The following rant originally appeared on the Eyes on the Wise Fool discussion board (free trial required). We liked it so much we thought we'd publish it. OK, OK -- we polished it up a little. Though its author, Al Silber (TMFWeasel) works at The Motley Fool, this represents his publishing debut.
Today, I read an article on WSJ.com regarding disgraced Salomon Smith Barney telecom analyst Jack Grubman. As anyone following the business press knows, he allegedly inflated his rating of AT&T
Of course, Citigroup, the 92nd Street Y (the school in question), and everyone else involved completely deny that a quid pro quo was involved. However, WSJ.com was kind enough to include the text of one of Grubman's emails. It reads:
He's already been done by Armstrong [chairman and CEO of AT&T] just doesn't know it. You know everyone thinks I upgraded T to get lead for AWE. Nope. I used Sandy to get my kids in 92nd ST Y pre-school (which is harder than Harvard) and Sandy needed Armstrong's vote on our board to nuke Reed in showdown. Once coast was clear for both of us (ie Sandy clear victor and my kids confirmed) I went back to my normal negative self on T. Armstrong never knew that we both (Sandy and I) played him like a fiddle.
Beyond any of the stories I have read so far, this email gave me that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It's the feeling that the game is truly rigged, and rigged for the wealthy elite. It sure looks like Jack Grubman inflated his rating of AT&T so that he could influence his boss to help his kids get into private school. And let us not forget that Citigroup has already admitted that it pledged $1 million (that's a one with six zeros after it) to the 92nd Street Y in an effort to help Grubman's application. Even without the very likely indefensible ethics lapse around the rating improvement for AT&T, what the hell was Citigroup doing doling out a million bucks to help an employee who was already earning $20 million a year?! Citigroup is, as I recall, a public company. Is this how it should spend its philanthropic dollars?!
Where is the public outrage? Here's some. I am mad. I am mad on three levels. First, I am mad as an individual investor in this economy. Mr. Grubman, you know you have no right. But Mr. Weill, you have no right either. If true, how dare you use your analysts in your own little power game? How dare you cave in to an employee who was willing to trade his stock rating for his social reaching through his children? If this proves true, as far as I am concerned, your resignation is requested, nay demanded.
Second, I am outraged as a Motley Fool employee. No, I don't write for the Fool. I'm not confronted with these issues on a daily basis. However, the Fool has spent nine years pointing out the inherent conflicts of interest on Wall Street. We have aligned ourselves with the individual investor, the same investor that Wall Street says is not smart enough to understand the mystical ways of the Street. Well, when the ways of the Street include these types of shenanigans, I suppose that is correct. As an industry, you really need to cut it out, because any trust you had is quickly disappearing. I might also add that if you don't, the attorney general of New York, Eliot Spitzer, seemingly would love nothing better than to have a few more of you handcuffed in front of a pack of cameras. They call it the "perp walk."
Lastly, I am outraged as a relatively normal middle-class person who has lived in New York and Washington, among other places, but without million-dollar connections. We tend to follow all of the application rules for our kids' private schools, and, when it comes to influencing the committee, our best strategy is to help out at the bake sales. With our eldest, my wife and I do what must seem unspeakable to you: We send him to public school. Here is our message to you "Masters of the Universe": You may think you can do anything you want, but you cannot. Ultimately, you are almost certainly working at a public company, so you, too, are an employee. And you are, through our pension funds, mutual funds, and stock ownership, our employee. You work for us.
So, that sick feeling is in my stomach. Does that mean I will stop investing in America's public companies? No, of course not. They are still the greatest driver of wealth the world has ever seen. However, when that sick feeling comes, I am reminded to email my congresswoman, my senators, and the Bush administration to ask them to watch over the financial markets. And, of course, it is incumbent upon me as the individual investor to follow what is happening at the companies in which I am invested.
Al Silber works in Partner Services at The Motley Fool. The views expressed in this article are his own, but, heck, we didn't think he had it in him. He owns none of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.