Columns

Let’s Call it ‘Miracle Gas’

I’ll admit that when I heard U.S. official call natural gas exports ‘molecules of freedom,” I thought it was pretty stupid. But a little research shows that the fuel has inspired people for millennia.

There is something in the air these days in Washington: methane with a smattering of higher alkanes and perhaps a little hydrogen sulfide.
Booming U.S. natural-gas production has put a swagger in the step of government officials now that the fuel is being exported around the world in liquefied form. Some see it as a political lever for democracy as much as an economic boon. The U.S. undersecretary of energy sparked much hilarity this week when he referred to the fuel as “freedom gas”—a moniker that reminded many of Iraq war era “freedom fries.”

But natural gas, once called “fossil gas,” was inspiring people way before the fracking boom. Historians surmise that a lightning strike on Mount Parnassus, where it may have seeped from the ground, created the flame that inspired the Oracle of Delphi. Some attribute the burning bush that Moses encountered in the wilderness to a similar phenomenon and also pillars of fire that played a role in Persia’s ancient religion.

Millennia later, then, why shouldn’t the miraculous boom in U.S. gas output, with all its ramifications, inspire some flowery language?

WSJ.com 5/20/2019
Columns · investing · journalism

In a galaxy far, far, away

The column I edit, Heard on the Street, has to find one mildly ridiculous business story for each issue of the paper, in addition to all the serious, analytical stuff. This usually isn’t a challenge, though there are occasional droughts when we have to dig deep.

Thank goodness for people like Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com. He is a gift to seekers of corporate hilarity and I was a bit mean to him today.


Patrick Byrne felt a great disturbance among his shareholders, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out for an explanation. This compelled the chief executive officer of Overstock.com to write one of the more bizarre news releases in recent memory about his reasons for selling 900,000 “founder’s shares” of the retailer.
“Frankly, I had no idea that shareholders would demand explanations of why and how I might want to use my cash derived from my labor and my property to pursue my ends in life,” he wrote.
Mr. Byrne detailed a number of personal projects, including charitable causes, for which he needed the cash. Even after all these years, he is most famous for a different rant about an alleged conspiracy to damage Overstock’s share price involving a “Sith Lord.” Mr. Byrne backed efforts to expose and punish allegedly manipulative short sellers.


Despite some spikes in the share price, the short sellers were basically right. Since the 2005 “Sith Lord” speech, the stock has dropped by 77% compared with a 133% gain for the S&P 500.
Perhaps Mr. Byrne should have directed more energy to running the company. Do or do not. There is no try.

Columns · investing · journalism

Making Monkeys out of Hedge Fund Stars

The darts don’t lie

So we decided a year ago to poke some fun at the masters of the universe who unveil their stock picks each year at the Sohn Investment Conference . My team and I decided to throw darts at stock listings and see how things panned out. It was a blowout.


No animals were harmed in this financial experiment, but some human egos were bruised.
Burton Malkiel famously wrote in “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” that “a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by the experts.” A year ago the journalists at Heard on the Street decided to see if they could beat the crème de la crème—fund managers presenting their stock picks at the annual Sohn Conference in New York.
The results were brutal. Heard columnists, not monkeys, threw the darts at newspaper stock listings, but Mr. Malkiel would still approve. The columnists’ eight long and two short picks beat the pros’ selections by a stinging 27 percentage points in the year through April 22. Only 3 of 12 of the Sohn picks even outperformed the S&P 500.

journalism · The book

Mueller Needs a Literary Agent

I published my book without the benefit of a literary agent (long story), but going through the process without one made me appreciate what one can do for you, even if I got in the door at Penguin/RandomHouse on my own. This week I asked in an Overheard column how much money Robert Mueller could have earned if he had the rights to his free-to-read report on President Trump and his associates. Various versions were the number one, two, and four sellers on Amazon as of Monday morning.


If Robert Mueller was like most authors, he would be pingingAmazon.com ’s website hourly to track the popularity of his eponymous report. He also would be jumping for joy. As of Monday morning, various versions of the partially redacted text occupied the first, second and fourth slots among all books.

Of course, unlike the opportunistic publishers charging money for the 448-page tome, which can be read for free online, Mr. Mueller won’t be receiving royalties on his best seller. The fortunes of the various versions, available for preorder for as much as $26.89 in hardcover and $10.22 in paperback, speak volumes, though.
No. 2 in sales overall is a version containing a foreword by legal scholar and sometimes Donald Trump defender Alan Dershowitz. Despite costing a dollar more, readers seem to prefer a copy less flattering to the president featuring analysis by three Washington Post journalists.

From the Overheard column, April 22, 2019
journalism

Some personal news …

The following memo went out today at The Wall Street Journal from finance editor Charles Forelle.

I’m delighted to announce that Spencer Jakab is the new editor of Heard on the Street.
Spencer is a rock of the Journal’s financial commentary. He has been deputy editor of Heard since 2015, and he wrote the Ahead of the Tape column for years before that. His knowledge of companies, markets and financial instruments is encyclopedic. (By my Factiva count, Spencer did nearly 800 Tapes in about 45 months; good luck finding a topic in our universe he hasn’t touched.) He is an incisive financial thinker who embodies the Heard’s spirit of smart, provocative and timely analysis. He also writes killer ledes. He’s the ideal leader for our expansion of the Heard.
Before the Journal, Spencer worked at the Financial Times and here at Dow Jones Newswires, and was a stock analyst at Credit Suisse. He is the author of “Heads I Win, Tails I Win,” which is, naturally, a book about investing.
Spencer’s move means we are looking for a new Heard deputy. Please get in touch with him if you are interested. And please join me in warmly congratulating Spencer. I believe he’llbecelebratingatOlive Garden.
-Charles

Columns

GE Brings Bad Things to Light


PHOTO: YURIKO NAKAO/BLOOMBERG NEWS

If nothing else, General Electric Chief Executive Officer Larry Culp has a keen grasp of investor psychology. A little more than a week after he let slip at a conference that industrial free cash flow at the troubled conglomerate would be negative this year, he attached specific, ugly numbers to that expectation in a Thursday morning investor update. GE shares rose sharply anyway as the glimmers of hope and specific action Mr. Culp outlined lifted spirits.

(Read the rest of this column in the WSJ).