Get rich quick

By Sarason D. Liebler | May 31, 2012

I was 29 and a Lieutenant when I resigned my commission from the U. S. Navy in 1965, not because I disliked the navy and not because I had remorse because of the growing escalation of the Vietnam War. However, after graduating high school at 16 I dilly dallied and did not graduate college until I was 25. The military has a measured and slow promotion plan and, simply put, I wanted to accelerate my growth curve and to do that I needed to join the civilian work force and compete.

I joined the New York office of a firm that offered accounting and consulting services. It was located on Pine Street, the block next to Wall Street. It was a rather a momentous year. American troops were pouring into Vietnam; anti war protesters were burning their draft cards; the south was in turmoil as civil rights activities exploded; the stock market fell about 7 percent in the month before I left my secure position and everybody wanted to get rich quick.

While the specific issues facing us now are different, not much has changed and even after the collapse of 2008 folks still want to get rich quick. In the mid 60s people looked to initial public offerings of both fledgling and established companies. Small brokerage firms kept the pot boiling. One firm Charles Plohn & Co. earned the nickname Two (IPOs) a day Charlie. With a glistening office on the street floor of the Pan Am Building people rushed by it on the way to Grand Central Station. Not many of the Plohn offered companies amounted to anything and after an initial pop in the stock price they frequently fizzled, as did Plohn & Co by 1970.

Certainly companies of size and merit went public, but not by the likes of Plohn and other brokerage bucket shops. In the 60s and 70s companies were raising $3 to $10 million. Some offerings were for much less. Today a major banker would not consider taking a company public for less than a target of few hundreds of millions. But the lure of the game, to get rich quick, is still the same.

Which brings me to Facebook. On May 18, Facebook the 8-year-old wonder company had its IPO. It raised around $16 billion selling over 484 million shares. All the money did not go to the company as almost half of the shares offered were sold by existing stockholders who were cashing out on at least some of their holdings. Based upon the offering price of $38 a share the company was calculated to be worth over $100 billion.

While some level of purchasers were buying for the long term many were not. What they were doing was trying to catch a ride on the biggest IPO wave ever and they intended to sell quickly as soon as the Tsunami of all IPOs popped. But it did not pop, it pooped.

Not all recent IPOs have fallen quickly, but the ones that have had a similar Facebook "magic" have not made anyone other than insiders rich. Grupon, a concept company that sells discount coupons for tanning salons, restaurants and other less than compelling nonsense is down over 50 percent. Zynga a game developer is down close to 20 percent — actually 50 percent from its high after its IPO. On the other hand, Annie's, that has a real product, organic macaroni and cheese, is up over a 110 percent from its IPO in March.

All sorts of reasons are being offered for the debacles, but to me the mechanics of the share price falls of the social media offerings are not germane. What is germane is the lofty valuations assigned to incomplete companies that lure those who dream getting rich quick, even though our economy is still way less than robust after the near economic cataclysm in 2008. Indeed, it could slip back into chaos even more dire than 2008 if just a few things go wrong.

Now, let's go back to my early career. My work as a consultant put me into frequent contact with the investment community. I fully respected the contribution they made to society through the ability to raise money for companies that contributed to societies well being. New medical technology was funded, drugs were developed that have improved our quality of life, computer technology has changed the entire notion of productivity growth, etc. However, just as folks are warned that it is not such a good idea to watch how sausage is made I was too close to the slaughter house of fortunes to feel confidant enough to play in the game.

The attraction to social media completely escapes me. Can the 900 million Facebook chatterers know more than I do? Sure, but Annie's macaroni makes more sense to me.

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