L. William Seidman's job is in peril, but that hasn't stopped the outspoken chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from trotting around the country telling anyone who will listen that the U.S. banking industry is in trouble.
Seidman, of course, is already the bearer of bad news about the savings and loan industry, so his candor about banks isn't fully appreciated in some political circles.
But it's appreciated by me. At a time when the economy and banking system are, by most accounts, in serious trouble, it's nice to hear frank talk coming out of Washington. Because of his big mouth, Seidman wins this year's Man of the Year award.
My annual awards may not be as prestigious and lucrative as the Pulitzer or the Nobel prizes, but at least you don't have to do much to win. In Seidman's case, all he had to do was defy the White House by issuing gloomy predictions about the banking system at the worst time politically -- prior to the recent congressional elections. That wasn't too tough for the 69-year-old accountant and educator, especially because Seidman is guaranteed a job only until next October.
Last year's winner, former Federal Reserve Board vice chairman Manuel Johnson, also was picked because of his habit of speaking out of turn. On Oct. 15, 1989, Johnson leaked to the press that the Fed would not permit the stock market to crash again even as it was doing just that. Those comments -- issued surreptitiously and apparently without the knowledge of his boss, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan -- won Johnson the heartfelt gratitude of thousands of investors, and they won him my award.
Little Old Ant Award: Remember the song lyric, "Just what makes that little old ant think he can move a rubber tree plant." Well, the unions at UAL Corp. have had high hopes that they could pull off the $4 billion acquisition of the airline for more than three years. But they weren't as lucky as the ants. A pesticide mixture of tight credit, higher loan standards and old-fashioned common sense killed their efforts.
Plain Vanilli Memorial Award: Was that really President Bush singing the anti-tax tune when he got elected? Or was he merely lip-syncing some words the taxpayers wanted to hear?
Everyone with a wallet knows by now that the president couldn't keep his promise not to raise taxes. And it is as plain as can be that, with revenue dropping during the recession, taxes will have to continue rising until the federal budget deficit is reduced. So here's some advice (in addition to the award) for Bush. Don't raise the same old sin taxes. Instead, find some new sins to tax.
How about a $1 tax on the rental of R-rated and NC17-rated video tapes? And who would complain if there is a 50-cent a gallon levy on fattening premium ice cream?
And how about a $1,000 tax on all firearms -- imposed on manufacturers and importers. This way the budget deficit can be balanced and Americans can still have the right to bear harm.
END NOTESThe Granny Award: Ma Bell, aka American Telephone & Telegraph Co., gets this trophy for handling its proposed takeover of NCR Corp. with the delicacy usually reserved for underfed linebackers. AT&T isn't smart enough to make its own computers successfully, so it wants not only to pick the brains of NCR's experts but also to own their brains.
So how does AT&T go about doing this? Instead of engaging in the delicate diplomacy of winning NCR over by making an offer too good to legally refuse, it declares war. And this war is likely to lobotomize NCR. This shareholder, for one, thinks AT&T should have gone the extra mile.
The Giant Eraser: This is given to the bulk of the economists in this country -- including the hierarchy of the Fed -- because they couldn't see the nation's economy sliding into a recession. These include all the predictors of the fabled "soft landing" for the economy.
Even though business conditions were obviously deteriorating during the spring and early summer months, the vast majority of these experts waited for Hussein's takeover of Iraq in August before getting out their erasers and changing their upbeat business forecasts.
MVP: Donald Trump has been hitting most of the curveballs thrown by his creditors over the fence, so he is a runaway winner of the Most Visible Pauper award. Trump gives new meaning to the phrase "house poor."
Professor Emeritrash: Junk bond king Michael Milken not only got himself an endowed chair in a federal prison for 10 years, but also became a symbol of 1980s decadence. All this, despite his moderate lifestyle and well-publicized acts of charity. But let's not be too hard on Mike. He may have preached the gospel of junk, but he didn't force anybody to get knee-deep in the slime.
Dullest and Brightest New Product Ideas: You figure which is which. One brewery offered a beer made from oat bran. Some wily business owners sold chunks of concrete that used to be the Berlin Wall. Monsanto introduced Simple Pleasures, an ice cream-like product made with a fat substitute. McDonald's introduced french fries cooked in vegetable oil and not in animal fat. And ConAgra expanded its Healthy Choice line of frozen dinners to include a Snoopy's Choice, aimed at the young market.
If the Federal Reserve Board were a gunslinger, it would have fired its final bullet last week at its target, the U.S. economy. But as far as the stock market is concerned, the accuracy of the aim and the potency of the projectile are still in doubt.
That's the long way of explaining why stock prices didn't rally strongly when the Fed made its most overt move yet at injecting some life in the staggering U.S. economy. While the half-point drop in the discount rate did cause a 30-minute flurry of buying on Wall Street on Tuesday, the action didn't create a sense of euphoria or even relief.
"The market is very much into a 'What are you going to do for me today and tomorrow,' " said Ellen Harris, chief investment officer for Paine Webber Inc.'s domestic mutual funds.
As far as Wall Street was concerned, this past week's cut to 6.5 percent in the rate that the Fed charges banks to borrow money directly from the central bank was widely anticipated and with more symbolic than real importance. The central bank also had reduced reserve requirements for banks (bullet No. 1) and tinkered with the Fed funds rate (bullet No. 2).
"One of the reasons people get bullish when the Fed cuts interest rates is because it is supposed to stimulate the economy," said Francis Scotland, managing editor of International Bank Credit Analyst, a publication located in Montreal. This time, said Scotland, the market didn't become optimistic because it isn't certain that the recent Fed moves will have a beneficial impact on business.
The Fed, Scotland said, "will have to cut interest rates a lot more before the stock market and the economy can be expected to bottom out, let alone recover."
The Dow Jones industrial average, of course, is up more than 250 points from its October yearly low. Much of that gain, experts say, was the market anticipating a drop in interest rates. But the improvement is also partially due to an occasional easing in Middle East tensions and to professional money managers who want to get "winning" stocks in their portfolios before the end of the year.
Hugh Johnson, chief market strategist at First Albany Corp., believes the Fed's action on borrowing costs will eventually recharge the economy. The big question, however, is how much time will it take for the economy to respond. Johnson says it would be premature for the stock market to start cheering what the Fed is doing. And apparently the market agrees. John Crudele is a columnist for the New York Post.