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

journalism

Upset About the Election? Here’s Something You Can Actually Do

aapic

However you feel about the election this past week, it’s unlikely that you’re one of the small group actively taking part in protests against Donald Trump’s election or campaigning to get rid of the Electoral College. It’s silly and fruitless. The Donald chuckles at such impotence.

I’m a journalist, but the sort who keeps his political opinions fairly private. I don’t donate to political campaigns and haven’t registered to vote in primaries. One thing I’m not shy about, though, is standing up to thugs. I’m not calling President Elect Trump one, by the way. He hasn’t even taken the oath of office yet. I can tell you, though, that one thing that actually gets under his skin happens to be the same one that bothers authoritarian heads of state and corrupt businessmen worldwide: a free and vibrant press

In China or Russia or Turkey or Africa that often results in newspapers being shut down or even journalists getting murdered. Here, so far, we have disgusting antisemitic tweets, scary chants at rallies, and a threat by Trump to “open up our libel laws” and sue the media into submission.

Despite all that, the main threat to the American media, and dare I say democracy, is apathy. You’ve probably heard that about 100 million people – far more than those who cast a ballot for either Trump or Clinton – simply didn’t vote. But what about the people who didn’t read a newspaper or support one? The reason so many people you and I know are shocked by Trump’s victory in the face of a mountain of concerns about his past conduct, his personality, and his agenda is that we relied on ethical, trusted sources of information about him.  But, according to Pew, just 21% of people ages 35-44 read a newspaper yesterday, down from 44% in 1999. Just 18% of Hispanics of any age did.

pew

Many people, perhaps including you,  read a newspaper article reached from a link on social media today but didn’t read another article in the same paper. And you probably didn’t pay for it. The total circulation revenue of all U.S. newspapers in 2014 was just $10.9 billion. It’s now just half of the sales of Starbucks. Between 2006 and 2014 the number of people employed in print journalism fell from 55,000 to 32,900. It’s probably below 30,000 now. Just this past week dozens of people in my newsroom lost their jobs and two sections were discontinued while two others were merged. The result is a thinner paper.

Do you subscribe to a newspaper or do you just graze on whatever is free on the Internet? Do you subscribe to more than one? Well here’s something you can do that will drive Donald Trump up the wall. You can do it right now at the expense of giving up a few cappuccinos a month or waiting a little longer to upgrade to that snazzy new iPhone: subscribe to an old-fashioned print newspaper.

Yes, this is what feeds my family, but it isn’t an act of charity and you don’t have to subscribe to The Wall Street Journal. Buy The New York Times or The Washington Post or your local paper. You won’t just be making a political statement.

Reading a print paper instead of zeroing in on the specific article you want to read on your phone or computer leads you to read all sorts of other articles you weren’t looking for but are glad you found. You don’t get that kind of serendipity in your targeted Facebook news feed or even a digital newspaper app. You’re also getting something hand-delivered to your house that’s an amazing daily undertaking put together by people who could be earning more in a different job and who take a lot of infuriating crap doing it. Even though I don’t write about politics, I get all sorts of nasty comments when I write something people don’t like, disparaging me or my profession, putting “journalist” in quotes. We get called the “lying media” and worse. And yes, of course, the result isn’t perfection. But what a newsroom full of journalists produces is a wonder. I think the British critic AA Gill said it best:

Newspapers are the size of long novels.They’re put together from around the globe from sources who want to lie, to manipulate, to sell things, hide things, spin things. Despite threats, injunctions, bullets, jails and non-returned phone calls,journalists do it every single day, from scratch. What’s amazing, what’s utterly staggering, is not the things papers get wrong, it’s just how much they get right.

Come on, make a statement by going retro and reading a paper or two made out of dead trees.

investing · The book

The Warren Buffett Argument

The Wall Street Journal is running a smart series this week, pegged to the 40th anniversary of the first index mutual fund, on the merits of passive investing. The editors asked me if there were any arguments for why active managers, despite their awful relative performance, are worth it. I came up with three arguments, the most convincing of which readers of my book will be familiar with: “Warren Buffett.”

aapic