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With Vespa Hotter Than Ever, Is Now the Time to Take Your Portfolio Global?

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While Scooter Libby may be getting ten to fifteen, I'm getting a Libby Scooter.

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Editor's Note: Relax, it's only money.

Here in the 'Ville we like to keep things smart, but we also love to laugh. All work and no play...you know how it goes. With that in mind we proudly introduce The "Off-Balance Sheet", a place where Minyans can experience humorous takes on the world of finance, personal stories from our Professors and Minyans and all the other stuff that makes life worth living. So take a break from the flickering ticks and dive in.

Sure, there are some attractive telecom plays in Mexico and Turkey, oil & gas operations in India are growing, and Taiwan's tech sector continues to get lots of attention. But, while growth is high in emerging markets, so is uncertainty.

As far as developed markets go, the savvy investor can find some nice, cheap buys in French and Japanese consumer durables, and Canadian oil & gas continues to look good. However, some fear they won't stay cheap for long.

In all the research I've done, no one ever mentions Italy.

Enter Vespa.

After decades of mismanagement, Italian entrepreneur Roberto Colaninno took over in 2003 and replaced time-honored Italian business traditions like books cooked to the boiling point, flaccid attempts to enter foreign markets, and slapdash engineering.

Revolutionary new concepts were introduced, like deadlines. Customer satisfaction. Advertising.

In the first quarter of 2006, the company recorded a worldwide net profit of $12.9 million, on revenues of $473.1 million, up from equivalent losses just a year earlier. In the U.S. market, Piaggio believes it can push market share from 1 percent up to 2 or 3 percent, and boost revenues to $190 million. With the right product line and savvy marketing, industry insiders believe this to be doable.

I had been hearing whispers about a new product in development, the Vespa Lewis Libby Scooter. Hoping to expand beyond their already-solid consumer base of urban democrats, Vespa intended for the Libby Scooter to appeal to the Republican on the go by leveraging the name of former Vice Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Multiple messages left with Piaggio's CEO went unreturned, so I contacted an acquaintance at the company (she wants it to be more, I want to keep it casual and just fool around, but that's a story for another time). After promising to protect her identity, thus assuaging her fear of losing her job for divulging secret information, my friend Manuela DiFiore, Assistant Director of Design, Piaggio SpA, agreed to talk to me strictly off the record.

I asked my anonymous source (remember, that's Manuela DiFiore, Assistant Director of Design, Piaggio SpA) to tell me about the Libby scooter.

"Non so niente," Manuela said. ("I know nothing.")

This sort of transparent denial was my first clue that the Libby Scooter really was in development. Manuela (DiFiore, direct dial: +39 0587 27 171) was even responding to my questions like Scooter Libby.

At this point, I grew terribly tired of speaking Italian and forced Manuela (DiFiore, Assistant Director of Design, Piaggio SpA, direct dial: +39 0587 27 171) to stumble through our conversation in broken, barely coherent English. The call would take twice, if not three times, as long. But at least I could kick my feet up and make Manuela do the lion's share of the work.

Manuela (last name: DiFiore, home address: Corso Matteotti, #64 , post code 56025, Pontedera, Pisa) said something about something having to do with being worried for her job if anyone knew she was talking to me or something like that, but to be perfectly frank, I kind of tuned her out after the first three seconds or so. (I was trying to concentrate on the New York Times crossword-Fridays are fairly difficult.)

"So, I hear the I. Lewis Libby Scooter by Vespa will be introduced in this country to tap into the growing segment of Republican scooter enthusiasts," I said in a marbly, Ted Kennedy-ish accent.

"I…I do not understand, Giustino," Manuela (supervisor: Tommaso Cecchini, Managing Partner, Design Director, Piaggio SpA, direct dial: +39 0587 27 269) replied.

"Right, so the new Libby scooter will claim to get better mileage than it actually does."

"No." (Depending on the usage, "no" can also mean "yes" in Italian.)

"And if you're pulled over for a traffic violation, it gets ratcheted up to a felony charge automatically."

"What?"

"From what I've gathered, you can't trust the gas gauge to tell you exactly how much fuel is left in the tank either, correct?"

"I don't know wha-"

"If you lose traction on a slippery road, the Libby Scooter will take the fall for you?"

Silence. Or as my anonymous source (Manuela DiFiore, Assistant Director of Design, Piaggio SpA, parents' names and address: Giuseppe and Sabrina DiFiore, Via del Governo Vecchio #21, Roma) would say, "silenzio."

"Is it also true that the Libby scooter will be unable-or unwilling-to lean to the left?"

At this point, I wasn't sure if my questions were being ignored or if Telecom Italia workers had gone on strike again. So I hung up. I didn't really need her answers, anyway. Hell, it's the Libby Scooter. Does the truth really matter?

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE INVESTOR LOOKING FOR AN ITALIAN CONSUMER DURABLES PURE PLAY?

As dissatisfaction with the Bush White House increases among Republicans, and with "Scooter" Libby on trial for five felony counts of lying to investigators, now may not be the most opportune time to introduce the Libby scooter.

For further insight and analysis, I once again turned to Minyanville Professor Kevin Depew.

Kevin, what's your take on the Vespa Libby Scooter? Do products like these really help push a company's brand imagery forward, or are they simply doomed to the ashbin of failed pop culture references?

What do you mean, "Aspen?"

I said ashbin.

I know, what's Aspen have to do with failed pop culture references?

No, ashbin, a place for ashes.

Oooh, Justin, I don't know about that. Just because people who ski in Aspen tend to be wealthy and attractive doesn't automatically make them asses.

No! An ashbin for, like, rubbish.

You know, I never noticed it before but you have a pretty serious lisp.

I don't have a lisp, I'm not…

Whoa! Say that again.

What?

I don't have a lisp.

I don't have a lisp.

That's really strange. You can say the word lisp perfectly, but can't say Aspen or asses without a lisp. Maybe it's psychosomatic.

Yes. I mean no. Wait. Look, I'm not saying Aspen and asses. I said ashbin. Like a bin that you put ash in.

Justin, I'll be honest with you. Ash is nothing but debris. I'm no financial expert, but who is going to buy worthless residual debris produced by incineration?

Actually, you are a financial expert.

That's right! So who are you going to believe? A financial expert or a bunch of slick, big-city ash peddlers?

It was at this point that I realized Kevin actually had a point, even if it wasn't the point he thought he had, which really wasn't a point at all but more of a foggy and distracted notion of bad logic bordering on aggressive unhelpfulness.

Perhaps the point is that global investing is a bit more complex than simply parking some money in an emerging market exchange-traded fund or foreign-invested mutual fund. Do we really understand what we're investing in or do we risk losing money in translation? What about currency risks? What about regulatory and political risks? Was this what Kevin was trying to tell me, albeit in his very weird and bizarre manner? I decided to just ask.

Is this your way of suggesting that the risks of foreign equities are different than U.S. equities?

Il rischio è il gioco da tavolo di dominazione globale. Do you know what that means?

You just said, "Risk is the board game of global domination," in Italian.

Sometimes free advice really isn't free.

I couldn't argue with that, nor did I even want to, so I thanked Kevin for his time and thought about risk - not the board game of global domination - but the concept, and how it applies differently to so many things depending on circumstances and context. Maybe Vespa is on to something and now is the perfect time to release the Libby Scooter. So, while Scooter Libby may be getting ten to fifteen, I'm getting a Libby Scooter.

No positions in stocks mentioned.
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