One of the many fine things that the creator of “Moneybox,” James Surowiecki, used to do was an end-of-week roundup called Weekend Cocktail Party Chatter. I took one stab at doing this and then stopped, for two reasons. 1) I wasn’t very good at it. 2) I happened to take over this column at roughly the same moment that people stopped talking about the stock market at cocktail parties.
After thinking about it for, oh, I don’t know, a couple of years, I’ve decided to give a go to a different sort of week-ending wrap-up. In the spirit of these different times, when the markets are not a fun-to-chat-about cultural phenomenon, but a kind of unavoidable duty that many people would like to forget about but can’t, I’ll call this new recurring feature Minimal Disclosure. The markets have been mostly lousy this week. Your net worth is probably shrinking. Do you want to hear more about that? I didn’t think so.
Super Bowl Ad Update: Readers made some interesting points about this year’s crop of bowl commercials. 1) Although Pepsi spent millions as one of the game’s marquee sponsors, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was apparently not impressed and was spotted by the cameras swilling a can of Coke. 2) In the ballyhooed drugs-fund-terrorism spots, one of the “bad teens” mouthing thoughtless excuses for drug-taking says, “It’s my body; it’s up to me.” Is this subtle pro-life propaganda? You decide. 3) Many people wrote into complain that I ignored their favorite commercial. Sorry.
Enron-o-rama: Not enough low comedy in the Enron saga for you? This story from today’s Wall Street Journal describes an alleged 1998 incident in which employees—including secretaries—were ordered to fill desks on an empty trading floor and pretend to be busy swapping energy contracts for the benefit of visiting analysts. Because the desks were unused, some employees were asked to bring along personal effects, like family pictures, to make the area look “lived in.” An Enron spokeswoman (worst job in America) says the charge is exaggerated. “There were some employees who were moved down there. They were told to just sit there, I don’t know why.” Uh huh. “We just wanted to show [the visiting analysts] how we structured deals and contracts.” Mission accomplished!
Genius of Capitalism Update: Obviously influenced by a recent Moneybox on the subject, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill has come out in favor of stiffer penalties for CEOs whose firms put out misleading financials. Specifically: Such folks might not be able to rely on insurance to cover shareholder lawsuits. There should be “no ambiguity about the responsibility of executive officers,” he said. If this gathers momentum, expect vehement resistance along these lines: America’s entrepreneurial spirit (thought to be etched in the nation’s soul when stocks are rising) would evaporate if there’s too much accountability.
Back-Seat Drivers: The Wall Street Journal says GM is reworking the process by which it brings new car models to market because the old system “focused too heavily on consumer research and marketing,” which yielded superfluous extras and “boring styling.” See what happens when you listen to your customers?
Pricey dining: After reports that Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin weren’t getting along, the two top honchos at Viacom took the radical step of having dinner together, along with about 40 Wall Street types. One analyst said Viacom shares rose $1.75 because of this shared public meal. That works out to an improvement of $3 billion to the worth of the firm. A reasonable payoff for dinner with someone you can’t stand, no?
Davos Highlight: Food artists (or whatever)Mimi Oka and Doug Fitch presented a meal of pasta with $100 bill prints on it and gold-flecked meatballs. “It sounds terribly crass,” Fitch commented to the New York Times. Well, yeah.
Somebody Send Me: A “Free Winona” T-shirt. Its creator says, “This gives people an expression that is radical and at the same time meaningless.”
Rationale of the Week: A New York Times story on patriotic merchandising found that profits from a $50 Steve Madden sneaker (“The Bravest”) seemed not to be finding their way to a charity for the families of firefighters, as had been promised. The paper’s reporting apparently spurred the shoemaker to dash off a $100,000 check, but a spokesman for the company also noted, “The most patriotic thing we can do is make money.” So real patriots will buy two pairs and some red-white-and-blue Manolo Blahnik heels ($795) as well.
Candor of the Week: “The reason I got involved is that Andersen is in big trouble and they were looking for someone to sprinkle some holy water on them,” said Paul Volcker, former Fed chairman, explaining why he has been hired by embattled accounting firm Arthur Andersen to run an independent oversight board at the firm.
Superdome Offer Withdrawn! Although my bid for naming rights to the Louisiana Superdome (or the Moneybox Superdome, as it might have been) could have been extended into the mid-to-high three figures (counting reader commitment offers after this follow-up), I was ignored by the relevant authorities. No competing offers have surfaced.
Non-Greenspan Update: I muddled two things in the most recent installment of my non-Greenspan series. Susan Bies is not the only woman on the FOMC but rather the only woman who currently has a vote: Cathy E. Minehan, president of Boston Fed, is a non-voting member this year. And Laurence Meyer did not attend the Jan. 29-30 meeting, so my speculation as to whether his sendoff included Bundt cake or Rolling Rock was moot. A Fed media liaison tells me it is “the practice of members to skip their last meeting.”
Absolute Worst Thing of the Week:Big Chill rerun on Bravo. I’m in favor of stiffer penalties for all involved in creating movies this bad.
Recommended: “Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart,” by Nick Lowe, from The Convincer. Three-hour Peggy Lee Tribute broadcast on WFMU on Jan. 25 and archived here. Peter Beinart’s Billy Tauzin slam in the NewRepublic. Paul Lukas on baseball players and facial hair in the Village Voice. Video for The Strokes’ “Last Night,” on the band’s site (Winning lead-singer aesthetic formula: Equal parts Joey Ramone, Kurt Cobain, and David Cassidy. Note also that this guy never blinks. And what is that he takes a swig of, bottled water or a beer?) And finally: groundbreaking comic book Titans of Finance.