The Five Most Foolish Business Moves — So Far — of 2009

The first half of 2009 has been nothing short of volatile for Wall Street. Between corporate bailouts, bankruptcies and unprecedented government spending, the news has been full of surprises. The assorted high-profile shenanigans of GM, AIG and others deserve their rightful place in the “Hall of Shame,” but there has been plenty of scandal to go around. Let’s take a look at a few other boondoggles of business that deserve our indignation this year…

Wall Street Financed Michael Jackson’s Lavish Lifestyle
One of the unnoticed items amid news of Michael Jackson’s death is that several financial firms had a hand in financing the troubled pop star’s lavish lifestyle. Colony Capital, Fortress Investment Group and Barclays, among others, simply weren’t content enough to make bad deals on Wall Street and loaned millions of dollars to Jackson over a period of years. Documents show the entertainer had debts in excess of $330 million and had leveraged many of his assets in order to continue his bizarre spending habits. Now with Jackson’s untimely death, it is not clear how much of their original loans these firms will recoup.

Cash for Clunkers Goes Awry
The “Cash for Clunkers” bill has, as things are prone to doing in Washington, gone from being a good idea to being really bad legislation. The Car Allowance Rebate System — get it? CARS! — signed into law by President Obama gives vehicle owners up to a $4,500 credit toward the purchase of a new vehicle if they trade in an older, less fuel-efficient model. The rules? Trade-in vehicles must achieve not better than 18 miles to the gallon. The new car needs to get at least 19 miles per gallon. I am not making this up. 

Want to guess who supported this bill? Automakers and car dealers. But even their benefit should be called into question, as the program only calls for 250,000 vehicles — a fraction of typical new vehicles sales in the United States. Dealers sold 860,000 cars in the month of June alone. Act fast. The $1 billion program expires Sept. 30, 2009.

Standing Room Only…On an Airplane
For anyone who’s felt like grousing about the lack of legroom on U.S. carriers, consider China’s Spring Airlines. The discount carrier said it would seek permission from the Chinese government to sell standing-room-only tickets. A Spring spokesman said the seats would be similar to bar stools, and passengers would be strapped to them during takeoff and landing. Sounds lovely.

A Chinese official said, “For a lower price, passengers should be able to get on a plane like catching a bus, with no seat, no luggage consignment, no food, no water, but very convenient.”

Apple’s Jobs Fiasco
Apple, famous for surprising the world with new products, surprised the world with news that CEO StaP/E9e Jobs had undergone a liver transplant in April. The news caused a furor among investors who have followed the venerable visionary’s health since doctors diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer in 2004. Jobs had taken a medical leave of absence in January, citing a “hormone imbalance” and the need to recuperate. Rumors the cancer had come back began immediately after Apple said Phil Schiller, Vice President of Marketing, would be filling in for Jobs as the keynote presenter for Macworld in December 2008, and that the company would no longer be participating in the event.

Steve Jobs is the face of Apple. He releases the company’s latest trend-setting products at Apple events and has positioned himself as the dynamic leader of a dynamic company. In fact, no one at the company ever talks to the press, and there are no leaks. No successor has been named, either. Having the guy on an operating table while under-informed investors left their chips on the table was a gamble that no company should take nor no investor should be expected to.

Many investors complained about Apple’s lack of transparency in the matter, arguing that as a CEO of a publicly traded company, Jobs’ health was a concern that should be brought to light.

GE Says it Won’t Cut its Dividend, Then Does Anyway

GE chief Jeffrey Immelt insisted Feb. 5 that the blue chip conglomerate‘s dividend was safe. Then, in a matter of only three weeks, GE announced it would cut its quarterly dividend payments from $0.31 to $0.10 per share. The move marked the first dividend cut by GE since 1938. Immelt said the decision was made in an effort to preserve cash and avoid a possible downgrade. Of course, the downgrade happened anyway when Standard & Poor’s stripped the company of its triple-A rating on Mar. 1. Investors have filed two class-action lawsuits as a result of Immelt’s comments.