AOL’s $100 Billion Mistake

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart’s character ends up on the bridge, weighing whether to end his life over lost money. Eight thousand dollars, to be exact.

Fast forward to yesterday. AOL Time Warner comes out and essentially tells the world that it lost some money in 2002. About a hundred billion dollars.

To his credit, AOL’s CEO didn’t blame his uncle. In fact, he made no excuses at all. They just lost US$100 billion. That’s all. Now, let’s move on. Fair enough. The future is the thing. But before we press forward, can we just have a minute to digest these numbers?


To be truly accurate, the loss was $98.7 billion. Either way, it is the largest annual loss ever by a U.S. corporation. See? AOL is still making records. And the company is unlikely to squawk over a measly billion or three. So let’s use the $100 billion figure.

True, the money isn’t exactly lost in an envelope somewhere. The loss is only on paper, mostly — impaired assets, the result of plunging valuations and the like.

But that’s just it: If you’re going to lose a hundred billion dollars, why not do it with style? What else could AOL have done with $100 billion? Let’s play with this idea for a moment.

AOL says it has 35.2 million users of its Internet service around the world. Each of them could have been given $2,800. Or, keeping it close to home, all of AOL’s U.S. users could have received a check (note to recipients: cash it quickly) for $3770 or so.

Generosity, Inc.

Why stop there, though? Why not distribute the money more widely? With about 270 million people in the United States, each of us could have received a check for about $370 in our mailbox, courtesy of AOL. That’s about what most people got from the big Bush tax cut a couple of years ago.

With $385, we could all sign up for AOL for a year and a half — and start the whole cycle over again.

What else will $100 billion buy you? A war with Iraq, apparently. Democrats in Congress last fall came up with a war price tag of $93 billion, so you could even keep $7 billion around to pay bonuses to the winning generals.

Where’s the Iceberg?

Of course, many people — not AOL employees or shareholders, mind you, but a lot just the same — take great pleasure in this mess. AOL was the shining star of the Internet economy, the dot-com that rose from nowhere to buy one of the largest media companies in the world.

But now, suddenly, no one wants their name used in the same sentence as AOL. Ted Turner, gruff, confrontational old curmudgeon that he is, decided it was safer to swim for shore alone than to stay aboard the sinking SS AOL. He’s got his UN donations to oversee, after all.

You think it’s a coincidence that Turner dated his resignation letter Tuesday, 24 hours before the colossal losses were announced? Or that former chairman Steve Case lit out two weeks ago? (Case, by the way, reportedly sold about $700 million worth of AOL stock over the past decade. Poor guy: He’s not even to the billion-dollar cashout level yet).

Laughing Matter

It’s official. AOL is now at least part farce. A fantastic experiment gone horribly awry. There’s no way around it.

In fact, AOL blew a great chance to turn its losses into a good thing. Instead of sending a suit-wearing CEO to deliver the bad news, AOL should have had Austin Powers bad guy Dr. Evil reveal its annual loss to the financial community via satellite link-up from his evil lair.

Reporter: “How much did your evil empire lose in 2002?”

Dr. Evil: “One hundred b-i-l-l-i-o-n dollars.”

That way, when everyone laughed, the poor folks at AOL could have kidded themselves into believing that everyone was laughing with them, not at them.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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