"Something that is forgotten in all of this is people like to smoke." — Morgan Stanley analyst David Adelman on the strength of tobacco stocks as Altria, whose shares have nearly doubled over the last six years, prepares to spin off the far weaker Kraft, as reported by The New York Times
So you're an executive who has just received a call to testify before the new Democratic Congress. Other than calling your lawyer or spiritual adviser, what should you do? The first rule: Prepare for the worst. "If they thought you'd done everything right, you wouldn't be there," says one former Hill staffer. The second, important for executives accustomed to calling the shots: be deferential. Beyond that, it's helpful to know your interrogator. Here, a few tips for dealing with some of the new committee chairmen CEOs might find themselves facing.
Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.)
House Financial Services Committee
Be succinct. Frank has no tolerance for witnesses who are undisciplined with words. On the other hand, he's willing to hear details about, say, how businesses are doing something about the need for affordable housing.
DON'T get into an argument with him—unless you enjoy public humiliation. Born in Bayonne, N.J., and educated at Harvard, Frank is one of the sharpest tongues and smartest minds in Washington.
Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.)
Senate Banking Committee
Talk bipartisan solutions. Dodd works closely with the committee's top Republican, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama. He's gregarious, so a pre-gavel handshake or pat on the back can improve the atmosphere.
DON'T even think about hinting that the hearing will help his 2008 Presidential bid—or trying to win a battle of quips. Dodd is considered the quickest wit in the Senate.
Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.)
House Government Reform & Oversight Committee
Make a case for why your company is a stellar corporate citizen, notwithstanding the little controversy in which it now finds itself.
DON'T challenge the hearing's premise. The event is scripted by one of the Hill's best staffs. Remember Waxman's famous 1994 hearings, when tobacco execs swore under oath that nicotine wasn't addictive? Big mistake.
Senator Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Feel free to flatter him. And remember that he uses Amtrak to commute to work from Wilmington. He likes execs who take public transit.
DON'T interrupt him while he's interrupting you. He enjoys talking. Let him. It means less time for you on the hot seat. And unless you want a tongue-lashing, "don't correct him," says Dallas-based Merrie Spaeth, who has coached witnesses.
Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.)
House Energy & Commerce Committee
Acknowledge the problem; describe your plan to fix it. The 80-year-old Detroit lawyer is tough. He sees himself as a gentleman, though, so introducing yourself earlier may pay off.
DON'T say, "I don't recall." Dingell berates witnesses who claim weak memories. And don't try spinning your way out of a mess; he probably knows about that internal memo that contradicts your testimony.
Representative Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.)
House Ways & Means Committee
Tell a story or use an example with a New York angle. The 18-term lawmaker from Harlem is very hometown-centric.
DON'T assume just because he has a liberal record that Rangel is antibusiness. He wants to hear how companies are creating jobs that move people out of poverty. And while he's a close friend of organized labor, he's nonetheless a leading Democratic advocate of trade liberalization.
In the world of investing books, a title using the words "Warren Buffett" is best-seller bait. But Buffett himself stays on the sidelines of such enterprises. "There are so many books," he told BusinessWeek recently, "I don't cooperate with them, and I don't put up roadblocks. I'm not part of the act." That includes books by Mary Buffett, his former daughter-in-law, whom he hasn't seen since she divorced his son in 1993 after 12 years of marriage.
With her inner-circle cred, Mary has built a franchise in writing and speaking about the legendary investor, most recently with The Tao of Warren Buffett. She says she gets fresh insights by reading, talking to family friends, and working with Omaha-based co-writer David Clark. She also fondly remembers Buffett's dinner-table maxims. (Sample: "It's easier to stay out of trouble than get out of trouble.") Warren Buffett's own literary efforts center on his yearly Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) letter to shareholders, the latest of which he's writing now. "My annual report is my book," he says. "I'm at 13,700 words."
David Lochbaum, a safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, believes he has identified a grave radiation threat—and it doesn't arise from his usual targets, nuclear power plants. The danger, Lochbaum says, comes from exit signs. The ubiquitous signs (100,000 sold annually in the U.S.) contain tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Yet the signs are being discarded into ordinary landfills.
Tritium allows exit signs to glow in the dark without any power source. In landfills, Lochbaum says, the isotope, a known carcinogen, can percolate into an area's drinking water. "If the runoff isn't monitored," he says, "the first sign of trouble could be people getting sick and dying."
Tests have turned up high levels of tritium in the leachate, or liquified waste, of almost all of Pennsylvania's 59 landfills, sometimes at more than six times the EPA limit. That finding alarms state regulators, who asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for tougher policing. (On Dec. 7, the nrc "reiterated" rules that require old exit signs to be taken by licensed haulers to special radioactive dumps.)
Washington, says Thomas Fidler, a top Pennsylvania radiation protection official, gives "so much attention to contamination from power stations while overlooking this." State authorities say they may petition the feds to compel stronger action.
For now, disposal company Waste Management (WMI), whose officials think the risk from tritium is minimal, has agreed along with other operators to measure tritium at Pennsylvania landfills for the next two years.
Bill Rowan, sales director for Isolite, a Berwyn (Pa.) exit sign company, says the threat is "totally overblown. Who drinks leachate?" But the NRC, charged with protecting Americans from radioactive materials, acknowledges the disposal problem. "Tracking the origin of a tritium exit sign that ends up in a landfill is difficult," says spokesman David McIntyre. "That makes enforcement difficult."
Just how much has the options backdating scandal cost business? So far, some 70 companies have restated earnings, logging a total of $9.9 billion in additional expenses. Broadcom tops the list with $2.2 billion in pretax charges. Costs at other companies have been far lower: For all the attention centered on Steve Jobs and his company, for example, Apple's (AAPL) earnings were restated by only $105 million. What accounts for such differences? The number of backdated options is one factor, says Todd Fernandez of proxy advisory service Glass Lewis. Another: the difference in the stock price between the day an option was truly granted and the false date at which it was recorded. The bigger the attempted gain from backdating, the bigger the expense now. Here, the 10 biggest pretax charges for backdated options.
Flat-panel TVs, the Wii, and...wind-up radios? This past holiday season, retailers say, crank-powered flashlights and radios were strong sellers. With bizarre weather gripping the country, forecasters, the Red Cross, and retailers themselves talked up self-powered gadgets as a key to emergency preparedness.
RadioShack (RSH) says weather worries are driving sales of the three crank radios it offers. And Morris Mitchell, president of the men's division of Tandy Brands Accessories (TBAC), reports that sales of its Totes brand crank-powered flashlights, cell-phone chargers, and radios to stores such as Macy's and J.C. Penney (JCP) have tripled in the wake of Katrina, to 750,000 units. Customers, he says, are buying them "five or six at a time for their families, friends, cars, and homes."
Also selling well: a co-branded line of crank- or battery-operated radios launched by the American Red Cross in partnership with Etón, a Palo Alto (Calif.) electronics manufacturer that also credits rising interest in renewable energy for the radios' popularity. The Red Cross says sales are positive enough to trigger plans for it to license more self-powered gadgets, including foot-crank generators.
Like its cartoon counterpart, Australia's Tasmanian devil is all screech and not much bite. Despite its fierce appearance, the marsupial scavenger is more koala than killer—likely to share a carcass peacefully, says Nick Mooney, an Australian wildlife biologist. Sadly, that sociability is contributing to the devils' demise. In just 10 years, a highly communicable, fatal form of facial cancer has halved the population. And as devils disappear, non-native foxes and feral cats invade, which could mean a cascade of extinctions. To help find a cure and rescue the Taz—the inspiration for its Looney Tunes star—Warner Bros. (TWX) is lending a hand with the sale in Australia of a special-edition plush Taz toy for about $39. All proceeds go to the conservation work of the Tassie Devil Appeal.
To read SEC filings with a guide, go to this blog run by David Phillips, an investment newsletter publisher. He focuses on financial-statement "soft spots," such as restructurings, and also takes on issues like executive pay, recently analyzing the actual compensation of $1-a-year ceos like Yahoo!'s (YHOO) Terry Semel and Apple's (AAPL) Steve Jobs. Phillips delves into the data and lets others handle the witty asides, sprinkling in lines from movies and songs. On the payoff to shareholders from Semel's low official salary, he paraphrases Tom Waits: "The big print giveth and the small print taketh away."
What surprised you most at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos?
"The biggest surprise was how Doha [the stalled Doha Development Round of WTO negotiations] moved from the bottom to the top of the agenda. The business leaders here got together to help get the trade talks revived." — E. Neville Isdell, Chairman and CEO, Coca-Cola
"I was surprised by John McCain. I had heard about his short fuse. But during a small group discussion, I questioned his position on Iraq, and he bit my head off. " — Arianna Huffington, Editor-in-Chief, HuffingtonPost.com
"I found Davos more optimistic than last year. The American economy is strong. There's still huge interest in China and India—though more in India! And all this is happening despite huge cynicism about the Iraq war." — Azim Premji, Chairman, Wipro