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Opening Bell: 8.24.06

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Jean Coutu close to selling U.S. stores in US$3.4B deal: Wall Street Journal (CBC News)

Why are drug stores in the US so shitty? We are not phobic about germs. Really, you should see some of the dive bars we drink in. We’ve even been known to finish drinks from the glasses of others after they’ve passed out or been dragged out by a member of the fairer sex. But every time we enter a drug store in the US—whether it is a Rite Aid or a Duane Reade or an Eckerd—we are overwhelmed by fear and loathing. The shops are unclean, disorganized and stocked haphazardly. Aisles seem arranged in an arbitrary—no, a capricious fashion meant to confound the search for anything. Useful items, like razor blades and batteries, are often stocked out of reach behind the cash registers so that their acquisition requires a difficult combination of pointing and grunting at cashiers. The actual pharmacies are hidden below ground or beyond rows of improbable hair products. The lines to checkout dwarf those at Starbucks. Does anyone actually ever look forward to a visit to the drug store? At some point, someone is going to find out how to make money running drug stores that don’t suck.

For Hedge Funds, Backing Cruise Could Prove to Be a Risky Business (Wall Street Journal)

At this point, are there any more puns left for headline writers to use for the Tom Cruise-hedge fund story? We’re thinking something along the lines of “Cocktails & Dreams.” Because, really, we’re starting to suspect that the money managers investing in movie stars and their vanity studios must be drunk most of the time. Don’t they realize that this is just a variation of the standard way of raising money for film productions—find a group of bored lawyers or doctors and convince them that a “producer” line in the credits is worth several thousand dollars, a chance to hob-nob with movie people is worth several thousand more and that there is a potential that they’ll make lots of money in the end. Haven’t they heard about Hollywood accounting, where profits simply vanish down various expense holes? Hollywood is run on the theory of the Spanish Prisoner—the oldest confidence game in the world, in which promises of treasure at the end of a scheme to free the prisoner bilk the greedy out of ever increasing investments.

'Plunge Protection,' Fiat Money, and the Fed (

As it turns out, the government may be manipulating financial markets in order to maintain ‘investor confidence.’ It is beyond us how more than a century and a half after the phrase ‘confidence man’ was coined anyone could read ‘investor confidence’ without cynicism. Shouldn’t the matter of investor confidence itself be a matter for the market to determine—based on thousands of individual expectations of the integrity and performance of financial markets—rather than something for the government to promote and secure? Of course not, says almost everyone with a financial interest in bringing more investors and more funds into capital markets. But think of it this way—would you buy the idea that the government should promote ‘donut confidence’ by bolstering the breakfasting public’s feelings about eating glazed, fried concoctions. No? Well, we guess you don’t own a donut franchise.
In Vietnam, Trader's Losses Are a Capital Case (Wall Street Journal)
No matter how bad you think your job is, you can always be grateful you don’t live in Vietnam—where executives making routine but money-losing trades may face jail and even death. We’ve gone a long way to criminalizing some once-routine Wall Street practices—often after they’ve occurred—and criminalizing business enterprises that lose investors money, but in countries where large parts of the economy are state owned, losing money might mean “mishandling state assets” and bring unbelievably harsh penalties. You might want to give this some consideration before you head on over to China to take that cutting-edge Asian investment banking job.