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Fool.com: Shell Shocked?

Fool.com: Shell Shocked?

“If the stink of a recent restatement and high-sulfur gas mixture wasn’t enough to have shareholders gasping for air, then the past year’s proven oil reserves scandal certainly was.”

By Seth Jayson (TMFBent)

August 24, 2004

Posted 25 August 04

Long-suffering investors in Royal Dutch Petroleum (NYSE: RD) and Shell Transport (NYSE: SC) likely spent the day wondering whether this morning’s news might finally clear the air.

If the stink of a recent restatement and high-sulfur gas mixture wasn’t enough to have shareholders gasping for air, then the past year’s proven oil reserves scandal certainly was.

The problem, first revealed in January, seems to have been that for Royal Dutch/Shell execs, proven meant made up, and reserves meant wishful thinking. I hope they’re clear on what oil is.

Today, the SEC announced a settlement that will cost the untrustworthy duo $121 million, 17 million British pounds, plus $5 million for new internal controls to make sure those similar mistakes aren’t made in the future. So stands the penalty for fudging your proven reserves by 23%.

The entity remained tight-lipped. The company that brings you long press releases on important issues such as American car washing issued a terse, three-paragraph explanation with the standard note about neither admitting nor denying anything. Sort of flies in the face of management’s sanctimonious claims of cooperation and forthrightness, but that’s how our system seems to work.

I’m sure that the apologists will be spamming my email box with the usual “This is no big deal” excuses, so let’s take a look at just how big a deal it wasn’t. The $157 million total isn’t as big as the penalty against Janus Capital Group (NYSE: JNS) for its mutual-fund impropriety, but it dwarfs the recent SEC settlement against Franklin Resources (NYSE: BEN). In other words, it is a big deal.

Whether companies are taking money from investors’ pockets directly, as alleged in many mutual fund cases, or they’re doing it by providing misleading information, they are not only ripping people off but also eroding faith in the markets and creating a burden on capitalism. If the game is rigged, why should we play?

That’s the question anyone should ask before sinking money into stocks, and that’s the reason SEC victories such as this should be welcomed by any Foolish investor. All of us prospective business owners need to know that the game is clean, or at least cleaning up.

http://www.fool.com/News/mft/2004/mft04082418.htm

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