Wall Street History: Christmas Cheer Or Irrational Exuberance?

By Andrew Beattie | December 01, 2010 AAA
Wall Street History: Christmas Cheer Or Irrational Exuberance?

This week in financial history shows that big corporations aren't immune to some holiday shopping. Unfortunately, it also features a Grinch that ruined Christmas for many people in 2001, but there more than a few stories to warm the heart. (To read last week's article, see Wall Street History Carnegie, Circuit Breakers And Dynamite.)

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Barbarians Go Shopping
RJR Nabisco was the subject of a buyout battle so melodramatic that it was made into a book "Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco" (1990). November 30, 1988, marked an endpoint for the company as a coherent entity as buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Co, better known as KKR, bought RJR Nabisco for $25.07 billion. The company was faced with an LBO by spendthrift management, grey knight bids from outsiders and the winning KKR bid financed by cash and Drexel junk bonds. The buyout set a record for a non-oil takeover and the company was broken up and sold in profitable pieces by KKR. (For more on this LBO, see Corporate Kleptocracy At RJR Nabisco.)

An Account for Christmas Shoppers
On December 1, 1909, shoppers made their first withdrawal from a new type of account introduced by the Pennsylvania Trust company. The Christmas club account was designed to help shopper put aside money throughout the year for Christmas gifts. Soon, almost every bank offered a Christmas savings account to customers, although high fees and restrictions dulled their luster. Now these accounts are much more reasonable because administration costs have dropped a lot since 1909. So, over 100 years later, Christmas club accounts are still a valid way to save for the holidays.

Other Stocking Stuffers
On December 1, 1998, Exxon announced a $73.3 billion deal to buy Mobil, creating Exxon-Mobil. The deal made Exxon-Mobil one of the largest companies in the world, with a market cap in excess of $200 billion. At that time, only GE and Microsoft were bigger.

In another big holiday purchase, a record $4 million was paid for an NYSE membership on December 1, 2005. Seats shot up from $250,000 in 1990 to the $3 million to $4 million range by mid 2000. Not exactly in a price range that fits in most people's holiday budgets.

Worse Than the Grinch
December is, of course, the month that the Enron meltdown culminated in Chapter 11. The company filed on December 2, 2001. On November 30, 2001, the management awarded $55 million in bonuses to 500 higher-level employees even as they knew they would be defaulting on severance package promises to thousands of laid off employees. Furthermore, 29 executives had sold more than 17 million shares over the two-year period that it took for the company's condition to become known, receiving around $1 billion from the sales. (Learn more about the Enron bankruptcy in Enron's Collapse: The Fall OF A Wall Street Darling.)

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Disney Christmas Special
December 5, 1901, marks the birth of Walt Disney, co-founder of the Walt Disney company with his brother Roy. It seems small to call him an entertainment mogul, but Disney's creative genius is far better shown by watching the award-winning films or going to the massive theme parks he created.

Unfortunately, the company that bears Disney's name had a less positive event on December 3, 1997, when Michael Eisner exercised $565 million dollars in stock options. Although Eisner wasn't the only fat cat at the time, his inability to do anything good for the company enraged many shareholders who saw him making more off the company than for it. Walt Disney's nephew, Roy Disney, was part of a huge campaign to get Eisner ejected, which came to fruition in 2004.

Making the Holidays More Bearable, If Less Memorable
Christmas came early on December 5, 1933, when the 18th amendment ended prohibition. This move also helped put an end to the extensive black market system and wasteful government expenditures trying to enforce it. It also made many American's preferred method of getting into the Christmas spirit legal once more.

Greenspan the Sweet-Talker
Lastly, December 5, 1996, was the day Alan Greenspan made his famous "irrational exuberance" speech that was credited with causing market fluctuations in various parts of the globe. It also became the name of a popular book by Robert Shiller addressing the overvalued stock market in 2000.

We'll end on that cheery note. Next week we'll look at more Christmas shopping by corporations and, of course, more scandals. Until then.

Find out what happened in financial news this week. Read Water Cooler Finance: Insiders, Door Busters And Debt Contagion.

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