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"My hope was to make several multibillion-dollar acquisitions...but I struck out" -- Warren Buffett, in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders

Who likes those ubiquitous online pop-up ads planted by intrusive spyware? Technology Crossover Ventures is betting few do. The Silicon Valley venture-capital firm is helping to finance the anti-spyware company Webroot Software. But it appears to be hedging that bet with a sizable investment in Claria, a company vilified for spreading spyware.

Claria has drawn criticism and legal action from media behemoths such as Dow Jones (DJ), the New York Times (NYT), and the Washington Post (WPQ). They say the privately held Redwood City (Calif.) company, called Gator until 2003, used pop-up ads to snare viewers from their Web sites. The suit was settled, and Claria no longer delivers pop-ups to those sites. But more than 40 million Web surfers viewed Claria ads last year. TCV has pumped at least $13 million into Claria, but it has removed the company from a list of investments on its Web site.

Critics wonder why TCV would make dual investments. "Users are rubbed the wrong way by even the suggestion that the same companies that made this mess are now profiting from helping to clean it up," says Harvard University researcher and spyware expert Ben Edelman. TCV declined to comment. There is a similar element in both ventures: the potential to make money.

More than 200 b-school applicants have failed their first test in ethics by hacking into the files of ApplyYourself, a company that processes MBA applications. Several top B-Schools including Harvard, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon have decided to reject the hackers' applications. Using instructions anonymously posted on several Web sites, including at BusinessWeek Online, many of the hackers were able to view the status of their acceptance before letters were sent. BusinessWeek Online promptly removed the posting.

Harvard decided these potential students are not tomorrow's leaders. In a statement, Kim Clark, Harvard's dean, said the school wants to educate principled leaders with "a strong moral compass," adding that the hackers "failed to pass that test." So far, 119 Harvard Business School applicants and 32 at MIT's Sloan School of Business will get rejection letters.

Other schools are still assessing their stand. Stanford has asked the hackers to turn themselves in and will make admissions decisions on a case-by-case basis. Carnegie Mellon is trying to verify that two applicants hacked in -- and will likely reject them. Hackers from Duke and Dartmouth have yet to learn their fate. Score one for ethics education.

Corporations aren't the only employers with a big pension headache. State pension plans are in even worse shape, according to a soon-to-be released report by consultants Wilshire Associates.

As of Dec. 31, Wilshire says the 109 state plans it tracks were $375.6 billion underfunded, with 94% of them in the red. By contrast, the 331 companies in the S&P 500 that offer traditional defined-benefit pensions owed $123 billion more to current employees and retirees than their plans had in assets.

Even though states that have filed their 2004 reports show some improvement thanks to better stock market returns, many will need to up state funding or make risky new investments to meet their obligations. Some 90% of civil servants have traditional plans, says the Labor Dept., vs. just 22% in the private sector. While not all states are in a crisis, many of the largest are struggling. Illinois, which has a $35 billion gap, owes an additional $2.1 billion to meet minimum 2005 funding. And in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently called for a 401(k)-style plan for new hires to ease the state's financial burden, the debate is hot.

It took three decades for Prince Charles to seal his engagement to longtime mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles, with an eight-carat diamond-and-platinum ring that once belonged to the Queen Mother. But thanks to ASDA, the British discounter owned by Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), envious women won't have to wait long to pick up a copy of their own -- at the bargain price of $36. The sterling silver and three-carat cubic zirconia replica goes on sale at ASDA's 196 stores on Apr. 8, the day of the royal wedding. Those willing to come up with the more princely sum of $57,000 can commission the store to create a three-carat diamond platinum copy.

The economic damage from natural disasters rarely corresponds to death tolls. The tsunami that struck Southeast Asia on Dec. 26 killed an estimated 280,000. But economically, losses of $14 billion in destroyed property were small compared to other disasters.

The spate of hurricanes that pummeled Florida and the Caribbean last year took fewer lives, says a report by insurer Swiss Re, but caused $59 billion in damages. The difference? Poverty, which keeps Asia's property values low -- but not its losses.

Scott Ford sounds just like the head of a rural telecom giant. The CEO of Little Rock-based ALLTEL (AT) has a Southern twang, likes to hunt and fish, and takes pride in providing local and wireless service to 12 million customers in 26 states.

He also sounds like an exec in a rapidly consolidating industry. ALLTEL's plan to spend $4.4 billion for Western Wireless (WWCA), announced in January, will make it even more appealing. Ford, 42, is open to a buyout. "If the economics dictate that we link up with a big provider, then so be it," he says.

Its country roots could make $8.3 billion ALLTEL the belle at the telecom ball. Wire-less giants Sprint (FON) and Nextel (NXTL) and veterans SBC (SBC) and AT&T (T) have inked megadeals, while Verizon (VZ), Qwest (Q), and MCI (MCIP) are wrangling over their own. That leaves a dearth of candidates for companies such as BellSouth (BLS) eager to plug holes in their rural coverage and keep pace with consolidation. Looks as if ALLTEL could have a leading role in the next round of telecom's musical chairs.

Tired of your cell-phone cover? That's O.K. Just dig a hole and toss it in. Motorola (MOT) is testing a biodegradable case that, when buried, disintegrates and sprouts sunflowers. The material, developed by Pvaxx, contains sunflower seeds. The Bermuda company expects to make its eco-friendly plastics commercially available within a year for cell-phone cases and other electronic gear.

Motorola and other companies, including Coca-Cola (KO), are testing these containers as part of the new economics of plastics. The skyrocketing price of oil -- a key ingredient in plastics used for containers -- and tough local landfill regulations have made biodegradable plastics, made of things like corn, a cheaper alternative. Organic-food seller Wild Oats Markets (OATS), for example, has switched to nonoil-based containers, saving up to 5% on packaging costs, says Jim Middleton, senior director for operations support. By the end of 2005, consumers could see biodegradable cups, shavers, cosmetics cases -- even shotgun cartridges.

While this emerging market is still tiny, container makers are gearing up to meet growing demand. Chemical maker BASF has seen U.S. sales of its biodegradable plastic, Ecoflex, rise 80% in the past year, says Keith Edwards, a pro-duct manager. BASF plans to double its capacity, currently just 8,000 tons a year. Biosphere Industries in Carpinteria, Calif., also plans to increase monthly output of eco-friendly containers from 4 million units to 24 million. It's a sign that biodegradable plastics appeal to both the eco-conscious and penny-pinchers.

Attention, overseas execs for U.S. multinationals: You may get fewer options. For many years, executives working for U.S. companies on foreign soil got the same option grants as those given to their stateside counterparts -- even though local companies were far less generous. But with option expensing set to start in June, many companies are cutting back by awarding overseas execs smaller grants, in line with local practices.

A new study of 75 multinational corporations by consultancy Towers Perrin found that 39% of them either are trimming their overseas option grants or plan to soon.

U.S. companies clearly have room to maneuver. In Europe, they're setting median option grants at 71% of those in the U.S. In Asia, the goal is 60% of the U.S. level. Generous option grants are clearly a thing of the past.

Reviving Keynes
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