You [expletive] ... I just realized, it's April 1. Well done (bowing and bowing again). You got me!
-- Reader email, April 1, 2009
And ... full disclosure: Yesterday's takeover of Fool.com, wherein Fool co-founders Tom and David Gardner explained the loophole that allowed the Fool to acquire $25 million in funds, was a farce.
That's right, The Motley Fool's surprising government windfall was our annual April Fool's joke, and the bulk of you caught on pretty quickly. But we hope it was still fun.
That was what one reader called us when he learned of our success posing as a financial services and auto company to obtain the $25 million. We also received our usual parade of folks who threatened cancellations and swore off Fool.com forever. One person wanted us to reimburse him for the keyboard he ruined by spitting Cherry Coke Zero on it while laughing.
He was kidding. Others were not as playful:
- This is what is wrong with this country. I hope you choke on the money.
- You should be ashamed of yourselves.
- I will also be writing my congressional delegation, and hopefully I will be able to enlist their support to get these funds returned to the Treasury.
Of course, there's a lesson
The sad part about all this is that as we brainstormed over the amusing bells and whistles to add to the absurdity of our joke, we discovered that many of them had already been used ... in real life!
For example, one idea we had was to return the free money because it just wasn't worth the hassle. Well, more than 50 banks have already done that rather than deal with inconsistent and emotional politicians. And what about another idea we had -- that of using our bailout funds to make enormous bets against the dollar under the hypothesis that all of this wasteful spending will lead to the dollar's collapse (read this for how to protect yourself)? Well, Russia already did that.
It's no wonder, then, that some folks bought our joke hook, line, and sinker. After all, this is a world where John Thain spent $87,000 on a rug and where AIG (NYSE: AIG ) has gotten four separate bailouts since September.
Perhaps worst of all
Finally, there was the notion that a heretofore unknown "loophole" allowed us to qualify for government funds in the first place. Just as soon as the bailout and stimulus bills passed, cottage industries popped up (most on the Internet) detailing how you can get your hands on some of that money. (On April 16, there's a one-hour Webinar to help you do just that -- kudos to you, Public Affairs Council. Kudos.)
Even details that were supposed to be dead giveaways that this was satire actually don't seem so ridiculous in hindsight. From our joke's FAQ section:
How will the taxpayers be paid back for their investment in The Motley Fool?
Step 1: Give The Motley Fool money.
Step 3: Profit.
We hope that's different from what's actually happening, but is it?
What's the point?
Look, the bailout is a fact of life. There's no going back on the trillions we taxpayers have already spent -- or look to be on the hook for. While Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) have expressed their desire to start repaying TARP funds as early as this month, we won't hold our breath. (No such promise came from automaker General Motors (NYSE: GM ) . Just sayin'.)
Further, we have to question just how well this expensive plan is going to work when financial firms such as Hudson City Bancorp (Nasdaq: HCBK ) and Cullen/Frost Bankers (NYSE: CFR ) have said "no, thanks" when offered TARP money.
What we can do, though, is request -- demand, even -- that this process have greater transparency, rationality, and common sense.
As citizens, we must hold our government accountable to their words and deeds. Government, in return, must respect our hard-earned dollars, be transparent about how those dollars are being spent, and stay true to their word and principles. If Treasury originally OK'd AIG to pay those now-maligned retention bonuses, for example, it should own up to and explain the decision and face the consequences of deteriorating popular opinion -- rather than allow Congress to go on a witch hunt against folks who acted in accordance with the law.
It's important to note that this is not a Republican-vs.-Democratic debate -- in other words, it's not a political issue but a civic one. Both parties should be held to the same standards of transparency, accountability, and open communication, and they should together be focused on actually solving this problem rather than scoring political points.
As Warren Buffett said in his March 9 interview with CNBC, "If you're in a war, and we really are in an economic war, there's an obligation to the majority to behave in ways that don't go around inflaming the minority."
Yes, these are nearly unprecedented economic times, but it's just like what we learned as kids: There's a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. Demand the right way.
The Foolish bottom line
Throughout our 16-year history, The Motley Fool has always aimed to educate, amuse, and enrich our readers, and we've advocated for the rights of individual investors. We will continue to cover the goings-on and criticize or praise as the facts allow. We hope you'll bookmark Fool.com to follow along.
And let us hear your thoughts on our joke, your own April Fool's prank, or the TARP -- just chime in using the comments function below.
In case you missed the April Fool's Day Fool.com fun: