Just when you think people can't get any weirder: Last week, a woman in Stuart, Fla., was arrested for attempting to kill her husband with perfume. Allegedly, her husband is "chemically sensitive" due to long-term exposure to toxic mold and chemicals in his construction job. He received $150,000 in workers' compensation, half of which his wife wants now that they are filing for divorce. He won't give it up and she says he's made up the whole allergy thing anyway.

We have a better solution than having to torture one another for money: Start a darn retirement plan!

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Baby Bells Strike Back

The Baby Bells have been under pressure lately from formerly bankrupt firms that seemed to have a corporate mantra of lie, cheat, and steal. Some of these firms, most notably a little company called WorldCom, have recently emerged from bankruptcy virtually free of debt, ready to compete head-to-head once again with the firms that played fairly.

The honest firms ran into trouble of their own when they spent billions trying to keep up with the phantom growth of their unscrupulous competitors. However, the Bells pulled off a couple of minor victories today.

BellSouth (NYSE: BLS) has just entered into a $65 million deal to buy high-speed Internet wireless assets from WorldCom, which paid about $1 billion for them in several 1999 acquisitions. The steep drop in price doesn't automatically make it a good deal for BellSouth. Because prices were so inflated when WorldCom originally purchased the assets, it's difficult to gauge the true value of the deal based on price variance alone.

However, BellSouth has a good acquisition track record, and is known for being especially frugal in such deals. In any event, fans of BellSouth should be glad their company is the one paying $65 million for the goods instead of a billion. The deal requires approval from a New York bankruptcy court, but should close near the end of June if no one enters a higher bid.

In a separate deal, SBC Communications(NYSE: SBC) will be allowed to nearly double the access fee it charges long-distance carriers like AT&T(NYSE: T) and MCI, formerly WorldCom, in Illinois. The bill allowing the rate hike passed last Friday, and was signed into law in what the Chicago Tribune is calling an unusually short period of time. The local phone company and its unions have lobbied heavily for the bill since the FCC declared such decisions were to be made at the state level, which was seen as a victory for long-distance providers.

AT&T and MCI had argued that an increase would force them to raise their rates, but the hike merely brings rates in Illinois up to levels the companies are already paying in other states and closer to the national average.

These are relatively small victories when compared to the billions of dollars in damages caused by fraud and unscrupulous practices, but the Bells will take them just the same.

Quote of Note

"The telephone gives us the happiness of being together yet safely apart." -- Mason Cooley (b. 1927), U.S. aphorist

Bear Slips, Breaks Settlement

Well, that didn't take long. Days after signing on to the so-called "global settlement" proposed by the SEC and the New York attorney general's office with nine other investment banks, Bear Stearns(NYSE: BSC) violated the agreement. The new laws spelled out in the settlement haven't taken effect yet, so Bear Stearns didn't technically break the law -- but it definitely trampled the spirit of it.

Its transgression was that it allowed one of its analysts, James Kissane, to hype the impending IPO (underwritten by Bear Stearns) of credit card processing company iPayment(Nasdaq: IPMT) in a Web-based road show. That's a huge no-no under the new agreement, as regulators try their darndest to create a true Chinese wall between research and banking.

Kissane's comments were apparently for internal use only, and were supposed to be edited out of the Internet broadcast before it was sent to institutional investors. That didn't happen, though, and when The Wall Street Journal called them on it Friday, Bear Stearns yanked the offering and apologized for the "unfortunate incident."

Unfortunate indeed. The settlement was signed April 28, and Bear Stearns emailed the offending webcast on May 2. Within a span of less than a week, then, it publicly agreed to do one thing while privately conducting business as usual.

Bear Stearns was able to complete iPayment's IPO today, selling 5 million shares at $16 a pop. That's what was expected before this hoopla, so that's good news for iPayment. No reason they should pay for their investment banker's stupidity.

Sadly, we're not shocked that something like this would happen so close on the heels of the global settlement. Given recent statements from the CEOs of Merrill Lynch(NYSE: MER) and Morgan Stanley(NYSE: MWD) that imply nonchalance about the settlement's impact, the only people who seem to still be taking the agreement seriously are the regulators who brokered it.

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Bravo for Brokers

When you buy stock in a discount broker, is that considered insider trading? No. Bad joke. But the once-struggling group of bargain commission brokerage houses is having the last laugh these days.

Three months ago, we wrote that it would be a mistake to discount the discount brokers. This is why. Since then, shares of E*Trade(NYSE: ET) have risen by roughly 50%, while Schwab(NYSE: SCH) bottomed out a month later but has since climbed by nearly 50% off those eventual lows. Ameritrade(Nasdaq: AMTD), like E*Trade, has seen its stock double off last summer's penny stock bottom.

It's easy to see why the trading companies were neglected by the market. If stocks are out of favor and investors are cashing out, how will these companies grow earnings or even stay afloat? But that was a flawed rush to judgment. E*Trade has grown its non-brokerage business to the point where nearly half of its revenues comes from banking.

So, those who fancy E*Trade as little more than an online broker may be surprised to learn that the company originated $2.5 billion in mortgages last quarter. Ameritrade may not have the same financial services cushion to fall back on, but it has been able to grow its top line through an aggressive acquisition strategy of smaller rivals.

While all three companies still trade in the single digits, they all produced profitable March quarters. They have shaved costs and in some cases repurchased shares during the market lull. That's why the recent past few weeks of active and hearty market returns are so encouraging.

Last week, Ameritrade reported that its average daily trading volume in April soared to 124,000 from just 78,000 a year ago. As the purest of the online brokers, it stands to gain the most from a sustained market recovery.

Who is the loser in all this? It could be Toronto-Dominion Bank(NYSE: TD). If the rumors prove true and it is in fact looking to sell its TD Waterhouse subsidiary, it would be committing the same grave mistake that investors in discount broker stocks may have done earlier this year: It bought too high. It might sell too low.

TD Waterhouse, which like Ameritrade is a member of our Broker Center, is a valuable asset for Toronto-Dominion in a niche that is once again starting to appreciate. "Buy" and "sell" may get all the gloss, but a "hold" in this case might be the best course of action for Toronto-Dominion.

Discussion Board of the Day: Discount Brokers

Have you checked out our Broker Center lately? New deals. New comparison tables. However, few things top sharing broker experiences with your fellow Fools. Who is doing it right? Who is getting tripped up? All this and more -- in the Discount Brokers discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Quick Takes

Uh-oh. Did executives at Siebel Systems(Nasdaq: SEBL)slip up again and say things they shouldn't have? That's what the SEC would like to know, following a May 1 CBS MarketWatch report that Siebel's stock rose 8% on double the normal volume the day following an analyst dinner. Siebel was the first company ever fined because of Regulation Fair Disclosure, back in November 2002. For its part, it says it's conducting its own investigation and will no longer participate in investor conferences that aren't broadcast over the Internet.

A Manhattan grand jury indicted former Credit Suisse First Boston(NYSE: CSR) investment banker Frank Quattrone today on charges of witness tampering and obstruction of justice. The indictment replaces the April 23 criminal complaint filed against Quattrone.

Financial services and insurance company The Hartford(NYSE: HIG) is cutting 5.2% of its workforce, or 1,500 positions. It is also getting out of the property-casualty reinsurance business, and is boosting its asbestos claims reserve by $2.6 billion. It will take an after-tax charge of $1.7 billion against first-quarter results to reflect the addition to reserves.

Steve Madden (Nasdaq: SHOO) announced an exclusive licensing deal with fellow shoe company Candie's(Nasdaq: CAND) today. Under the agreement, Steve Madden will produce, sell, and distribute Candie's shoes and will operate the brand as a distinct division of Steve Madden. Candie's is perhaps best known for its wooden high-heeled sandals and provocative advertising featuring former Playmate Jenny McCarthy sitting on a toilet.

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And Finally...

Today on Fool.com:

  • For updated stories throughout the day, bookmark our ever-changing News section.
  • Matt Richey recommends that you own just two stocks
  • Selena Maranjian lists 27 ways for your teen to make money.
  • Tom Gardner likes Cisco's humility.
  • Gearing up for the Indy 500: NASCAR runs fast, but the investing prospects run slow.
  • In Fool's School, Drip your way to wealth. Small sums can really add up.

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Mathew Emmert, Jeff Fischer, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim