FOOL ON THE HILL

Life Left in the Market

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By Bill Mann (TMF Otter)
November 13, 2002

Several months ago, we opined that investors would gain some confidence in the U.S. stock market when they began to see the masterminds of the big corporate scams doing perp walks.

Well, we were wrong. In the last few weeks, Andrew Fastow, the Enron CFO whiz kid who engineered the myriad off-balance-sheet rat holes to hide company debt, was arrested. A few days earlier, two former top Tyco (NYSE: TYC) executives, Mark Swartz and Dennis Kozlowski, were charged with theft of some $400 million. Tyco responded by suing to recover a severance package of $45 million paid to Swartz. He is fighting, saying that he negotiated the severance in good faith. To which I say, "Good faith?! How dare you?"

I haven't lost directly from the big corporate scandals, though I didn't get rid of Qwest (NYSE: Q) when I first had doubts about the veracity of its top brass. But these scandals have hurt all of us; they've jolted our confidence in the U.S. markets. And mostly, they let us know just how little some people in power care about the "good faith" investors put in them.

Think about this for a moment. We're coming into the first generation of thousands of mega-wealthy people, not by creating large companies or by running them, but by tanking them. It's never happened in the past. When companies went bankrupt, their insiders' fortunes dwindled right down with them. Scott Sullivan will keep his $15 million Florida home, though WorldCom faked more than $8 billion in revenues under his watch. How many millions of dollars ended up in the pockets of people who took vaporware companies public in the late 1990s, companies shepherded along by investment banks salivating at another big fee, ready to unleash their "research" on a public that was ready to believe anything they said? These people succeeded only in deception, but man, oh, man did it work.

We can be cynical about this, and we should be. After all, when the companies we invest in look at us as marks rather than part owners, it's pretty disgusting. While I would be hard-pressed to say we're on our way out of this dark period, I will say this: The problem is gaining significant attention at the very point at which it's working itself out. Think about it -- when was the time to get angry about ludicrous stock-options packages for insiders? Yep, back in 1999. Some of us were shouting, but the majority of investors were too busy feeding at the trough to worry about a little investment slippage in the form of big compensation packages.

The market remains ugly. In a recent column on Fool.com, I suggest the Nasdaq could slip below the 500 mark. Yet, this month, in our newest edition of The Motley Fool Select, we've found a discount retailer with a traditional niche, a debt-free balance sheet, consistent profitability in all four quarters, and enticingly low valuation. We even have the pulse of a small-cap pharmaceutical whose risk/reward ratio is definitely skewed in the investors' favor. Even if 49 out of 50 companies are bad investments, at present, that leaves more than 200 good companies to find. Please know we continue to look.

Bill Mann is the editor of The Motley Fool Select, where TMF's brightest analysts showcase their best stock ideas every month. Our newest issue is just out. Try Select free for a month and discover that one in 50 that's worth it!