Where's My Piece?
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I don't know about you, but I'm very excited about the $1.4 billion that Wall Street firms have generously agreed to part with to make amends for the excesses of the '90s.

I have to admit, however, that I'm confused about the situation. So today I will abandon my usual role of doling out heaping measures of wisdom and simply share a few questions with you. Like ...

Is $1.4 billion a lot of money? It certainly seems like a great deal of green, but it kind of pales next to the $7 trillion the New York Times says investors lost during the past three years when all the stocks our brokers told us were terrific went into the Porta-John. I personally lost a pretty fair chunk of that amount, and a couple of billionaires I know lost more.

And what is that $1.4 billion compared with the profits made by the Wall Street firms while their research departments were tarting up their results at the behest of their sales guys and their CEOs?

And who decided how that massive amount of money, which is really not, is going to be carved up? As I understand it, less than $400 million is going to a fund to repay duped investors. That's me, so I'm pretty excited. But how about the other money?

There will be $500 million in penalties. I guess that's in addition to the personal penalties some of the characters involved are now reaping. Some of them are quite harsh, like the painful requirement for Sandy Weill that he sit with his attorney now when he wants to talk with his own analysts. Boy, that must hurt.

I read that the half-billion dollars in penalties is going at least in part to the states. Why? Did the states do anything particularly laudable to protect investors the first time around? Why are they being rewarded with the swag? Why aren't these particular Benjamins going right into the cobwebbed pockets of hard-working, stupid, credulous Americans like me?

Then there's about $400 million going for "independent research." Isn't that what Wall Street is supposed to be doing now that everything has been all cleansed and returned to the market's original standards of rectitude, ha ha ha?

And who's going to administer this pile of dough, which, while quite a nice sum, is probably less than some offending executives took home in bonuses a few years ago? For although it doesn't seem like that much when you think about it, which I do, it's still an awful lot for, uh, research. I mean, I do research all the time, and it costs me bupkis, what with the Internet and all.

And when whoever or whatever comes up with that independent research, will I have to pay to get it? Or will it be free, and if so, how will I find out about it? Will they call me? I'm in the book.

No, I have to think they'll be setting up some kind of agency, with employees and managers and desks and computers and stationery and expense accounts for key players. How come they can't just give us all a couple of bucks and let the SEC do its job of policing the guys who are supposed to be providing independent research anyhow?

And speaking of the SEC, God bless it, it seems it's going to get a piece of a whopping $80 million for what's being called "investor education." Of what would such education consist? A course in how to tell when people in suits are lying to you? Why would that cost $80 million? I bet our local schools could use that money, but instead I think maybe the SEC is going to wet its beak in this particular backwater of the deal.

Now, with all due respect to that fine and recently awakened institution, why should the SEC get any of the money beyond what it cost it to do business? Why are any government entities getting anything out of it? Why should anybody but investors get a single nickel of it?

I want my money back, or some portion thereof!

Yes, you're right, most important to me as I dig into the solitary plate of gruel that is left me after Enron and WorldCom and Lucent and the research department of my brokerage took off with the rest of my breakfast, is hey, how do I get my piece of this pathetically tiny pie? I'd take five bucks at this point. I read where it's going to take years for anybody who lost money to see anything, and even then people will have to dance around with funny hats on to get a glimpse of it.

In the end, you know, I guess I have to ask, what's with this deal? It's a bad deal, right? Am I missing something? Other than a whole lot of my money? And what's with the market? I remember when people were talking about the Dow at 20,000. Now we're looking wistfully up at half that amount. Will it ever come back? Or was all our optimism, our hope, our vision of the future, based on wishful thinking, hot air, and lies?

And if so, how big a fund will we need to buy that back?