12 Dumbest Quotes From Powerful People

Today is Labor Day and the financial markets are closed. On this national holiday, let’s step back, look at the big picture, and enjoy a laugh at the folly of the rich and powerful. Within the sardonic humor, we can derive timeless investment lessons.

The so-called “experts” within the interlocking worlds of finance, business and technology often utter fatuous remarks that lead people astray. Here’s my list of the 12 dumbest statements ever made by Wall Street, corporate and high-tech insiders. Each dopey utterance shows how dangerous it can be to rely on self-appointed oracles.

As Forrest Gump might say, in surveying this sampling of statements from capitalism’s supposedly astute players: “Stupid is, as stupid does.”

See if you can read our list, without wincing or slapping your hand on your forehead. Let’s start with the absolutely worst business prediction since the dawn of capitalism:

1) “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

— Ken Olson, founder, Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), speaking in 1977 about the burgeoning personal computer industry and the ascendancy of its stocks.

As upstarts such as Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) soared, revolutionized society, and made billions of dollars, Olson never was able to re-position his once-mighty company, which made “minicomputers” for businesses. Over the years the floundering company’s assets were sold to various other companies, such as Compaq. DEC merged with Hewlett Packard in 2002, which ceased to use the DEC name and now goes by HP (NYSE: HPQ).

2) “Not to mince words, Mr. Epstein, but we don’t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out; four-piece groups with guitars particularly are finished.”

— Dick Rowe, executive in charge of evaluating new talent for the London office of Decca Records, 1962

It’s one thing to miss a single fad or opportunity; it’s quite another to denigrate a musical group that went on to launch a global mania, permanently change the wider culture, and earn phenomenal amounts of money for everyone concerned. By giving the Fab Four a pass, record industry executive Dick Rowe showed himself to be the “Fool on the Hill.”

3) “No! No! No! Bear Stearns is not in trouble. If anything, they’re more likely to be taken over. Don’t move your money from Bear.”

— James Cramer, host of CNBC’s “Mad Money”, March 2008

Cramer’s statement was in response to this emailed question from a viewer:

“Dear Jim: Should I be worried about Bear Stearns in terms of liquidity and get my money out of there?” — Peter

On Jan. 17, 2007, Bear was trading at a high of $171.51 a share. On March 11, 2008, when Cramer made his statement, the stock closed at $62.97. On March 16, five days after Cramer’s fulsome expression of confidence, Bear Stearns signed a merger agreement with JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM) in a stock swap worth $2.00 a share, or less than 7% of Bear Stearns’ market value just two days earlier. Sorry, Peter.

4) “The three- to five-year earnings projections of more than a thousand analysts, though exhibiting some signs of flattening in recent months, have generally held firm. Such expectations, should they persist, bode well for continued capital deepening and sustained growth.”

— Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, December 2000

Yeah. Sure. Right. Instead of going up and up and up, as Greenspan predicted, the market fell and fell and fell. And then fell some more. In fact, his expectations turned out to be so wrong, he later admitted that his essential beliefs about the market, patterned after the laissez-faire philosophies of Ayn Rand and Adam Smith, were shaken to the core. It was a startling admission for a powerful man once seen as virtually infallible.

5) “The individual out there is actually not throwing money at things that they do not understand, and is actually using the news and using the information out there to make smart decisions.”

— Maria Bartiromo, CNBC anchor, March 2001

While Maria (who now works at Fox Business) was making this astonishingly wrong observation, thousands of investors were putting billions into hideously complex securities based on sub-prime mortgages, understanding neither how they worked nor the risks involved.

6) “Some fear a burst Internet bubble, but our analysis shows that Internet companies account for only 7% of the overall NASDAQ market cap but carry expected long-term growth rates twice those of other rapidly growing segments within tech.”

Joseph Battipaglia, market analyst, December 1999

About three months later, in March 2000, the high-tech bubble burst and the Internet Index lost two-thirds of its value. All told, the NASDAQ lost 50% in 2000.

These companies that Battipagia cited as having “expected long-term growth rates” were actually stocks trading at extremely high price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios, even though the companies themselves often weren’t making any money. Many of these companies disappeared, like spit on a griddle, taking investors’ money with them.

7) “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.”

— FCC Commissioner T.A.M. Craven, 1961

Without space satellites, modern society would crumble, anarchy would reign, and the human race would plunge into a new Dark Age.

Previous to helming the Federal Communications Commission, Craven was a United States Navy officer involved in the development of radio and communications. Allegedly trained as an engineer, he must have skipped a few classes in college.

8) “Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

— Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946

As Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “the medium is the message.” And since the end of World War II, the number one medium in the world has been the boob tube. TV not only conveys information; it defines reality. Despite the advent of the Internet and a host of other digital distractions, the average American still stares at that box for more than five hours every day.

9) “We believe all this bodes well for improved earnings visibility and performance assessment, suggesting that the company is making progress at getting back on track.”

— Ronald Barone, analyst at UBS Warburg, October 2001, commenting on energy giant Enron, after the company reported third-quarter earnings.

The Enron scandal broke that month, eventually leading to the company’s ignominious downfall, wiping out investors and landing its key executives in prison. Instead of being “back on track,” Enron was found to have perpetrated a host of crimes, including hidden partnerships, masked debt and manipulation of energy markets.

10) “640K ought to be enough for anybody.”

— Bill Gates, 1981

Maybe it’s because of his arrogance, but it’s always fun to take swipes at billionaire tech titan and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates. Or maybe, for those of us old enough, it’s the still painful memory of trying to grapple with MS-DOS. Back when Gates made this prediction, the leap in memory capacity from 64K to 640K seemed sufficient to last a long, long time. It sure didn’t.

11) “What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”

— William Orton, president, Western Union Telegraph Company, 1876

Mr. Orton made this mind-bogglingly misguided assessment after being offered the chance to buy the patent for the telephone. In the late 19th century, the telephone of course was the Internet of its day, perhaps even more transformative. Telegram for Mr. Orton: You blew it.

12) “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

I’m cutting Watson some slack here and ranking this as the least stupid statement on my list, because he made it as far back as 1943. Nonetheless, the legendary IBM (NYSE: IBM) honcho couldn’t have been more ridiculously off base.

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Do you have any stupid statements uttered by titans of capitalism that we should know about? Send me an email: mailbag@investingdaily.com. I’ll collate the most compelling ones and publish them in a future column. In the meantime, enjoy the holiday!