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It's insightful. It's silly. It's a financial message board

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 4, 2001


Want to sample unwashed, often bizarre and whiny but occasionally penetrating insights into corporate America?

Log on to the online message boards at Yahoo or Raging Bull dedicated to investor chatter about corporations based in the Tampa Bay area or across the country.

Welcome to an Internet concoction of Merrill Lynch meets Saturday Night Live meets Dumb and Dumber.

This week's personal favorite? On the Yahoo message board about Winn-Dixie Stores, a mock Associated Press news story appeared Tuesday indicating that the Jacksonville grocer had named Gary Coleman, the diminutive former child star of the Diff'rent Strokes TV sitcom, and more recently a security guard at a California arcade, as its director of marketing.

Winn-Dixie, the spoof news report said, hoped Coleman's "endearing personality can stimulate creativity within (the company) and make up for an almost total lack of grocery knowledge."

Silly? Sure. Satire? No question. Valid shot at a stumbling grocery chain? Maybe. The company certainly lost its edge in an extremely competitive industry.

Or maybe not. Winn-Dixie's stock has nearly doubled since last fall. (The other good news for Winn-Dixie is the person who used to post insulting haiku poems about the company seems to have disappeared from the Yahoo board for now.)

Like them or not, online message boards about America's publicly traded corporations are now part of the pool of intelligence gathering and rumor swapping used (and manipulated) by investors, employees, media and the curious to track the performance of companies.

For the uninitiated, message boards feature comments posted by individuals using made-up online names used to preserve their anonymity. The fake AP story about Winn-Dixie, for example, was posted by someone calling himself "big_important_wd_manager."

The online aliases can make for the posting of brutally honest messages but also encourage juvenile insults and tireless efforts by short-sellers and other investors to influence a company's stock price for personal profit. Message boards also are a haven for relentless spammers trying to pitch products, services and unrelated stocks.

Nobody said message boards were tidy.

Among the recent unsubstantiated, but still enticing, message board chatter about companies operating in the Tampa Bay area:

A bank in Winston-Salem, N.C., called BB&T Corp., is supposedly considering an offer to buy Alabama-based AmSouth Bank, one of the bay area's midtier financial institutions.

In the financial comeback by Clearwater's Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, one message poster dubbed "blackcat1100000" offered his critique of Checkers' new hamburger creation known as the Big Buford. "Now this sandwich has possibilities," he wrote. "If the meat was a little hotter and the cheese was melted, it would have been perfect."

Over the past week -- after a court agreed that Microsoft used illegal monopoly tactics, when the European Union nixed General Electric's purchase of Honeywell, and when the merger between United Airlines and US Airways fell apart -- some message boards are running full tilt.

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, 112 daily messages had been posted on the Yahoo US Airways board. They ranged from strategies to keep US Airways independent to condemnation of the airline's executives (including chairman Stephen Wolf) who will receive nearly $20-million for setting up a deal that never happened.

"Corporate Rape," writes "sarch6" on Tuesday's US Airways board. "These "fine' folks should be fined and jailed along with those who agreed to such ridiculously outrageous compensation for FAILURE! Or better yet maybe they could be delegated to cleaning out the lav's on their jets."

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, 240 daily messages were posted on Yahoo's Honeywell board. Most questioned Honeywell's cloudy future without a buyer and speculated on the late-afternoon ousting of Honeywell chief Michael R. Bonsignore in favor of his predecessor, Lawrence A. Bossidy.

"So does Bossidy really want to do this?" a posting by "jobshopper2000" asked. "Guess we'll find out how much fire in the belly the old boy still has. I wouldn't want to be (Honeywell) management if he comes back, but as a shareholder I'd love to see him take over."

An equivalent avalanche of 243 daily messages by 5 p.m. Tuesday hit the Yahoo board about Microsoft in the wake of the appeals court ruling. The court rejected a lower-court order splitting the software giant. But it also said Microsoft illegally used its Windows operating-systems monopoly to trample competitor Netscape.

That left Microsoft message posters debating whether the company's longstanding antitrust fight with the government is really drawing to an end.

Message boards really churn when a company is struggling (and investors are angry) or involved in controversy. First Union and SunTrust message boards, for example, are hopping because the two banking giants are in an unusual and ever-nastier takeover battle for Wachovia Corp.

When a company is enjoying good times, a stable stock price and a singular lack of conflict, message boards tend to quiet down.

St. Petersburg's Raymond James Financial took a lot of heat on its message board when its stock fell into the teens. But since the company rebounded, all's quiet on the message board front.

Despite its area prominence, Raymond James has not seen a message posted on its board in a month.

For many companies uncomfortable with the rapid rise of no-holds-barred postings, that may be the best message of all.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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