This just in: Putnam -- hand in the cookie jar -- Investment Management has agreed to pay restitution to mutual fund investors who lost money as a result of (how to put this delicately?) questionable trading practices. This according to the SEC.

Putnam neither admitted nor denied the allegations, but did agree to "undertake significant and far-reaching corporate governance, compliance, and ethics reforms" to settle the SEC charges.

Granted, it's a start and, on the surface, might bolster investors' faith both in Putnam and the SEC. But, forgive us if we take a wait-and-see on this one.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

eBay's Options Answer

First, eBay(Nasdaq: EBAY) teased us by dropping a tantalizing hint that it might begin expensing stock options. According to its second-quarter 10Q:

We are currently evaluating whether we will voluntarily change to the fair value based method of accounting for stock based employee compensation and record such amounts as charges to operating expense.

However, the third-quarter 10Q released yesterday seems to close the door to the idea:

We currently do not intend to voluntarily change to the fair value based method of accounting for stock based employee compensation and record such amounts as charges to operating expense.

So, rather than join the growing list of companies that have decided to step up and help present investors with a clearer financial picture -- AMZN), Computer Associates(NYSE: CA), InterActiveCorp(Nasdaq: IACI), Home Depot(NYSE: HD), American Express(NYSE: AXP), General Electric(NYSE: GE), Coca-Cola(NYSE: KO), and dozens of others -- eBay disappoints us again.

To its credit, management clearly points out in each quarterly report just how much of an impact expensing options would have on earnings. For the first nine months of 2003, for example, eBay would have reported $164.7 million in earnings, or $0.25 per share, instead of the $299.3 million and $0.47 it actually recorded.

Still, the arguments against expensing are getting rather tired, and we'd prefer to see management display some gumption and just get on with what's going to happen eventually -- once the Financial Accounting Standards Board requires it. This, and the issue of options dilution (another column entirely), mars eBay's otherwise fine corporate reputation.

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Wal-Mart Talks Weakness

Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) and Target(NYSE: TGT) both reported higher third-quarter sales and earnings this morning. However, it was Wal-Mart's words about the American consumer, and the implications for the upcoming holiday shopping season, that were the most interesting news from the company today.

Wal-Mart's sales slowed from August into September and then from September into October, as tax rebate spending petered out. Target experienced a similar decline. While that in and of itself doesn't spell a less-than-merry holiday season for retailers, Wal-Mart was decidedly guarded when it came to talking about its fourth- quarter expectations.

Economists have already started predicting that this holiday season will be stronger than last. That's an easy assertion to make, though, given that last year's retail sales grew at their slowest rate in 30 years. Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott pointed out as much in the company's pre-recorded earnings call. (Thanks to CCBN/StreetEvents for the transcript.)

Scott also characterized consumers as "very cautious" and said that while he doesn't think spending is slowing, he also "...(doesn't) see the strength that many of you in the investment community appear to see." Perhaps even more chilling is his observation that consumers are "...timing their expenditures around the receipt of their paychecks, indicating liquidity issues."

Ruh-roh. Can you say, "the consumer's all tapped out?" Lee Scott didn't voice it explicitly, but that's sure what it sounded like. The Fool's own Matt Richey wrote about this looming issue in September, saying, "All told, the consumer doesn't look to be in great shape." Bill Mann and Robert Brokamp followed that up with twoarticles in October about the country's rising consumer debt.

If any one company's got its finger on the pulse of the American shopper, it's Wal-Mart. When the big dog talks about weakness, then, it worries everyone and for good reason. Visions of shopping bags stuffed with goodies are already dancing in retailers' heads, but after today, they may be seeing more lumps of coal than anything else.

Quote of Note

"The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good." -- Samuel Johnson.

Cisco's on the Call

Cisco's (Nasdaq: CSCO) deal to buy Latitude Communications(Nasdaq: LATD) is a look back to the future. Beginning in the early-1990s, Cisco built its router empire through skillful acquisitions -- typically of small companies.

Like many others, though, Cisco fell into the black hole of mega deals during the late-1990s and has been cleaning up the mess since. Unlike many others, Cisco has more than $20 billion in the bank and a hefty market cap to do deals.

So, on the one hand, the $80 million cash deal for Latitude may seem inconsequential. But don't be fooled: In fact, it was a very sound move and an absolute steal for Cisco.

More than ever, businesses need to communicate -- whether with employees, partners or prospects -- and online solutions are much cheaper. Nifty features like video, document sharing, and scheduling make virtual meetings much like meeting in person.

In fact, Latitude developed its product to make it easy for Cisco to integrate, since it can be used seamlessly with Lotus Notes, Microsoft Outlook, Sametime instant messaging, and CallManager (which allows scheduling through Cisco's IP telephones). What's more, Cisco can rapidly scale the Latitude product through its immense distribution network.

Don't forget, earlier this year, Microsoft purchased Web-based conferencing company PlaceWare (rumors indicate a price tag of roughly $200 million). Here's the difference: For Microsoft, the business is a natural extension of its operating system. For Cisco, it is an extension of IP communications. Conferencing sells operating systems; it also leads to more demand for routers.

Either way, the conferencing industry has two new major players. This validates the market, but puts incredible pressures on the remaining independents, which include Raindance Communications(Nasdaq: RNDC), WebEx(Nasdaq: WEBX), Centra(Nasdaq: CTRA), and Radvision(Nasdaq: RVSN), not to mention a smattering of privately held outfits.

This is a win for Cisco. In light of the new landscape, it might behoove the independents to call their investment bankers (could be on a Cisco phone) to find a dance partner fast.

Discussion Board of the Day: Organic Living

Have you been to a Whole Foods Market or Wild Oats lately? What do you think of organic food? Do you spend more time reading product labels at the supermarket than you do the morning paper? All this and more -- in the Organic Living discussion board. Only on

Mor e Fool News

For all today's stories, see Today's Headlines.

And Finally...

One hesitates to get all Darwinian about investing, but sometimes it's a dog-eat-dodo world. Which gets Dave Mock, special to The Motley Fool, thinking, Wireless Wars: Who Wins? This could be the first in a long line of prequels. On a kinder, gentler note, Jeff Fischer, our own guru of growth, gives you Red Hat Is Red Hot. Meanwhile, you might have Brokerage Account Insurance and not even know it. Sweet.

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Paul Elliott, Mathew Emmert, Jeff Fischer, Jeff Hwang, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Alyce Lomax, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Dave Marino-Nachison, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim