November 18, 2001

Telecom's Pied Piper: Whose Side Was He On?

By GRETCHEN MORGENSON



Taken separately, the rise and fall of five once- highflying telecommunications concerns, all in bankruptcy, is hardly remarkable. But together, along with other recent telecom failures and those still likely to occur, they represent one of the most spectacular investment debacles ever. Bigger than the South Sea bubble. Bigger than tulipmania. Bigger than the dot- bomb. The flameout of the telecommunications sector, when it is over, will wind up costing investors hundreds of billions of dollars.

The telecommunications mess stands out for another reason: One man is at its center Jack Benjamin Grubman.

No single person can be responsible for the entire debacle, of course, and investors must take responsibility for some of their losses. But as resident guru on telecommunications at Salomon Smith Barney and one of Wall Street's highest- paid analysts, Mr. Grubman, 48, was surely the sector's pied piper. During the height of the mania, in 1999 and 2000, he had buy recommendations on 30 companies, considerably more than most analysts. Mr. Grubman lured more investors into securities of nascent and risky telecom companies than perhaps any other individual.

Anyone can make mistakes, but Mr. Grubman's cheerleading epitomizes the conflict- of-interest questions that have dogged Wall Street for two years: Even as he rallied clients of Salomon Smith Barney, a unit of Citigroup (news/quote), to buy shares of untested telecommunications companies and to hold on to the shares as they lost almost all their value, he was aggressively helping his firm win lucrative stock and bond deals from these same companies.

Since 1997, Salomon has taken in more investment banking fees from telecom companies than any other firm on the Street. Because of Mr. Grubman's power and prominence, and because his compensation is based in part on fees the company generated with his help, a part of those fees went to him. The firm declined to discuss Mr. Grubman's compensation on the record.

But one critic was blunt about the star analyst. "Jack Grubman is the king of conflicted analysts," said Jacob H. Zamansky, a securities lawyer who represents investors against Wall Street firms. "A strong case can be made that he used his picks to generate investment banking business for his firm and abused investor trust in his picks. He personifies the blurring of lines between investment banking and objective analysis." Mr. Zamansky recently won a settlement in an arbitration case against another star analyst, Henry Blodget, the Internet analyst at Merrill Lynch (news/quote) who decided to leave the firm last week.

It is impossible to tell how many investors profited from Mr. Grubman's advice on the way up. But those who stuck with him until the end, heeding his advice and holding on to the stocks, have fared dismally. In one telecom arena that Mr. Grubman dominated, among the so-called competitive local exchange carriers, some $140 billion in stock market value has vanished 95 percent of the cash raised.

The money raised for telecom companies through the sale of debt notes, bonds and convertible issues was even larger, with bigger losses. From 1997 to 2000, according to Lehman Brothers (news/quote), telecom companies borrowed close to a half-trillion dollars. This year alone, telecom companies that issued high-yield debt have defaulted on $21.4 billion of it, according to Bear, Stearns & Company. That amount accounts for 56 percent of all defaults, across all industries, in 2001. More defaults in the industry are expected.

Wall Street's role as enabler in the telecom binge, and Salomon Smith Barney's part in particular, is undeniable. Since 1997, the firm has collected $809 million underwriting telecom stocks and bonds and $178 million providing merger advice, according to Thomson Financial 43 percent more than the fees made by Merrill Lynch, its closest rival in the sector.

Despite repeated requests for an interview, Mr. Grubman declined to comment for this article. Maryellen Hillery, a spokeswoman for Citigroup, said: "We stand behind the quality and integrity of our research department and management, and believe the overwhelming recognition from objective third-party surveys speaks for itself. The firm strictly adheres to or surpasses industry and regulatory requirements designed to foster and preserve the integrity of research. Suggestions to the contrary made by anonymous sources are baseless and without integrity."


The Beginnings of a Craze
To some degree, the telecommunications crash is a case study in how Wall Street goes overboard in a bull market, raising capital for start-ups that should never have left the gate.

The craze had its roots in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated the industry and swept out rules limiting competition. Soon, entrepreneurs saw a chance to build huge networks crisscrossing the globe to serve the big jumps in demand for data transmission.

Hundreds of new and established companies thronged Wall Street, looking for capital. Some, like Metromedia Fiber Network (news/quote), hoped to build high-capacity transmission systems in American cities. Others, like McLeodUSA (news/quote), sought money to compete with the entrenched regional Bell companies. Still others, like Global Crossing, planned to wrap the globe in fiber optic networks.

All that stood between the hope of these networks and the glory of their completion was money lots of it, because laying fiber networks, unlike starting Internet companies, required big purchases and laborious installation of costly equipment.

Some companies raised cash by issuing stock. But most network operations loaded up on what they thought would be a cheaper source of capital: debt. From 1996 to 2000, telecom companies raised $240 billion in the high-yield, or junk, bond market. When bank debt, money raised in convertible bonds and loans from vendors eager to sell equipment is added, the total raised by the sector climbs to $500 billion.

"A great number of these companies should never have been funded," said Alexi Coscoros, a high-yield analyst at Bear, Stearns. "As long as the market was prepared to buy them, Wall Street was quite happy to bring these companies to market. But high-yield investors were buying paper for companies that were not fully funded and that carried much higher risk than anyone understood."

Wall Street, of course, is not known for scaring off investors with too much talk of risk. But Mr. Grubman clung to his rosy view long after it became obvious to his counterparts that the telecom financing binge was going to end badly. On April 4, a year after most telecom stocks had begun steep descents, Mr. Grubman wrote a report titled "Don't Panic Emerging Telecom Model Is Still Valid" and recommended seven stocks: Allegiance Telecom (news/quote), Broadwing, Global Crossing, Level 3 Communications (news/quote), McLeodUSA, Metromedia Fiber Network and XO Communications (news/quote). Since then, the stocks have fallen 58 percent, on average.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago that Mr. Grubman threw in the towel on three of his favorites. On Nov. 2, he downgraded to neutral, from buy, the shares of McLeod then selling at 60 cents each, down from a peak of $34.83 last year. He did the same for XO Communications, whose shares were trading at 85 cents, down from $66, and expressed caution on Williams Communications Group (news/quote), whose shares were valued at $1.39, down from a high last year of $59.

Since then, the shares of all three companies are up by an average of 48 percent.

Mr. Grubman went pessimistic on McLeodUSA, a company that Salomon helped to expand through an initial stock offering in June 1996 and later with several other debt and equity issues, because he expected its third-quarter revenue to fall 4 percent from the previous quarter. "It will no longer be considered a growth stock," Mr. Grubman wrote, "and with free cash flow not expected until '06, it is still far from a value stock label, so investor interest is expected to be low."

Emmett Ryan, a former fund manager in Southport, Conn., who specialized in telecommunications investments, said that for Mr. Grubman, "everything was based on a model."

"They would project revenues, expenses and net cash flow out into the distant future and come up with a price target," Mr. Ryan said. "But when these things started going down, they would not adjust their projections until the thing was at zero."

What pushed these promising companies into the abyss? In short, the enormous demand for data transmission networks predicted by Mr. Grubman and others never materialized. Nor did the cash flows on which these companies depended to pay their interest costs. At least four companies recommended by Mr. Grubman have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. More than half of the companies that he tracks are the equivalent of penny stocks, trading at less than $5 a share.

But back in the heady days of 1999 and 2000, analysts were saying the sky was the limit on telecommunications and were telling investors to climb aboard for the ride of their lives. Nobody pounded the table quite as assiduously, or as effectively, as Mr. Grubman.


From AT&T (news/quote) to Wall Street

Mr. Grubman, an only child, grew up in a family of modest means, living in a Philadelphia row house. His father was a carpenter for the city; his mother worked in a dress shop. He received a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from Boston University in 1975 and a master's in probability theory from Columbia in 1977. Then he went to work for AT&T.

At first, he analyzed the demand for long-distance services, using computer models. He later worked in corporate planning for the company's breakup in 1984. In January 1985, he left for Wall Street, joining Paine Webber as a telecommunications analyst.

His Wall Street beginnings were inauspicious. In May 1986, according to regulatory filings, Mr. Grubman failed the exam, called the Series 7, that anyone who wants to be an investment professional must pass.

He subsequently passed. But even more important, he figured out how to stand out from the crowd of analysts covering telecommunications, which in those days meant analyzing AT&T and its recently freed regional Bell offspring. Mr. Grubman's knowledge of the company's internal operations gave him an edge. According to an analyst who is no longer in the business, Mr. Grubman regularly beat out competitors with information on AT&T that nobody else had.

"Jack had information that was never made public," said this person, who like most others interviewed about Mr. Grubman asked for anonymity for fear of ruining relationships on Wall Street. "I covered the company like a rug, and it was extremely concerned about leaks at the time."

Mr. Grubman gained attention from investors by being cautious about AT&T in a crowd that was mostly positive. He may also have recognized that the advent of competition after the AT&T breakup meant that there would be many more stocks to take public and bonds to issue than there were in the one- company era.

"By being negative on AT&T, Jack was able to gain the ear of other telco C.E.O.'s," the former analyst said. In 1988, for example, Mr. Grubman met Bernard J. Ebbers, the entrepreneur who eventually built WorldCom (news/quote) into a telecom colossus. Mr. Grubman parlayed the information he gleaned from small players in the business to become an expert in the sector.


Finding Fame and Fortune

In 1994, Mr. Grubman, well on his way to becoming a star analyst, left Paine Webber for Salomon Brothers. By the time the firm was taken over by Smith Barney in 1998, Mr. Grubman had toppled rivals and gained the top ranking in his industry on the All-American Research Team, as listed by Institutional Investor magazine.

Fortune followed fame. In 1998, Goldman Sachs (news/quote) tried to woo Mr. Grubman from Salomon Smith Barney, but he stayed put. Telecom deals were pouring in, and Mr. Grubman became the go-to guy. He ended up earning an estimated $20 million from the firm in 1999.

In January of that year, he and his wife, Luann, bought a town house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for $6.2 million in cash. Soon, they were renovating the entire house.

As the number of telecom deals ballooned, and as Mr. Grubman's picks ascended, his hegemony in the industry and the firm took hold. That attracted still more business from executives who knew both how positive he was on the sector and how powerful his buy recommendations could be. In March 2000, for instance, when he raised his price target for Metromedia Fiber Network, the stock jumped 16 percent in one day. Companies deluged Salomon Smith Barney for their capital needs, and Mr. Grubman churned out glowing research reports, annually collecting a multimillion-dollar pay package.

Increasingly, that was the way Wall Street worked. "Equity research is a loss leader in most firms," said Philip K. Meyer, a money manager in Rowayton, Conn., who worked as an analyst on Wall Street for 18 years. "What it does is oil the pipeline so you have a good relationship with clients, so when you do deals you have a good distribution channel. Because the money you make on I.P.O.'s is so much greater, the increased pressure from investment banking makes research dysfunctional."

Clearly, Mr. Grubman was very good at oiling the pipeline. Besides issuing securities, many telecom companies primed for growth were eager for advice on takeovers or mergers.


Days of Telecom Mania

McLeodUSA's rise, and crashing fall, is typical of the stocks Mr. Grubman favored. Based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, McLeodUSA began as a provider of local and long-distance telephone service to small markets in the Upper Midwest. Advised by Salomon Smith Barney from the outset, McLeodUSA bought and resold local service from regional Bells and long- distance service from WorldCom. The company was run by Clark E. McLeod, who in the 1980's built a long-distance business called Teleconnect that he later sold to MCI.

Salomon led the offering that brought the company public on June 11, 1996, raising $240 million. The firm made $10 million in fees on the deal, which priced the stock at $20 a share, not adjusted for subsequent splits. (Adjusting for splits, the deal came at $3.33 a share.)

Five weeks later, with the stock at $24.25, Mr. Grubman began covering McLeod with a buy recommendation and a 12-month price target of $40. "McLeod represents one of the truly great business models that will be executed in the new era of telecom," Mr. Grubman wrote, predicting that it would be "one of the best return vehicles in what will be a high-return segment of the telecom industry."

Almost immediately, McLeod began buying other companies, like Telecom USA Publishing, a phone book publisher, at $74 million, and, in 1997, Consolidated Communications at $420 million. But McLeod also needed hefty amounts of cash to build a network. Since November 1996, when the stock traded at $28, the company has gone to the stock or debt markets eight times, raising $3.5 billion. Salomon led all the offerings, pulling in almost $100 million in fees over the period, according to Thomson Financial. It also collected advisory fees for the acquisitions, normally about 1 percent of each deal's price for transactions worth more than $1 billion. The total is unclear, but Salomon pocketed $7 million for advice on McLeod's acquisition, in January 2000, of Split rock Services, a small telecom company in Texas.

According to a former analyst at the firm, Mr. Grubman's pay was tied specifically to the deals that the firm did in telecommunications. "I remember meeting with these guys and they would have a list of deals and they would say, `Here's how much we're paying you deal by deal,' " this person said. "There was a formula."

Salomon Smith Barney also generated fees in other ways from the deals Mr. Grubman helped foster. Often, it executed stock trades for the executives of the companies, for which it was paid commissions. At McLeod, for example, Mary E. McLeod, the chairman's wife, sold $50 million in stock through Salomon on Feb. 8, 2000. Some companies, like WorldCom, hired Salomon to run their corporate stock-option plans for company employees, generating fees and luring new brokerage customers in general. Finally, Mr. Grubman's ability to move markets meant that Salomon's trading desk probably made a good deal of money executing buy and sell orders for its customers.

In all, Salomon's earnings from McLeod over the years far outpaced McLeod's profits. As the company's revenue rose to $1.4 billion in 2000 from $267 million in 1997, it lost almost $1 billion over that period. So far this year, it has lost an additional $2.6 billion.

The losses, however, did not keep McLeod's stock from soaring. Every few months, Mr. Grubman would reiterate his enthusiasm for the company, coming out with a higher price target or another reason to own the stock. In January 1998, for example, just days after the company raised $225 million in bonds for McLeod, he increased his price target on the stock to $53 from $50.

By March 2000, McLeod shares reached a split-adjusted peak of $34.83, up almost tenfold from the initial offering price.

And Mr. Grubman, at the top of his game, was scoffing at anyone who questioned the propriety of having an analyst, whose job is to provide investors with objective investment advice, work closely with the firm's investment bankers. "What used to be a conflict is now a synergy," he told Business Week in May 2000. "Objective? The other word for it is uninformed."

Soon, however, the bottom fell out of McLeod and the telecom sector.

It was not until August, with McLeod's stock at $2.44, down 93 percent from its 2000 peak, that Mr. Grubman allowed in a report that the company "had some missteps in the last year and a half, most notably the ill-advised acquisition of Splitrock." He made no mention that Salomon Smith Barney had advised McLeod that the acquisition was worth the $2.1 billion it paid. Nor did he acknowledge that in both January and April 2000, he wrote reports praising the Splitrock purchase as a "smart strategic merger" that dramatically enhanced McLeod's "position on the national stage."

McLeodUSA, to the chagrin of its investors, no longer finds itself on the national stage. Its stock sells for 73 cents a share, and its market capitalization, $455 million, represents 13 percent of the money it raised from investors. On Thursday, McLeod wrote off $2.9 billion, most of it related to the Splitrock acquisition.


An Unflinching Optimist
In the months since the telecom mania began to dissolve, it has become clear that Mr. Grubman remained too optimistic far too long. Many companies he favored are defunct or are trading for pennies a share or have been delisted from the Nasdaq market.

Many other highly paid analysts also made the mistake of staying too long at the technology stock party that ended abruptly last year. But Mr. Grubman's reports show a particular disregard for the dangers of heavy debt piled on unproven companies. Debt, though not a big factor in the Internet debacle, was the 800- pound gorilla in telecommunications.

Nevertheless, Mr. Grubman continually swatted away speculation that debt might become a problem for his companies talk that began creeping into the market a year ago when Ravi Suria, then a convertible- bond analyst at Lehman Brothers, warned of looming debt problems in telecommunications. One money manager said Mr. Grubman often played down risk. "If a company comes out and doubles its debt-to- equity ratio, you would say the risk is greater," the manager said. "But he was always writing positive reports around times when his companies were raising debt."

Reality may be catching up with Mr. Grubman. Last month, he dropped to third place from first on the Institutional Investor rankings for the wireline services sector. (He still ranks No. 1 in the competitive local exchange carriers sector.) His 2001 paycheck will undoubtedly reflect the desert in telecom deals. And according to regulatory filings, he has been named in two arbitration cases and one lawsuit brought by customers of Salomon Smith Barney, who claim breach of fiduciary duty or misrepresentation in his stock picks.

Mr. Grubman's reputation has also been tarnished inside Salomon Smith Barney, where the sales force used to treat him with deference. In the old days, on the morning call to brokers, listeners would hang on the analyst's every utterance, according to several witnesses. He would speak expansively about his favorite companies, taking 20 minutes to get through all his points.

Today, brokers say, Mr. Grubman is more often than not cut short by others on the call. One longtime salesman at the firm said recently: "Jack Grubman? His name is mud around here."

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