Archive for Sunday, August 10, 2003

The Motley Fool

August 10, 2003


Last week's answer

I trace my roots back to the 1800s and a London seashell-importing firm. Today I'm the world's No. 3 oil and gas company, based in the Netherlands. I have proved reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil and more than 50 trillion cubic feet of gas. I run more than 46,000 gas stations globally and have an interest in about 50 refineries worldwide. In 2002 I bought Pennzoil-Quaker State for $1.8 billion and agreed to build a $4.3 billion petrochemicals plant in southern China. Who am I? (Answer: Royal Dutch/Shell Group)

Know the answer? Send it to us with Foolish Trivia on the top and you'll be entered into a drawing for a nifty prize! The address is Motley Fool, Box 19529, Alexandria, Va. 22320-0529. Send questions for Ask the Fool, Dumbest (or Smartest) Investments (up to 100 words), and your Trivia entries to

The Fool School: Avoiding identity theft

According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than a half-million Americans will have their identities stolen this year.

Common types of identity theft are: using or opening a credit card account fraudulently, opening cell phone or utility accounts fraudulently, passing bad checks or opening a new bank account, getting loans in another person's name, and working in another person's name.

Victims of identity theft spend an average of 175 hours and $800 to clear their names. Here are some tips from the FTC on how to avoid identity theft:

  • Scrutinize your credit card and bank account statements for any unauthorized activity.
  • Call your credit card company or bank if an account statement is late. A missing bill may mean someone impersonated you and changed the billing address.
  • Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or online unless you initiate the contact or know the caller. Thieves often pose as bank representatives, Internet service providers, government agents and the like to get you to reveal personal information.
  • Shred any documents you're tossing out that contain personal information. These include credit card receipts, insurance forms, physician and bank statements, and credit card offers.
  • Deposit outgoing mail directly into post office boxes, not in your own mailbox. If you're going on vacation, place a hold on your mail at the post office.
  • Don't carry your Social Security card with you, and give out your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. Carry a minimum number of ID and credit cards with you.
  • Cancel any credit cards you don't need or use.
  • Don't pre-print your Social Security or driver's license numbers on your checks.
  • Order a copy of your credit reports once a year to verify their accuracy.
  • If you're really paranoid, subscribe to a credit-watch program that sends regular updates on any credit activity done in your good name.

Learn more about identity theft at and about managing your credit at

Smart Investment: Carpe Diem

My smartest investment took place in 1994.

IBM was having serious problems. Rumors were abounding that Big Blue would be unable to overcome its difficulties. Its stock was selling around $74 per share. I found myself with funds to reinvest after a buyout of the Gerber Products stock I owned. I just couldn't imagine a company like IBM being unable to rebound, so I bought 100 shares at $74 each. Due to IBM's comeback and subsequent stock splits, I now own 400 shares valued around $84 each. -- Bev DeLost

The Fool Responds: Good show! IBM shares actually fell to nearly $40 in 1993, before beginning to rebound in 1994. You turned $7,400 into some $33,500 (plus dividends!) in nine years -- that averages out to about 18 percent per year. Some of the biggest payoffs investors can get are when they find solid companies that have been unduly punished in the short term. It's true that some fallen angels never find their wings again. But with confidence borne of research, patience and a long-term view, you can profit handsomely from some of these situations.

The Fool Take: UST up in smoke?

You won't find a lot of love on Wall Street for UST (NYSE: UST) these days.

First, the bad news: The world's smokeless tobacco leader recently reported lower earnings. Its premium wine revenues dropped 11.8 percent in a truly nasty overall wine market. This would be really bad news were the overall wine market in better shape. In fact, winemakers Chalone, Robert Mondavi and Brown Forman all reported similar weakness in case volumes and pricing.

Now the good news: Revenues from UST's smokeless tobacco division -- best known for Skoal, Copenhagen and Red Seal -- were up 2.5 percent. This was despite a fall in total volumes, implying that UST enjoyed better pricing on its core products.

Meanwhile, a hefty $1.2 billion payout related to a 1999 lawsuit pummeled UST's cash-flow results, drowning out otherwise positive operating free cash flow of $263 million for the past six months. (Though, discounting the lawsuit, free cash flow in the last two quarters of $120 million and $143 million, respectively, still fell below 2002 levels.) The payment effectively wipes out more than $1 billion in shareholder equity but should have no effect on future results.

While operational costs have eaten into results, UST's setback is likely temporary. The company frequently buys back shares when they're inexpensive, and the stock's current yield of 6 percent is enough to put a few bottles of wine on investors' tables.

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