The Big Payback

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I'M GOING TO TELL YOU a true story, my friends, about the stock market and how I lost a lot of money, and how the good guys rode in on a white horse, said hi, and left me with the equivalent of a double cheeseburger. It's a story of hope, disappointment, and in the end a Zenlike peace that transcends all understanding because none is necessary.

It began in the waning years of the 20th century when I, full of juice and an excess of beans like the market itself, purchased 150 shares of WorldCom, which, as readers of just about every business publication then knew, had nowhere to go but up. The price was $8,558.60.

Certain unfortunate incidents ensued, and WorldCom failed to perform as expected, thanks to Mr. Ebbers and his merry band of mendacious managers. By the time I sold my WorldCom shares in the waning days of autumn 2002, it had depreciated somewhat. The proceeds from that sale came to $16.70, which represents a loss of $8,541.90, or 99.8%.

At that point I was resigned to the loss, as I am always resigned to hits I take from the market. The bath I've taken from my portfolio of "safe" blue chips could float a yacht, which of course would belong to somebody else.

So I was mightily amazed and stirred when a letter arrived bearing the imprimatur of the WorldCom Victim Trust. Imagine the pure, liquid hope coursing through my heart when I read that this organization "was created to administer the Fair Fund established by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission under the provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 pursuant to its settlement of litigation against WorldCom Inc." Finally! I thought. Something good for me personally coming from Sarbanes-Oxley!

There were many forms and papers to fill out, providing the Fair Fund of the WVT with information to determine how much of my loss was due to the disreputable way that the company had been managed. "We continue to expect cash distributions to take place in the fall of this year following completion of the claims process as set forth in the Plan," said the letter. I liked the capital "P" in "Plan." It went well with the capital "Fs" in "Fair Fund," which made the whole thing look Substantial.

Further correspondence dampened my enthusiasm. "The calculation of your losses specifically due to the WorldCom fraud as defined in the Plan was performed by using a Percentage Fraud Factor," said the Claim Determination Notice Final Information Request. Fraud Factor? I bought the stock based on bogus info. I sold it because I wanted my $16 back.

More letters produced more sobriety. It developed that my Economic Loss on Eligible Transactions came to the aforementioned $8,541.90. My Eligible Fraud Loss Amount equaled ... $128.38. That princely amount was achieved by multiplying my four-digit loss by a Percentage Fraud Factor of 1.5%, implying that only 1.5% of the hit I suffered was due to the bad stuff done by the bad guys.

It got worse. "The final distribution percentage," said the trustees, "will be based on the total Eligible Fraud Loss Amount ($128.38) for all claimants, which will not be known until we have completed the processing of all claims." The Hypothetical Distribution Percentage was just possibly going to be 10%, producing a Hypothetical Distribution remunerating me for $12.84.

I keep looking at the number. Twelve dollars. Eighty-four cents, mind you. There followed an official table with all my information explaining how this calculation was reached by the Fair Fund, as well as careful definitions on its own Definitions Page explaining how the 1.5% figure was reached (very rational) and adding explanations of such terms as Eligible Transactions (it was), Eligible Fraud Loss Amount (i.e., $128.38), and Percentage Fraud Factors. (I can't read it. My eyes are too blinded by tears.)

I understand, though. If you're one of the total morons who bought WorldCom when its miscreancy was on the front page of every newspaper in America, you will be awarded a very large percentage of your frittered fiduciary assets. Those who made their mistake back in 1999, when the Company was then successfully keeping everybody in the dark, get the hose. Hey, I'm not complaining. There are numskulls who will get only 0.11% of their vanished funds. Imagine how they must feel! Worse even than I, who am receiving fully 0.15%!

That comes to more than 12 bucks, as we have seen. Added to my $16 that was left when I sold my stake, we're talking nearly 30 simoleons all told. Okay, that doesn't go as far as it used to, but you can still get a meal for four at Carl's Jr. for just about that amount and have a little bit of change left over for a shoeshine.

Who says the little guy always gets the shaft?

STANLEY BING's new book, Rome, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the First Multinational Corporation (Atlas Books, W.W. Norton), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at