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BankAtlantic's Shock And Awe


In current climate, lawsuit a genius strategy.


BankAtlantic (BBX), a Florida-based regional bank, is suing Richard Bove, an analyst at Ladenburg Thalmann (LTS).

Bove's the author of a report entitled "Who Is Next?", which appeared 2 days after IndyMac was seized by federal regulators. In it, Bove listed BFC Financial, one of BankAtlantic's two holding companies, as being in the "danger zone" for takeover.

Now, let me say up front that I have no knowledge of what BankAtlantic's balance sheet looks like, or of whether the call Bove made was the right one. But to me, this looks like a brilliant communications move by the bank.

In a volatile environment like this one, an analyst's comments can take on a life of their own - or they can quickly settle like concrete on the cement shoes of the one being commented upon.

The question of First-Amendment rights is a valid and important one - but in this case, I'm not sure it's the right one.

In the old days, when someone in the corporate world was accused of something, they took the punch, kept quiet and issued a banal statement like "We vigorously deny these charges and are confident the facts will bear us out." If you were lucky, you'd get a 6-word soundbite buried in paragraph 36 of the story that was killing your company.

Can you say, "Sell my stock?"

That strategy used to work when there were 3 television channels (and yeah, I'm that old), no Internet and a 2-day lag between the press release and people in Des Moines remotely knowing what the hell was going on.

We live in a different world now. Blogs, a 24-hour newscycle and skittish investors make for a volatile combination.

I would say that BankAtlantic's "shock and awe" retaliation strategy is the latest manifestation of a corporate trend that started with Dick Grasso and Ken Langone's vigorous defense against the charges brought by Client Number 9.

They believed they were right and fought back every step of the way in both the judicial court and the court of public opinion. In Dick's case, at least, they were vindicated (and we all know where the prosecutor, Eliot Spitzer, wound up).

Now let me give you the downside: You damn well better be right. Lehman Brothers (LEH) showed us what happens when you get way out in front of your facts - you wind up in the same position Sonny Corleone swore he didn't want his brother Michael to end up in when he came out of that restaurant bathroom.

Unless you're absolutely certain that you have the facts on your side, keep your mouth shut until you do. If they're on your side, let it fly.

The First Amendment cuts both ways. Bank Atlantic and Bove have both had their say. Let's see who's zooming whom.

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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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