Jonathan Weil: Cupcake capitalism offers hope if you can sell at the right time

By Jonathan Weil

Bloomberg News

Published: Friday, Jan. 14 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

The first thing every prospective investor should know about Crumbs Holdings LLC, which operates 34 cupcake shops, is that there was an error in the first sentence of its Jan. 10 press release announcing the New York retailer's planned public listing on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Crumbs called itself the "creator of the gourmet cupcake." The claim is false. Crumbs didn't create the gourmet cupcake. I did, or at least that's how I choose to remember it.

It was a glorious Sunday morning in October 1976. I was six years old. My mom helped me follow the instructions on a box of Duncan Hines cake mix. I added Frosted Flakes to the icing, spread the sugary goo on top of my creations, and dubbed them Jonny's Chocolate Crunchcakes. They were Gr-r-reat!

Crumbs executives say they plan to expand to 200 locations within four years, a sixfold increase. They'll have no need for a traditional initial public offering, though. Crumbs plans to do a reverse merger with a publicly traded shell company called 57th Street General Acquisition Corp.

It's easy to dismiss the cupcake craze's arrival on Wall Street as just another indicator of a world gone mad, because it is. Yet there's a serious point here, too. This may be one of the most hopeful signs in a long time that the economic boom-to-bust cycle may be returning to boom again.

Think about it. Would a chain of stores selling outsourced $4.50 cupcakes have stood a chance at luring stock-market investors three years ago, when the banking crisis was driving the world into a global recession? No way. Yet now the red velvet carpet is out for the likes of Crumbs Bake Shop. The opportunities for other entrepreneurs seem endless.

Before long, sophisticated investors may once again line up to throw money at sure-fire concepts like iron-on T-shirts and collectible plush toys. This must be good news, whether you're a central banker or a maxed-out office worker buying a caramel apple on credit. It's evidence that our global economic leaders' master plan is working. That would be to spend our way out of the last bubble's wreckage with money we don't have, until we can create a new bubble to wealth-effect our troubles away.

To be sure, the news from Crumbs doesn't signal an actual bubble, only the promise of one. But it does tempt us to consider that there may be real bubbles, even monstrous ones, soon. To accomplish this, we'll need the titans of industry and finance to remain united in pressing for the common good. And there's positive news on this front.

This week Barclays Plc's chief executive, Robert Diamond, told British parliamentarians it's time for banks to stop apologizing and start rebuilding confidence. "There was a period of remorse and apology for banks. That period needs to be over," he told a House of Commons committee in London.

When this period of remorse supposedly occurred, I'm not sure. What matters, though, is that the world now appears to be coming around to Diamond's way of thinking, which is that we must all agree to be confident.

Similarly, last week President Barack Obama picked a top JPMorgan Chase & Co. banker and former Fannie Mae board member, William Daley, to be his new chief of staff. Amazingly, hardly anyone complained. It seems Americans are too busy trying to figure out how to buy pre-IPO shares of Facebook and Twitter. Distrust of Wall Street is so 2009.

You also can see the seeds of this new era in our corporate leaders' math. The same day Crumbs said it would go public, Groupon Inc., which claims to have been called "the fastest growing company ever" by Forbes magazine, issued a press release under this headline: "Groupon Raises, Like, A Billion Dollars." Actually the amount was $950 million. But we can all agree that a billion grabs more attention.

All of which shows there's hope for the world's economy to return quickly to rapid growth, as long as we work together to figure out how we can get in all these new bubbles and sell at just the right time, before everyone else figures out when that is. Then we can be rich again. That is, until the next bust, by which time we'll have moved on to even bigger booms.

All we have to do is believe.

Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg News columnist.

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