March Gladness

From freedom fries for Congress to HTML 4 Dummies for MSN.com employees, Rex Moore marches on.

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By Rex Moore (TMF Orangeblood)
March 28, 2003

This hasn't exactly been a slow month, has it? Amid everything else -- the NCAA basketball tournament, the Oscars, bookgrrl winning the Fool's Feste Award -- the war in Iraq finally started. The effect on the markets was extreme, with the S&P 500 rising 11% in a few short days.

Why did this happen? To find out, I embedded myself with the 101st New York Stock Exchange Division and interviewed traders, brokers, analysts, money managers, janitors, and Maria Bartiromo's hair stylist. I came up with a single, universal, coherent answer: No one has any earthly idea. The best explanation came from the Al-Jazeera journalists, who told me, "Some days, the market goes up. Some days, it goes down." The exchange then revoked their credentials.

Like their NYSE counterparts, members of the U.S. Congress were also concentrating on vital matters of national importance. Reps. Bob Ney and Walter Jones, upset that France refused to back U.S. war efforts, were able to stay focused enough through all the chatter about budgets and homeland security to order the removal of "french fries" from all restaurant menus in the House, to be replaced with "freedom fries." In retaliation, France sent a battleship to reclaim the Statue of Liberty, but the crew surrendered to a hot-dog vendor near the entrance.

Meanwhile, outfits like Viacom-owned (NYSE: V) MTV and AOL Time Warner's (NYSE: AOL) People Magazine have dived headlong into war coverage, scaling back on their normal fare. As Fool editor Jackie Ross asked, "Wouldn't people rather watch Eminem videos and read about J. Lo's big booty, just to take their minds off of things?" Personally, I'd rather watch Wolf Blitzer try to pronounce "Qatar" a thousand times than listen to the wisdom of Eminem ("I'll diss your magazine and still won't get a weak review; I'll make your freak leave you. Smell the Folgers crystals"), but I would like to hear more about J. Lo's derriere.

There was, of course, plenty of non-war-related news in March. Unfortunately, most of it involved corporate corruption. Ex-Tyco (NYSE: TYC) CEO Dennis Kozlowski -- accused of stealing $600 million from the company -- showed he has a sense of humor by claiming his former firm still owes him millions in deferred compensation. Perhaps Kozlowski should be a humor consultant for Dennis Miller.

Deposed ImClone (Nasdaq: IMCL) founder Samuel Waksal is not about to give up fighting for the "Most Outrageous CEO" title, however. After he agreed to pay an $800,000 fine to settle some of his SEC insider-trading charges, new allegations came to light that he actually made $130,000 by betting against his company before bad news broke. Yes, not only did he sell ImClone shares to avoid losses, but he also bought put options to profit from his own company's pending stock drops. Are these guys great or what?

But wait! There's more. The SEC may charge AOL with "aiding and abetting" revenue-reporting fraud at other companies like Homestore (Nasdaq: HOMS). The Feds also say health-care provider HealthSouth and CEO Richard Scrushy committed massive accounting fraud by overstating earnings by some $1.4 billion over the past few years.

In non-corruption news, coffee king Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) is introducing a new malt-flavored cold Frappuccino in an effort to keep sales strong throughout the summer. Expect it to be priced the same as similar concoctions -- about $37 for a "Tall." ("Tall," in Starbucks-speak, means "small." If you walk in and ask the "Barista" -- "Barista" is Starbucks-speak for "person who works behind the counter in a green apron for $5.15 an hour and serves you caffeine" -- for a "small coffee," the Barista will stare at you like a deer caught in headlights because she doesn't understand terms like "small," "medium," and "large." Yet she has no trouble with "Venti double-shot half-caf Caramel Macchiatto with a splash of Chai.")

Word leaked out this month that TV star Don Johnson was detained after crossing from Germany into Switzerland with a briefcase containing stocks, bonds, and credit notes totaling $8 billion. Johnson told authorities he needed the funds to buy a round of drinks at Starbucks and was released.

On the lighter side, Fool reader Brian Dear came up with a new stock analysis system based on Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN) "Purchase Circles," which show the books most frequently purchased by dozens of public companies. Three of the top 10 reads by Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) employees, for example, are Harry Potter books. Amazon workers are more likely to daydream about 100 Classic Hikes in Washington or Snowshoe Routes: Washington than fill your order.

I looked at the Purchase Circles myself, and found that the top two uniquely popular books at women's media company iVillage (Nasdaq: IVIL) are Jonny Bowden's Shape Up!: The Eight-Week Plan to Transform Your Body, Your Health and Your Life, and The Zen of Organizing. Seriously, I didn't make that up.

No. 1 on the Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) MSN.com list? HTML 4 for Dummies (with CD-ROM). Again, true. See for yourself. Rival Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) employees, on the other hand, have made The Second Coming of Steve Jobs their second most popular book.

I conducted a secret poll of Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Dennis Kozlowski, and Samuel Waksal. Their top book, by far, is First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently. (OK, so I made that one up.)

Here's the rest of the month, in nutshell:

Rex Moore is taking Groundskeeper Willie over Ralph Wiggum in Marge Madness... but can either dethrone Apu? At press time, he owned shares of Microsoft, eBay, and Procter & Gamble. His profile is always here, unless the Internet breaks. The Fool has a disclosure policy.