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'Twas six weeks before Christmas at Nearly Defunct
And the firm was a-humming with holiday spunk.
The employees thought nothing at all would spoil it -All but Almost Donothing, who sat in the toilet.
Hemming and hawing and quaking with nerves,
He sat in the stall and let his mind swerve
Toward the coming board meeting (a-ha -- the plot thickens...)
At which he would stand up and lie like the Dickens.
Donothing stood and he zipped and he flushed.
My G-d, his board members would surely be crushed
If they sound out the truth -- that the firm must be cursed,
Since business had gone from just bad to much worse.
For two years now he'd managed to hide from the bosses
That he'd benefited from light catastrophe losses.
And -- at first Donothing couldn't believe his eyes -But paid-loss trends were actually beginning to rise.
They'd written multiyear contracts and raised retentions. . .
Pricing in the commercial line stunk, come to mention. . .
Asbestos and environmental losses rose
And they were about to generate negative cash flows.
Growing investment income was getting harder
And reserves? Well, they'd scraped the bottom of the larder.
Oh, yes. If he told them the truth, Donothing feared,
The board would just toss him right out on his ear.
And so, he'd come up with a marvelous plan.
It was -- granted -- stop-gap, and yet it would span
The length of this last meeting of 1997
Just long enough to keep Donothing thanking heaven.
For you see, in a moment of brilliance he'd steered
The company toward a merger that he'd engineered.
And all of these problems would be squashed like a roach
When they joined an outfit that was above reproach.
With a smile and a flourish he entered the room
Shaking hands, patting backs, warding off coming doom.
He moved to his seat and said with a fake grin,
"Friends, you won't believe the shape that we're in."
But before he could finish, there arose such a clatter. . .
Donothing rushed to the door to see what was the matter.
And what, to his undying relief should appear,
But a jolly old elf and seven reindeer.
"Well! This is a surprise!" Donothing cried,
"Shed your bells! Take a seat! Come on inside!"
Santa entered and nodded, his expression strained.
The seven reindeer followed, extremely well-trained.
Donothing put his arm 'round Mr. Claus,
Turned to the board and said, after a pause,
"Ladies and gentlemen, with no further urging,
Let me introduce a potential merging:
Claus Industries and Nearly Defunct -- let's hear it -Does that not put you in the holiday spirit?"
Santa edged away slightly, to stand alone.
"Nothing," he muttered, "has been cast in stone."
Donothing fought off the panic that rose.
Laying his finger aside of his nose,
He said, "Santa, you joker, don't scare me like that!"
And was met by the silence of the guy in the red hat.
Tom Katt, head of underwriting, said "Something's unclear.
I thought there were supposed to be eight reindeer."
"Hey, this is the '90s," said Santa. "Get real!
Downsizing's part of the corporate deal."
He turned to Donothing, a gaze that could burn.
"That's something you bozos would be wise to learn."
He pulled bifocals from his suit, and said, "Now, I fear
That you guys have been screwing around this past year.
"I've poured through these financial statements and papers -And I can't believe some of this company's capers!
Why, I'm so appalled that I feel fairly weak.
I'll let my cohorts take the reins, so to speak."
"On Dan, on Harry, on Peter, on Ted -On Don and on Gavin, and Mike," Santa said.
He nodded to one very large funny beast,
Who got to his hooves looking rather displeased.
His name -- it was Harry -- and he was no fool
(In spite of an incident with a leaky pool. . .)
He said, "There's no reason to go ho-ho-ho,
The industry's reporting a negative cash flow."
Reindeer Ted's thoughts were not on
Bob Cratchit or Jacob Marley -But instead on a rather sweet little Harley
He'd left snug and garaged in the good old North Pole.
But he stood, and he sighed right down deep to his soul.
"Good friends," Ted exclaimed. "If I may be so bold:
Distribution, it seems, just can't be controlled!"
From Reindeer Dan, there was nary a peep.
A brand-new fawn at home had robbed him of sleep.
So his mind was on formulas, diapers and bottles
Till a jab from a fellow deer brought him full throttle.
"Ah. . .oh! Sorry!" he said, rapidly blinking.
"The feeding frenzy on substandard auto has got me thinking:
"Since there aren't signs that it's about to stop -Might that not suggest a market top?"
Reindeer Peter, who spent summers out on the Cape,
Leaned back in his seat and massaged his sore nape,
And wondered why Santa couldn't merge with. . .well, say. . .
A boat company, like good old O'Day.
Even Santa, he knew, would lose his nerve
When he reached into his sack and found no more reserves.
Reindeer Don was a favorite -- that was a fact.
He'd give you the shirt off his very own back
(If reindeer wore shirts, which of course they do not,
But Don would have done it, no matter what.)
"Why use money," he asked, in a slight state of shock,
"To consider it an investment to buy their own stock?"
Reindeer Mike had left the street of the Wall
To answer a snowy and much higher call.
Bully for the analyst who had his say
And then goes to consult right on Santa's own sleigh.
He said, "Let me tell you a little joke."
"It's about an actuary, and another bloke."
" 'Hey -- I see a snowman there!' The bloke cried.
'I don't know,' said the actuary, 'Gotta see the other side.' "
Reindeer Gavin stood up, his bells all a-jangle.
From Bermuda, he saw things from a tri-again-angle!
"Santa, look at the numbers! Success is out of reach!
These guys don't know their ass from their Elbow Beach!"
He turned to his boss, that jolly old gnome.
"Can we pack up the sleigh, St. Nick, and just go home?"
Santa sighed and he nodded, genuinely weary.
"Donothing," he said, "can't you see why I'm leery?"
I could quickly forgive one or two oversights
But Almost Defunct has done nothing right!
"The heck with this merger!" he said with a frown.
"If I hook up with you, you'll just drag me down!
There's no way I'll buy into an industry that's caving
Especially when it's not me who needs saving!"
And laying a finger aside of his nose,
And whistling to the reindeer, Santa Claus rose.
He turned to Donothing at the boardroom's big door.
"Here's the part," he said, "where I say one thing more.
About Christmas to all, and having a good night -I'm afraid in this case the future's not bright.
In fact, this whole trip has been so unpleasant
That I'm not coming back -- I'll Fed Ex your present.
"But don't expect goodies from the North Pole -More likely than not you'll find some lumps of coal."
With a sigh and a shake, Santa bid his farewells,
And then all they could hear was the faint sound of bells.
The board members ducked heads and shuffled their feet,
As Donothing shifted in his big leather seat.
Staring at him were 20 anxious eyes,
All eagerly awaiting his word to the wise.
Donothing smiled, the oily old goat,
And cracked his knuckles, and cleared his throat.
"Natural resources!" he cried. "That's the catch!
"We've squeaked by before; we'll get past this rough patch!"
Then Donothing smiled, suddenly spunky.
"Call the investment department," he yelled to a flunky.
"I want them all working, every last soul -Tell them I said to go long on coal!"
Myron M. Picoult is a vp and senior insurance analyst at Wasserstein Perella Securities Inc. in New York. He is the past president of the Assn. of Insurance & Financial Analysts and a member of the New York Society of Security Analysts.
Jodi Picoult Van Leer is his daughter and the author of several novels, including "Picture Perfect." Her next novel will be published in Spring 1998.