New Year’s Chatter

Speaking on behalf of all business writers everywhere–everywhere, I tell you–I’d like to say that even if we haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions, we do have one desperate wish for 1999, which is that at least one week will go by in which we won’t even have to mention Internet stocks. Granted, this is the equivalent of basketball writers wishing that at least one week would go by in which they didn’t have to mention Michael Jordan, since Net stocks are now as important to the stock-market zeitgeist as MJ is to the NBA. But, hey, we can dream, can’t we?

Still, tonight and all weekend, let’s push thoughts of tulips and extraordinary popular delusions aside for now, drink heavily, and only occasionally remember that it was just three months ago that serious people were talking about the implosion of the entire global economy. Three interest-rate cuts later, the Dow’s back close to 9300, the stores remain filled with shoppers, and even though Brazil is still teetering, well, no one really cares. Even Long-Term Capital is flush again. So here’s some New Year’s chatter. Use it wisely.

1. “If Alan Greenspan really does retire, as scheduled, in the year 2000, I think he should leave his office on the last day, get on a horse, and ride slowly out of Washington. Then Al Gore can come running out of the White House and look at Greenspan disappearing over the horizon and yell, ’Shane! Shane! Come back, Shane!’ “

2. “Charles Schwab’s stock-market capitalization is now bigger than Merrill Lynch’s. Asked about this, a Merrill spokesman pointed to Merrill’s Web site, where customers can read analysts’ reports. Of course, Merrill’s customers can’t actually trade stocks online, but hey, you can’t have everything. Schwab, meanwhile, declined comment, when you know what it really wanted to say was, ’The little mammals are overrunning the dinosaurs! You heard it here first!’ “

2a. “Which isn’t to say, of course, that Schwab’s market cap should be bigger than Merrill Lynch’s, just that online stock trading is the proverbial no-brainer, and Merrill should realize that and act like it had no brain.”

3. “Insurance companies are now toying with the possibility of guaranteeing companies’ earnings-per-share. Since the people who manage a company aren’t legally tied to that company, doesn’t this sound like a classic moral-hazard situation? ‘Remodel my entire office in teak, and get me a membership at Pebble Beach! And I’m taking a few weeks off! Acme Insurance has guaranteed I’ll hit my quarterly numbers!’ “

4. “Troubled theater company Livent, which erstwhile mogul Garth Drabinsky ran into the ground and other erstwhile mogul Mike Ovitz hasn’t been able to rescue, got another chance at life this week when $24 million in additional financing was approved by a bankruptcy court. Look, the company had to restate results for two years, now says it won’t report third-quarter results, and has no idea when it will announce earnings (that is, losses). It’s a horse with a broken leg, and a horse that always ran out of the money when it was healthy. Can’t we just put it down?”

5. “Prince of Egypt is apparently not going to be the huge hit Dreamworks wanted it to be. How long before we get a column from William Bennett explaining this as yet another sign of the imminent collapse of Western civilization?”

5a. “If Bennett’s already written that column, I apologize for missing it.”

6. “Of the seven major Hollywood studios, only two are going to post real profits in 1998. The studios should start talking about plans to distribute films over the Internet. Suddenly, those missing profits will be worth billions. Billions, I say.”

7. “Important questions for the New Year: Is there finally going to be an Austin Powers sequel? Will Brazil devalue the real? When will the Internet stock bubble burst? What is the capital of Kazakhstan? Are we really going to party like it’s … ?”