FOOL ON THE HILL
The Cost of Love

There's just one thing more troubling than not having a date on Valentine's Day -- having to endure the corporate onslaught the holiday brings on. Sure, diamonds may be forever, but they can put you in hock forever, too. You might be better off buying the companies that sell them -- but then again, you'd just be propagating this sham of a holiday, so don't do it!

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By Bob Bobala (TMF Bobala)
February 14, 2002

Since I'm unattached for the first time in a long while this Valentine's Day (sob, sob), I can officially play the role of Fool Scrooge and call out this holiday for it really is: a scam!

Phew, that feels better. Now, come on, admit it. In years when you were sitting home alone rolling coins on Valentine's Day, you thought it was just a putrid, commercial holiday Hallmark created to burn a hole in your pocket, too, didn't you? In fact, maybe you think that even if you do have a Valentine.

After all, if you need a holiday to remind you that you're in love with someone, are you really in the relationship you want to be in? I just toss that out. I'm not a psychoanalyst, so don't email me with your love problems. I have no advice to give. I have no one to introduce you to either, and Fool personal ads are still on the cutting room floor.

But whether you have a love interest this year or not, let's commiserate. We've all been there. The pressure on this day is intense. Pull off that special surprise and you're a champ or a goddess. Fall short and you're a chump. You might be lucky. You might be able to swing a low-cost or no-cost Valentine's Day event. The people on our Living Below Your Means discussion board are offering their hubbies coupons for massages and the like. For that practical gift that will help you learn and grow together, our Couples & Cash Online Seminar is always available.

But despite your best Foolish intentions, you can rest assured that corporate America is out to get you. Normally, as an investor, I'd applaud this. But when it comes to the exploitation of love, I'm against it.

There is one particular industry, however, that makes me grind my teeth more than any other on V-Day. I realize now that I am cutting off any romantic possibilities with some 90% of the female population out there by saying this, but the hard sell from diamond retailers just puts me in a foul mood. I mean, they've really got us where they want us: Diamonds are forever. They signify love and commitment -- or at least two months' salary (if you believe industry marketing propaganda).

This year, the winner for most wretched online advertising campaign goes to Mervis Diamond Importers, who have been saying for some time now that "Love can make you stupid." Well, it's true. Love can make you stupid enough to lay down your life savings on a diamond for her for Valentine's Day. Of course, Mervis calls that "brilliance" in its ad, which, at press time at least, you could find here. Be forewarned: Kisses will come bounding across your monitor and they can't be stopped. If the campaign is over by the time you read this, I'm sure you can still call 1-800-HER-LOVE to put in your order. I kid you not. That's the real phone number. I'm gagging even as I give them free advertising.

Of course, the ultimate Valentine's Day trap is Tiffany & Co. (NYSE: TIF). Go ahead, take a trip over to Tiffany.com -- if you dare. They are ready for you. As soon as you log on, they'll offer you a sweet deal on a pair of earrings -- rubies on a small bed of diamonds with some gold and platinum mixed in for $6,300. (By the way, the day I am buying rubies, just shoot me).

Too pricey for you? For just $3,900 you can get a pendant that's essentially the same as the earrings, minus one ruby since you have only one neck to hang it around. Or, for you bargain basement types, there's a gold bangle lined with diamonds for only $2,850. Now, I had to look this up to be sure, but for anyone who's jewelry I.Q. is as low as mine, a bangle is essentially a solid, round bracelet. Yeah, I don't know why they don't just call it a bracelet either.

If you're cost-conscious, you might think it's foolhardy to even bother with Tiffany. But what about your partner? As Bill Mann wrote last year,"Tiffany's trademark blue box evokes strong, positive emotions among consumers," and that's no accident. Tiffany's brand casts a pall over people in the market for an engagement ring or other fine jewelry. It screams luxury, importance, and "how much you really care about me." Even if you're not under its spell, there's a good chance your significant other is. When the time comes to pick out the ring, all roads lead to Tiffany. If you don't want to rock the boat, bite your lip, sell your car, and pay up. The power of that brand has helped Tiffany weather the economic storm we're wading through.

I was going to make this a "don't buy the diamonds, buy the stock" column, but investors have been just as mesmerized as consumers are by Tiffany's brand. Shares of Tiffany have risen from $20 to $35 since September, even as the company's third-quarter sales declined 10% and earnings per share declined $0.08 from the year-ago period (the company releases Q4 earnings Feb. 28). With the shares edging up to their 52-week high ($38.25), the stock's P/E is just about 30 now, making it as pricey as the jewelry. Never underestimate the power of the blue box, but if you can avoid it, don't succumb.

I was thinking another way to play the diamond trade might be De Beers, which, in the 114 years it has been in business, has set up a vast empire of diamond exploration, mining, and marketing. The company controls two-thirds of the global diamond supply, which, as Todd Lebor once posited, puts it in a position to really stick it to a company like Tiffany. Normally, I'd be all for that. But in my current mood, I'm thinking De Beers is just part of the problem. If we could choke off the supply, we could choke off the ads that say "Love makes you stupid" with those kisses pitter-pattering across my monitor. Maybe we could choke off the whole dang holiday.

Okay, that might be a tall order. But so is trying to understand De Beers' business. I mean, mining diamonds in places like Africa and Russia has got to be a murky endeavor at best. The 2001 annual report is not out yet, but in 2000 the company said the diamond was the "Millennium gift of choice" (ugh). De Beers reported operating cash flow of $2.2 billion on $5.67 billion in sales. That sounds awesome and all, but trying to understand the convoluted restructuring that's recently taken place at the company made me want to O.D. on those little candy hearts that say "Be Mine" and "I'm Yours." To the best of my limited knowledge, nowadays I think you can buy shares of De Beers on the Botswana stock exchange.

But, I've decided that whether they're good businesses or not, buying into any company that sells this holiday or makes money off of it is akin to owning a tobacco company -- it's slowly killing me, and I don't even smoke. So, I won't buy any company that propagates Valentine's Day. But you go ahead and make your own investment decisions -- and while you're at it, decide if you should stay home and rent a movie tonight or rent a suite at the Ritz-Carlton and one of those bubble-making machines.

Just remember, the cost of love shouldn't be monetary. From the risk of heartbreak to the fight over the remote control, the baked-in price of love is already high enough. I'm sure Dr. Ruth would agree with me (and you can listen to her via real audio, talking to Tom and David Gardner about sex in bear markets on last week's Motley Fool Radio Show).

What's that? You say I'm just bitter because I can't get a date? Geez, I thought I had built up a strong enough fa�ade so that that wouldn't show through. Back to the drawing board, I guess. But at least this column points out one of our Foolish principles: Never take investing advice on Valentine's Day from a writer spurned.

Have a great Valentine's Day, everybody! Just be good, and don't spend too much.

Full disclosure: Bob Bobala has no date for Valentine's Day, but isn't too worried about it. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.