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Investment Ideas Facebook's lesson from Seinfeld, surprising facts about bank stocks, and a reality check on at-risk sectors amid rising rates

Seinfeld addicts rejoice: CraveTV has the entire archive of episodes and will be available to all Canadians in 2016.

Now that Facebook Inc.'s boss has finally responded to the company's latest controversy, I can't help wondering why Facebook spent the previous five days saying little, or saying the wrong things, before it spoke out relatively cogently.

Finally, I had realization: Facebook is George Costanza. In a well-known episode of the Seinfeld television series, the hapless fictional character settles on an explanation for his unhappiness: "Every instinct I have in every aspect of life ... it's all been wrong."

Yup, that's Facebook.

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Before the firestorm over Cambridge Analytica's siphoning of information from millions of Facebook accounts -- and even before the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Brexit vote swept the company into a series of scandals -- one constant has been Facebook's inept response to crises. Because of this, I have privately been referring to Facebook as the world's dumbest smart company. Almost every instinct it has is wrong.

The company's first response to the Cambridge Analytica revelations was to front-run news reports it knew were coming. Then, a Facebook executive fixated on what he said were news outlets' improper use of words like "leak" and "breach." Left unsaid was anything about Facebook's role in a significant violation of users' trust. The company further fanned controversy internally and externally by not saying much after that and not dispatching Zuckerberg to speak before Wednesday.

But this was hardly the first time Facebook did the wrong thing. Here is just a partial accounting of flare-ups that Facebook made much worse by responding ineptly or not at all, or engaging in denial:

  • It tried forcefully and awkwardly for months to persuade skeptical Indian regulators and the public to accept a suite of free internet services in the country, including some of its own offerings. Facebook eventually gave up in 2015.
  • Facebook got into a feud with the prime minister of Norway over the company's censoring of an iconic Vietnam War photo. Facebook stuck to its guns for too long and was eventually forced to apologize.
  • When a news article raised questions about whether Facebook suppressed right-leaning articles in the social network's "trending" news section, the company at first denied or minimized the allegations, then fired staff, sought to root out leakers and took other steps that exacerbated what became a full-blown culture war.
  • And then came the U.S. presidential election, during which Russia-backed trolls used Facebook to spread misinformation and divisive messages. The company came clean in slow, halting stages after Zuckerberg's memorable initial statement that it was a "pretty crazy idea" to believe misinformation on Facebook had influenced the election. That flippant initial reaction will dog Zuckerberg forever. 

Missteps or wrong decisions are inevitable for companies like Facebook that have grown so large  so quickly. But Facebook's instinct seems to be to minimize every controversy or to lash out, obfuscate, deflect, keep mum and perhaps belatedly do (almost) the right thing.

And that has turned repeated mini-firestorms into conflagrations. It's easy to blame public-relations strategies for Facebook's missteps, but this is such a flagrant pattern that it must be a sign of culture rot at the top of the company.

Maybe it's time for Facebook to take the advice from George Costanza's friend Jerry: "If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right."

-- Shira Ovide, Bloomberg News

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Stocks to ponder

Facebook Inc. (FB-N).  The very first line in Facebook Inc.'s business description in its annual report to shareholders is, "Our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together," which is something only Facebook believes, if it even does. A better summary would be that Facebook is the world's most ruthless and efficient operation at turning audience into dollars. And if it can be a little more careful about the ruthless part, that efficiency will continue to deliver amazing profits – and prove wrong the investors who are selling off shares this week. David Milstead reports. Globe contributor Chris Umiastowski also says the plunge in Facebook's stock is a great buying opportunity.


The Rundown

The Big Six banks will fleece you – if you let them

A federal agency has stripped away any remaining pretense that banks are trustworthy providers of advice, assistance, guidance, help or anything else along those lines. The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada said in a report issued Tuesday that the corporate culture at the Big Six banks is sharply focused on selling products and services, and that there are insufficient controls in place to protect clients from aggressive sales practices. Rob Carrick reports.

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OSC eyes regulations to protect seniors and their investments

Ontario regulators are working to implement a new action plan designed to better protect seniors when it comes to investment matters. The Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) released a report on Tuesday titled Seniors Strategy, which outlines initiatives aimed at helping registered firms and their financial advisers address issues that may arise as their clients age. The OSC noted that seniors – people 65 or older – are expected to comprise a quarter of Ontario's population by 2041. For many people, aging can be accompanied by health, mobility or cognitive changes that may affect their ability to make sound judgments – rendering them more susceptible to financial exploitation and fraud. Clare O'Hara reports.

Three top dividend picks in the beaten-down power and utility space

Power and utility stocks have struggled amid the recent uptick in interest rates, but instead of avoiding this dividend-rich sector, investors should be taking advantage of the bargains that are emerging. That's the recommendation of one analyst who says valuations have become more attractive even as the growth outlook has remained solid. "Beware rising yields? We say buy on weakness for the long term," Jeremy Rosenfield of Industrial Alliance Securities said in a March 14 note to clients. John Heinzl takes a look.

Five surprising facts about Canadian bank stocks that should delight investors

There are many ways to look at Canadian banks: They can be seen as profit-making machines, financially diversified behemoths or dividend-dynamos. But RBC Dominion Securities has included several additional angles in its most recent Canadian Bank Chart Book, released on Tuesday. David Berman explains five intriguing facts that should delight investors who own all, or some, of the Big Six banks.

A reality check on which TSX sectors are most at risk from rising interest rates

Performance data imply that the domestic market sectors most at risk from rising interest rates and bond yields are utilities, banks, transportation and real estate. Investors should remember, however, that rate sensitivity is a double-edged sword. The stocks that would decline most if rates continue to rise are also those that will rally most in the case that bond yields don't climb as much as expected. Scott Barlow explains.

Are you a DIY investor who overpays your broker?

You can cut fees and commissions to nearly nothing if you're a DIY investor, but there are exceptions. The most notable is the do-it-yourselfer who invests in mutual funds through an online brokerage. Unless the funds are D-series (think of D as in DIY), it's likely there are advice fees buried in the fees they charge. The Series A or B version of an equity fund might have a management expense ratio of 2.25 per cent. A full percentage point of that amount goes to the selling firm and, if applicable, adviser through what's known as a trailing commission. Rob Carrick explains.

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Compiled by Gillian Livingston

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