy with the high percentage of shareholders who supported the change, and Disney said it would go ahead with the new plan "as if it had" passed. Is this an efficient system or what?

A friend writes: "Maybe I told you, but I've decided to become a business guru. My first book will be titled something like Who Moved My Fucking Drink? and will most likely contain classic witticisms I've boiled down to more readily suit today's accelerated business environment. For example, the tried and true 'A cynic knows the cost of everything, and the value of nothing,' will be pared down to the relatively simple, 'How much?' Also, it will contain some cute and clever illustrations." Same friend later writes that he's now toying with becoming more of a male self-help guru, with a book to be titled Who Moved My Wife and Kids?  (Thanks, S.W.)

Wear your anti-Enronism: If you don't have an anti-Enron T-shirt yet, these sites can help. There's a shirt that says "Evildoer," one that says "Enrage," and ones that say "Embezzle," or the ever-popular "Got Lay'd?," among others. (All these links via Metafilter.)

Recommended:69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, one of Stephen Merritt's projects, especially Vol. 3 (thanks on this to Rebecca Bazell). Jay Farrar live, mostly for accompanying guitar work of Mark Spencer, of Blood Oranges. "Jolie Blon" performed by Waylon Jennings: His first recording, produced by Buddy Holly; it comes up about an hour into the Feb. 16 edition of Laura Cantrell's always-recommendable Radio Thrift Shop on WFMU (archived here); on the show, the song is followed by a snippet of Waylon DJ-ing in Lubbock, long before his "outlaw" days. That's it for this week. …