There aren’t a huge number of constants in the world of finance. First of all, that word, finance, includes a guy sitting in a cube cold-calling retirees while he’s working at Fidelity. It also includes Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, who runs a firm of over 3000 people with (even now) over a trillion dollars of other peoples’ money he’s running. However, there are a few constants. Most of us make a decent living (just so you don’t quit reading, I’m easily in the bottom 25% of this business, I’m a computer programmer at a small fund and they can always threaten to send my job to Bangalore, which the probably would if it weren’t an annoyance to do so). All of us know people who make way, way more money than we do. We’d like to have their jobs. We’re all scared to death we’re going to blowup and go broke.
But what I want to write about today is another one of those rare constants in this business—we all, every one of us, watched CNBC. That might not seem important or interesting, but believe you me it is. I like CNBC for the babes. For a long time Erin Burnett was my favorite. I used to think of Erin a lot, sitting in my cube looking at SQL code on the screen. Here’s her picture. Pretty brunette, lovely blue eyes, went to Williams, which means she’s rich and too stupid to get into Harvard even after three years of Princeton Review classes. On screen she’s the perkier, WASPier, and of course younger version of Maria Bartaromo, the original Italian-as-pesto CNBC ‘money honey’ that most of the over 50 guys in this business think of during stolen moments with the Kleenex box while on the road. My favorite thought about Erin was that I’d be in a club bathroom banging her in a stall, just after we’d both done two fat lines of meth. There she’d be, sweaty and pinned against the wall, knickers around her ankles, with that glazed, euphoric, glassy eyed look that really good speed gives you, and she’d be asking for it faster and harder, while I pulled her hair and my brain smashed into thousands of little meth rock sized pieces. Call me any time Erin, we’ll make it happen.
But as much as that thought makes me happy, the image of me barebacking Erin Burnett in a bathroom isn’t nearly the sickest thing about CNBC. Here’s lesson #1 about investing. If you’re going to make any money you have to have some kind of unusual insight into something, and you’re probably going to have to spend a lot of time doing what other people tell you is stupid. When everyone was piling into Lucent and Global Crossing in 2001, the smart guys who were destined to make money were out buying boring old retailers with business plans and customers, railroads, real estate exposure, and emerging markets. Sure, they didn’t have a good year when the bubble burst, but they didn’t get crushed either, and they weren’t holding companies that were going bankrupt. It is generally accepted, by everyone in this business, that independent, contrary thinking drives good returns. If that’s true, then, the why the fuck to we sit down and listen to the same people say the same things about the same 10 companies all day long? It’s the most hypocritical thing in the world. I suspect most people would see a small improvement in their performance as investors if every morning they took the hour they use to watch Squawk Box and instead read The Cat in the Hat.
But it’s actually far worse than that. It’s not just that CNBC is an exercise in truly counterproductive groupthink, that loses real people real money by listening to what a 26 year old ‘analyst’ from JP Morgan is trying to shove down retail investor throats that day. That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that CNBC has long ceased to be a journalistic enterprise in the traditional sense. Yes, they have reporters and editors and anchors and the various bits of bunting that make it LOOK like a news program. But the traditional job of news, to get out stories of interest to viewers, to find good commentators with competing opinions, to present facts concisely, this is not what they do. CNBC grew up on the internet boom. I remember when it first started out and it looked painfully amateurish, Maria would be reporting before the bell from the trading floor and her standing with the market makers was so low they would regularly bump into her as they went to find someone who actually mattered. With the dawn of the daytrader and the online brokers (who admittedly didn’t screw their customers nearly as much as Merrill did) CNBC became two things. First, a cheerleader for bull markets, and second, a cheerleader for Wall Street.
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