stress tests


family portrait“Our Uncle Ben, Who Art in Wyoming…

“Ahh, okay, I’m gonna level with you, Uncle B. My wife’s the one with the Lord & Taylor account, if you know what I’m saying. Never was much for that hallowed-be-thy bullcrap. So I’m just gonna talk to you straight, man to man, if that’s all right. Straight talk is what this business is all about, am I right? Well, that and a little Greco-Roman wrestling on the trading floor after the bell. Nah just messin with ya.

“Thing is, I really need you here, Unc. We’re nowhere near EOY, and my guys–the guys I work for, a really great group of guys, I love ’em, not in a may-I-cornhole-ya-after-one-too-many way but bro love, man–they won’t look me in the eye since, like, late June. I’m saying, I only got about 30% of the way through that second mortgage last year. And whatever you’ve heard about housing bubbles, that Hamptons hubba bubba ain’t popped, so I don’t even know what that thing’ll be worth in a year. We did refi what’s left on the penthouse, but One Sweet Deal Doth Not a Summer House Make, as my mentor used to say. Plus Dylan’s only starting 4th, Max is barely a pre-schooler, and that school’s tuition  makes exotic derivatives look like a Family Dollar endcap. I got bills, man, and I’m not talking about the kind you stack. We got maybe a two-year cushion of cash. With the severance, maybe another six months.

“Truth be told, there’re rumors on the Street, and I’m not just talking layoffs–the hoi polloi is whining about “insolvent banks” again. A, so what if we are, welcome to 21st-Century finance, and B, we don’t let that kind of “rumor” out the revolving door. Sure, we take care of whistleblowers: with a broken kneecap, a Gowanus dive, and a nice kettle ball coat. So I don’t know where this bullcrap is coming from, but it is threatening to bring down capitalism as we know it.

“What I’m saying is, these last two years, we worked hard for you B. You said bring those averages up, kickstart the recovery? I went out, four or five days a week, forty-six, forty-seven weeks a year I hit that buy button at 9:31 a.m. and that sell button at 4:01 p.m. Day in and day out, I personally stuck the turnkey in and wound up every bot on the floor. All that crap on the balance sheet? We cold-called the world and we kept selling it, and when they didn’t want to buy we shouted them down: ‘Why do you hate America? What do you have against a little honest business?’

“I don’t get on my knees here for just any guy Benny. Nah but seriously: I’m not some fat slob who can’t get off the couch, begging for handouts, sponging off honest taxpayers. I can’t do that, it’s not in my nature. So when you step up to that mic tomorrow, I need you to deliver. Family-style: five percent across the indexes. Or six, but hey, whatever you think is right. I know I can trust you to do right by us.

“Uh, ‘Amen’.”

Today, you’re one year old. Oh, I know, your predecessors have been around for decades and even almost centuries. You’re as old as that story about tulips in Holland! That’s old as hell, I don’t even think Socrates existed when there were tulips in Holland. For sale. For way more money than they were worth! Tulip mania! Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz–

Ah sorry, Baby Stock Market, I fell asleep during my own retelling of that tired-ass story. Only trotted out by traders about 30% as often as the irrational/solvent chestnut, but inexcusable nonetheless. Especially because you’re a new market! Not that same ol’ boring one we used to have to put up with, but fresh-minted from the refried ashes Pandibell sprinkled over us like pixie-dust the weekend of March 7-8, 2009. That’s a year ago now, and every year, you get to have a “birthday”. Yay!

I gotta tell ya kid, some of us are just. so. proud. Not to mention rich, in a way that only an overleveraged faux-capitalist mainlining apparatchik handouts and tugging on longs like a 14-year-old in the dark can possibly appreciate. In other words, you’re just the synergy of Wealth and Power we’ve narrowed ourselves down to dreaming of.

Oh, enough praise! What I want to tell you, Baby Market, in celebration of you turning One Year Old, is the real secret of your super-specialness:  You have three mommy-daddys!

  • M/D #1: The Prince of Darkness, in whose crafty shemale/himlady eye you became a glimmer with an intraday low of $SPX 666 the Friday before Pandibell got his fateful clap.
  • M/D #2: The U.S. government and Federal Reserve under two different administrations, actually a much more enthusiastic daddy-mommy than the Lord of the Underworld: daddy-Fed pumping mommy-money supply full of paper-like “cloth”, mommy-Treasury vacuuming the purchasing-power spunk right out of the next two or three generations of a daddy-nation of hapless taxpayers and feeding them like Viagra-filled crack-powdered donuts to…
  • M/D #3: Now, all babies want to know where they truly come from. It’s complicated in your case, and I’ll save the mechanics of it for your terrible twos, but suffice to say that when the archfiend and socialist finance get together and rub up against a bunch of playas still calling themselves capitalists despite having lost the game and the casino both until said rubbing reanimated them, well, new “markets” are bound to emerge! Like you! Now it’s tough to say just who’s the daddy and who’s the mommy in the case of M/D #3, because a whole shitload of anonymous fucking went on. The favored gender-neutral term is Wall Street.

Now that is a wonderful, wonderful family story, even if it fails the proposed Constitutional definition of marriage. Most kids only get two parents, just “actual people” with boring “unemployment benefits”, while it took the Scion of Eternal Night, a Government, and a morally and mathematically penniless “Banking” “Industry”, with the dazed blessing of an entire nation of said “actual people”, to produce little ol’ bloated, shameless, ultimately destructive you!

Oh I’m sorry. I may have just used some naughty words on you, Baby Stock Market, and on your birthday, too! It just slipped out. But I may as well tell you: there are those of us who can’t help but believe you’re a figment, even less real than Pandibell’s job qualifications, off the reality charts, out near healthy processed food and the war on terror. Now we may be meanies, but it’s really not our fault. We try and try to like you because babies are cute, and because knee-jerk optimism runs even deeper in our cultural bloodstream than self-reinforcing greed, but despite our best efforts, some among us are hindered. Tripped up by a failure of evolution in fact, stuck with a  chromosome of which newer models like you are blessedly free, a microscopic squiggle soon to be expunged from the American gene pool, gender-neutrally called the responsible truth.

Now lacking the ribosomes and having lived so briefly, you can hardly be expected to understand the expression. But even if you live another hundred years, so help us all, nurture will not giveth what nature hath taken away. Your parents are never gonna have That Talk with you, about the Facts of Life, because your birth is just another notch in the Rising Factless Epoch. Does vestigial truth help politicians get re-elected, help them hold on to their sinecures, their pork, their junkets, their mistresses past and future, their second homes? Does it help Streeters earn massive salary bonuses for gambling when they win and massive socialist bonuses for gambling when they lose, to hold on to their third and fourth houses, their stunning lack of moral compass, their delusions of mattering even slightly beyond their financial derring-do? Not in this century, you little devil. The only fact of life that matters is that truth is disappearing in a kind of natural/cultural selection. That’s the wonder of evolution, after all, though it fails the proposed Constitutional definition of science.

Oh, I know, the timing’s wrong for any version of That Talk, and I’m using a lot of big words for a one-year-old. All you need to know now is no, the truth doesn’t signify in your family. Not even to the Arcangel of Discordium, who looks comparatively unsullied in this little ménage à trois.

No, it’s all about fiction. You’re a fiction, born of deliberate make-believe. Now that makes you really and truly special–most real children only get told make-believe stories once or twice a day, maybe at bedtime when they’re already sooo sleepy, but you live make-believe all the time, and you never get tired! When real babies are learning to walk, they “fall” “down”, because they have to contend with this thing called “mean reversion”. But you haven’t fallen down even once in your whole life! You just run and run, sometimes sideways, mostly forward, up, whatever, let’s not split hairs over direction in zero gravity. Sure, you nearly stumbled once or twice, but there were your parents right behind you, picking you up and promising you that if you just keep running, we all get ahead.

And that’s why today isn’t just a birthday for you. So many people have worked so hard, ignoring a raft of real problems affecting real individuals one at a time, real crisis in the real economy, and the real future of this whole nation’s real well-being, to bring make-believe little you up just right. It’s a star turn, not some HO-scale “personal life lived”, and as everyone knows, in this country, when we see real effort devoted to fictional achievement of truly dubious quality, it’s time for an award show.

So today, Baby Market, we honor you with an Oscar® from the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences. Now, we could have nominated you in so many categories, Best Costumes, Best Original Screenplay, Outstanding Special Effects, Performance By an Actor in a Leading Role… Alas, they gave all those away in pure disrespect the other night. And I wrote in suggesting they create a category especially for you, Most Supported Actor, but I suppose they ran out of time. They always run long, just like you!

But even though the ceremony™ may have ended, the footlights dimmed and the greasepaint cold-creamed away, it’s still Your Day, and here it is: your Lifetime Achievement Academy Award® for Outstanding Contribution to Drama in the Motion Industry! Go on, take it, you little mover and shaker you. Hold it in your chubby little iron fist for a minute. Stick it in your mouth like a pacifier.

Now you’re only a baby stock market of course, so you may be wondering why we gave you one of those awards they® save as consolation prizes for the industry playas being put out to pasture because no one remembers just what it is they do. Might sound a little premature, I know, but I’ll let you in on a little secret, B.S. Market: y’know those guys I mentioned a thousand words back, the markets that came before you? Your predecessors, though not necessarily your ancestry? Well, they may be down, but they’re not out. In fact, rumor has it several of them are huddled up in the closet under your stairs, just waiting for the M/Ds to drift off for a little snoozy-woozy. And these old-ass markets are packing a supermarket’s-worth of plastic bags, toolbelts full of meathooks, and a very healthy appetite for roast infant laureate.

Anyway, enough Grimm fairy tales–as I said, today is Your Day. The fact that nearly every weekday has been yours this last year shouldn’t diminish that. From my kids and their kids and all our nation’s children to one little temporary, make-believe you: enjoy the party, and enjoy the Award Experience®↔™. Here’s a little part(y)ing zinger for ya: Just the other day, there went lovable sprite and likely sperm source Pandibell, repeating the exact same damn story about short-sellers, irrationally solvent banks, blah blah blah, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz–

Oh, my bad. The same story he was telling the weekend you were spawned. Fictive waters run deep! Only this time, he was telling it to Congress! Are your mommy-daddys starting to squabble? Perhaps Pandibell is concerned since the Unseen Hand is about to stop clapping so hard. I’m sure it’s just talk; it’s been quite a while since our government or our financial sector successfully carried out any meaningful action, especially against one another. (Ripping the country apart at the seams doesn’t count–giving birth is hard work.)

Anyway, I wouldn’t worry. Especially given that should M/Ds 2 and 3 fail to reconcile their differences, #1 stands ready to take immediate and permanent custody of you. A cozy place–riverfront views!–where you’ll finally be able to quit running, and have plenty of time and all kinds of step-siblings, with shelves and shelves full of trophies just like yours.

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Sometime last night or early this morning, the following draft letter was slipped under the undisclosed and also not-open door of Unexpectedly, Inc. HQ. Granted, it was written in orange ball-point on a greasy Wendy’s bag in vaguely familiar handwriting, but we have no real reason to doubt its authenticity. In the interest of guiding our investors toward continued smart investment decisions, we share it with you now, complete and unexpurgatorial.

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Esteemed Shareholders,

If you’re like me–and I bet you are, I just bet you are!–you loaded up on Pier 1 equities back in early March when they were at 12 cents a share, and you’ve now ridden them on up for a 2000% gain in a couple months. How did you know it was time to buy? a lot of envious non-participants ask. Well, as Pier 1’s vibrant ownership base, you don’t need to be told! I’m sure many of you are savvy shoppers of our stores, so you know a bargain when you see one. Heck, 12 cents, that won’t even have bought you one of those rattan backscratchers we sell right there at the checkout. Sure, we marked ’em down in February for that so-called “recession”, but they were still 39 cents each way back then. What would you rather have, a happy back or your own slice of retail powerhouse pie? I thought as much. See, you are like me.

Two thousand percent is a big vote of confidence, and I wanted to take a few moments to share with you some of the prudent cost-cutting and innovative value moves Pier One has made these last eight weeks to deserve that vote. Those backscratchers are a perfect example. They’re made by the cutest little blind boys and girls you’ve ever seen, in a factoryfar, far away, in a country called “Laos”. Now back when the economy was strong, we were paying those tots 31 cents a month–“a penny a day keeps the doctor away,” has always been a motto of ours–even in months that didn’t have 31 days. Excessive generosity is all well and good, but Pier 1’s first obligation is to show growth for our shareholders, and when consumers quit ponying up for the enticing array of knick-knacks we bring you from all over the world, we had to react. So we knocked those wages down to 12 cents a year, and updated our motto accordingly. (And yes, for those of you out there staying up late nights, wringing your hands over “labor rights”, here’s your Pier 1 valerian tablet: we’re going to maintain that wage commitment, even in leap years that have only 11 months.)

But wage adjustment for a few rugrats is hardly aggressive corporate action. So we moved those adorable little dolls (the labor, I mean, not the $3.99 plastic matroshkas on our shelves) into cozier on-site quarters. They now sleep 14 to a dorm room instead of 7 (2 to a bed, nice and toasty!) and to prove our commitment to community even in countries that don’t have one, we knocked down those extra dorms and buried the debris right there, beneath a wide-open field of rich brown dirt. Recess, anyone?

Now, innovation at the product-line source can sure help the bottom line, but we needed to make changes at home, too, and boy did we ever follow through. Stop into any Pier 1 store today (go ahead, right now, if you feel the urge!) and you’ll find it’s staffed by just “1” person. And what a person! These are the elite, hand-picked from thousands of former employees, more than able to meet our stringent new standards. To reflect this healthy natural selection, we felt the title “team member” was no longer appropriate–there is no “team” in “I”, after all. So here’s the next brainstorm: next time you go into one of our stores (say, 10 minutes from now?), walk up and say hello to its “Sole Proprietor”. Uh-huh. (They don’t own the store, mind you–you do!–but the sense of ownership the new job title confers is really catching on.)

We’re proud of the synergies our crack force is leveraging in this fast-paced streamlining operation. Take this testimonial from “Howard”, sole proprietor of our Missoula store #1321:

Working on my own has given me a new sense of freedom, and a strong independent streak. I stock the shelves, mop the floors, sell everything, buy everything, inventory everything, open and close the store, do all the bookkeeping, seven days a week, and I still have a little time left over each night to catch a few Z’s. Store 1321 has never been more profitable, and to paraphrase Mickey D’s, I’m ownin’ it!

Rest assured, Howard may be a little confused where matters of property are concerned, but as a can-doer, he’s not alone. My secretary prints out letters from happy sole proprietors all over the nation, and I can spend half the day getting her to reread them aloud in different character voices. (Here at Pier 1 headquarters, we work hard, but we play hard too!) I was especially touched by a letter from “Elaine” in “St. Louis”, who tells me she’s holding down sole proprietorship of not one, but two Pier 1 stores, simultaneously. She just runs back and forth between #847 and #2091 all day long. Every time someone wants to make a purchase, there’s Elaine at the register. Elaine, you get a gold star, right from the head office!

Of course, as any dolt who’s been in business more than a week can tell you, cost-cutting isn’t enough, especially in these tough times. You can’t deliver 2000% more value every couple months if you don’t put a few greenbacks in the till. Which is why when you get to the checkout counter–and we hope you’re visiting it often!–you’ll find that rattan backscratcher will now set you back $47.50. In moments of adversity, consumers need to feel like they’re getting solid, durable value, and that’s what our new price structure purports to offer.

Well, looks like my page is full, and it’s time to sign off. Remember, honored shareholders, Pier 1 is you. Not that it isn’t me, I mean. Really, it’s me and it’s you. Let’s just call it “us”. You might be tempted to sell those shares now, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: we’re gonna hit the next 2000% leg up before you can count to Pier 2. I’ll be holding on to mine, whatever future SEC filings might indicate to the contrary, and we’ll be trading at backscratcher prices before you know it.

Thanks for all you’ve given for Pier 1.

Yours Very Sincerely,

Alex W. Smith

Director, President, CEO, and yeah, and Shareholder, too, just like you!

Pier 1 Imports

—–

Disclosure: Unexpectedly Inc. is mid-development on the “itchless back” (patent and trademark pending, y’hear?). We are also long arms and fingernails as a hedge.

This morning outside the undisclosed location of Unexpectedly Inc. HQ we found a plain brown envelope marked “SENSITIVE!” We opened it, and found an unlabeled recording containing the following exchange, which we believe might possibly be an authentic record of two corporate titans in back-door negotiations. We here transcribe it in full out of our relentless sense of duty to financial-journalistical excellence and readership literacy awarement.

——

[sound of phone ringing; speakerphone pickup]

Voice 1: Hello? [chewing sounds, slurping]

Voice 2: Hello, is that Samuel?

Voice 1: Yah, call me Sandy. Who’s this.

Voice 2: Hi Sandy, I’m Dr. Mitchell Gold, from–

Voice 1: Oh a pill-peddler, eh? What’s wrong with me now, Doc?

Voice 2: I’m the CEO of Dendreon Corporation.

Voice 1: Okay, well, I’m kind of doin’ breakfast here, so–

Voice 2: Sorry to bother you. I just wanted a little advice.

Voice 1: A doctor callin’ me for advice? That’s a switch! [a guffaw] Gonna cost you!

Voice 2: Well, as I said, I actually run a corporation–

Voice 1: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

Voice 2: –called Dendreon, and we, well, I was just noticing the extraordinary performance of your stock in this recent rally, and–

Voice 1: Oh, you saw that did you? Seven hundred percent hits a might lot of radars!

Voice 2: Yes, it’s very impressive. We had some pretty good results ourselves, but they’re not holding up. I thought you might have some tips.

Voice 1: Oh yah? Tips, huh. Well lessee. What did you say you’re called again?

Voice 2: “Dendreon”.

[a pause]

Voice 1: Now what’s a din-don?

Voice 2: No, not “din-don”, “Dendreon”. It’s from “dendrite”, the fibers in nerve cells that–

Voice 1: Yah, see, no, I heard you, and that was my first piece of advice right there.

Voice 2: The name?

Voice 1: People aren’t gonna eat in a Ding-dong, ya get me? I mean they might eat a ding-dong if that’s their thing. The Hostess kind, mind you! [loud laughter, chewing] But go there and eat? No way.

Voice 2: I don’t follow you.

Voice 1: What’s your signature?

Voice 2: Cancer.

Voice 1: C’mon, Mick, not your sign now, I said what’s your signature. As in “signature dish”. People might scoff at our stock jumpin’ through the roof like it has, but those people have yet to know the glory of our Fork-Tender Ribs. You’ve got to find your own fork-tender ribs, ya get me?

[long pause]

Voice 2: We’re not a restaurant.

Voice 1: What’s that?

Voice 2: Dendreon is not a restaurant company.

Voice 1: Well what exactly is it you do?

Voice 2: We’re a pharmaceutical company. We develop treatments. For cancer.

[silence, chewing]

Voice 1: Uh, ya lost me, Doc. Ruby Tuesday’s is a restaurant.

Voice 2: I know that. I’m actually quite a fan of your Thai Phoon Shrimp platter.

Voice 1: Well thanks Doc. Ain’t gonna say back I’m a fan of cancer though! Now why is it you’re callin’ again?

Voice 2: Well, as I said, we noticed your stock’s extraordinary performance in the recent rally, and while during the same period we’ve had some similar success on some very promising news, we only managed about a five hundred percent jump and now the stock has started to fall again before we insiders successfully unloaded all our shares. So we thought you might have some strategic tips to offer.

Voice 1: Maybe your news wasn’t good enough. We rebranded soup to nuts–redecorated all our restaurants, changed up the menu, even tryin’ to ween ourselves off the meal-from-a-freezer-bag model. Heck, we may as well be a totally different restaurant chain, though still squarely in the regionless-comfort-food/calorie-platter brand-space, so it’s the same thing but looks different, which is value. Plus we chopped fifty shops and our quarterly sales only fell just a real little from last year. What’d you guys do?

Voice 2: We delivered very promising phase-three test results on a prostate cancer treatment and vaccine called Provenge. It prolongs life in patients several months longer than a placebo.

[pause]

Voice 1: And what happened to your stock?

Voice 2: We got about a four to five hundred percent bump.

Voice 1: That sounds all right to me. Maybe you bury those pills in a slice of our Chocolate Tallcake you’ll get the next two hundred.

Voice 2: [polite chuckle] Perhaps we could include that in our FDA approval application. But the immediate problem is, the price is falling again.

[pause; sudden spluttering, as of coffee poured into the speakerphone; rustling of napkin against mic]

Voice 1: OH MAN. [whoops of laughter] OH MA-A-AN! You’re gonna cure prostate cancer and you can’t even keep your stock price up? OH, OH, MAN, is this Dave from Applebee’s? Dave, you are a pro, brother! THIS IS THE BEST PRANK CALL I EVER HAD. Too bad we’re clobbering you guys! Hoo-hoo, “Ding-dong”, love it, love it, love it!

[caller hangs up]

—–

Disclosure: the recording was on eight-track. Unexpectedly Inc. is long the eight-track player.