Penny stocks don't get very far without PR. And they can go incredibly far when PR manages to bamboozle members of the business press. But when writers with credible-looking bylines write positively about questionable businesses with long track records of failure, investors can really get burned.
That, unfortunately, is part of the continuing story with GlobeTel (AMEX: GTE ) , the folks hawking the idea of long-range wireless Internet broadcast from WiMAX blimps. These are the folks who make technology claims that would seem to make them giant-killers, ready to knock off the likes of Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) , Nokia,Vonage (NYSE: VG ) , Avaya (NYSE: AV ) , Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA ) , and Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) in one swoop . if they could only get these blimps floating.
This is the same outfit that just announced yet another delay in the scaled-down blimp's flight schedule. Yes, the same Florida-based microcap that has promised blimps over Colombia and a $600 million Russian WiMAX deal. Incidentally, it has been halted at the Amex since the start of trading yesterday, supposedly pending material news.
GlobeTel is one of those really strange penny stocks that has a rabid following among conspiracy-minded Internet stock touts, the kind who send death threats and create fan sites to proclaim GlobeTel's coming telecom hegemony. But there's a more dangerous enabler of the GlobeTel story -- or fiction, in my view: Maxwell Murphy, who writes under the "In The Money" column for Dow Jones (NYSE: DJ ) Newswires.
Back when GlobeTel was still stringing investors along with its tall tale about a $600 million Russian WiMAX deal, Murphy was one of the firm's prime enablers, publishing feel-good stories based on interviews in which management invariably explained that the check was as good as in the mail. GlobeTel management was so proud of Murphy's work that it provided links to the articles in its investor relations site and continues to sponsor at least one of these fluff pieces for Web reprint -- just check the title bar in your browser when you click this link. (Not surprisingly, my skepticism regarding the same deal was greeted with some interesting refutations, none of which really addressed the facts, followed by a refusal from GlobeTel to answer any hard questions.)
Of course, that Russian check wasn't in the mail. The deal unraveled quicker than an Old Navy sweater. It left investors nursing serious wounds, especially those who bought in at the hyped-up January highs, possibly egged on by Murphy's original verdict that the firm was "worth a look from the far less conspiratorial aspect of pure fundamentals." That opinion is incomprehensible to anyone who's actually done some digging and read GlobeTel's filings.
Murphy might deserve a hat-tip for his article yesterday, which, although it relies on unnamed sources with a rumor, suggests that a GlobeTel delisting may be in the works on the Amex. What's inconceivable and inexcusable to me is the way Murphy once again sugarcoats this serious issue with vapid, sound-bite journalism that ultimately toes the company line, as presented by GlobeTel's latest chairman, J. Randolph Dumas.
Unfortunately, following a review of some of the company's backstory, it reverts to the usual GlobeTel tripe, including gratuitous name-dropping and descriptions of the "wealthy" international businessman, Dumas, whose "decades of business success" include claims to have founded a firm with Henry Kissinger -- claims convincingly scuttled by the work of TheNew York Post's Chris Byron a few weeks back.
Yet these same discredited "facts" are nonetheless parroted again in Murphy's latest article, even though Dumas' own website tacitly acknowledged the bamboozlement by subsequently removing the lavish claims and references to Kissinger. (If you want to compare for yourself the slick, multi-page site they used to run, and the funky 50-word stub that exists today, send me an email and I'll send you cached material.)
It winds up with something familiar to anyone who's followed this story -- the whiff of something great just around the bend, something that just can't be discussed, not just yet: "Dumas maintains the company is on the crux of big things; the ironic thing, he says, is the perceived insincerity of past press releases has recently prevented GlobeTel from issuing any more glowing releases until there's money in the bank to back up the claims."
Curious investors need to realize that Murphy's telephone interviews with corporate front-men with a track record of exaggeration -- if not outright deceit -- do not constitute "objectivity." They indicate, at the very least, extreme naivete. I'm not sure if Murphy was born without a skeptic's gene, or whether he's just too attached to his original bullish call on GlobeTel to admit the obvious. But when a firm burns as much cash as GlobeTel does, and fails on promise after promise, a columnist like Murphy needs to drop the wink-wink enabling, reassess the situation, and take a stand. I don't begrudge him the original mistake in believing GlobeTel's story back in January. Being wrong is part of this biz. But when the facts change, opinions should as well.
Investors, don't be fooled by the Dow Jones byline. Review the record, read the filings, and keep your finger off the buy button.
Get caught up on GlobeTel:
- A Random Walk Down Penny Lane
- Just Say "Nyet"
- GlobeTel Still on Hold
- GlobeTel's Australian Odyssey
- More Hot Air From GlobeTel
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Seth Jayson is flattered to star in GlobeTel zealots' latest conspiratorial delusions, but at the time of publication, he had no positions, long or short, in any company mentioned here. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.