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This Motley Fool series examines things that just aren't right in the world of finance and investing. Here's what's got us riled up this week. If something's bugging you, too -- and we suspect it is -- go ahead and unload in the comments section below.
Today's subject: Despite our difficult economic times, a rogue's gallery of corporations have apparently focused on their own short-term profits, to everybody else's detriment. While the financial industry once harbored all of the most prominent examples, BP (NYSE: BP ) , has now reminded us that cluelessness and irresponsibility aren't only found on Wall Street.
You'd think that a reasonable company would have a plan in place to handle emergencies such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But as the weeks drag on since BP's oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire and collapsed, the company still doesn't seem to have a clue.
Why you should be indignant: Oil from the disastrous spill has already reached the Louisiana marshlands. Scientists now fear that it's reached the Loop Current, where it could travel to threaten the Florida Keys' coral reefs before moving up the East Coast. Ponder the long-term impacts to wildlife and the ecosystem; dead marine animals have already started washing up on shore. (When you start messing with our friends the bottle-nosed dolphins, oh man, I really get steamed.)
Beyond the environmental impact, let's talk cold economics. This disaster threatens fishermen's basic livelihoods, the affected states' tourism industries, and countless folks' quality of life. Louisiana's fishing sector represents $3 billion of the state's economy, and the Gulf is responsible for somewhere between one-fifth and one-third of our nation's fish and shellfish. About 19% of federal waters in the area have been closed, dealing a horrible blow to the seafood industry. That will have ripple effects for many businesses, including a likely spike in seafood prices.
So far, the most striking insult has been the litany of possible fixes BP has trotted out over the weeks, each less successful than the last. First we had the "top hat" and the "junk shot." Now BP's talking up the "dynamic kill" method, in which the company will attempt to pump "kill mud" into the hole. This word salad's driving me nuts, and it only convinces me further that these folks don't know what to do!
BP CEO Tony Hayward deserves star billing for this fiasco. According to The Wall Street Journal, he recently admitted that "it's 'probably true' that BP didn't do enough planning in advance of the disaster." And The New York Times reports that he once lamented, "What the hell did we do to deserve this?" (I'm sure the folks who live and work along the Gulf Coast will all shed a tear for him.) Hayward's self-centered remarks make Toyota's (NYSE: TM ) recent safety problems and management missteps look like child's play.
What now: The outrageous unpreparedness BP has shown amid this disaster is mind-blowing. This is no fly-by-night operation; it's a major oil company that generated $16.6 billion in profit last year. However unlikely a catastrophe like this might have seemed, the company's lack of any emergency plan seems just brain-shatteringly stupid. The blame game that BP, Halliburton (NYSE: HAL ) , and Transocean (NYSE: RIG ) all played a couple of weeks ago doesn't exactly fill me with confidence, either.
WSJ recently exposed the oil industry's inadequate disaster plans for the dangers of deepwater drilling. Both Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) and Petrobras (NYSE: PBR ) have had serious issues on offshore platforms in the last 10 years. The paper also revealed that in a 2004 trade journal article, two BP managers concluded that although BP responded well to an earlier incident, "it had 'less focus' on the longer term and wasn't prepared for the nearly two weeks of round-the-clock response even the fairly small spill required."
Have corporate managers forgotten that truly good businesses need contingency plans for worst-case scenarios? Are they too busy patting one another on the back to ponder how things might go wrong? This short-sightedness isn't just the oil industry's problem; Wall Street seemed blithely unaware that "liar loans" and interest-only mortgages might one day blow up in their faces.
Responsibility and ethics are common-sense capitalism. Chasing short-term profits while pretending that nothing can ever go wrong is downright idiotic. Even the supposedly unsinkable Titanic went down without enough lifeboats for all its passengers. We all should have learned a lesson from that. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, and BP's blundering, ineffectual response to it, shows that some of us clearly haven't.
Investor, beware. In my opinion, no stock gets cheap enough to merit this kind of shameful risk.