PROFILE: Wall St. Journal puts stock in Eisinger's bearishness

From "Ahead of the Tape" to his present "Long & Short" column in The Wall Street Journal, Jesse Eisinger has carved out a niche as an eminent skeptic in the world of financial journalism.

From "Ahead of the Tape" to his present "Long & Short" column in The Wall Street Journal, Jesse Eisinger has carved out a niche as an eminent skeptic in the world of financial journalism.

When The Wall Street Journal was redesigned in April 2002 - the first overhaul in its 113-year history and the first major makeover since World War II - much of the ample coverage focused on the softening of the somber broadsheet's look and the addition of the consumer-oriented Personal Journal section. For some, the changes heralded a sort of business news apocalypse, a technicolor USA Today-ization of the all-business, six-column, black-and-white front. For others, the newfound attention to things like palette was a welcome nod to the concept of reader-friendliness. Wrote Newsweek of the new muted colors and small boxes of the front page teasing inside content, "It may not yet frolic, but it's sure skipping." Much less fanfare was given to the journalistic changes, one of which was a small feature on the front of the Money & Investing section called "Ahead of the Tape." The column was penned by Jesse Eisinger, who, at the time, was probably known to Journal readers for his work at The Street.com, the snarky financial news website. Eisinger spent a large part of the tech heyday there covering biotech flare-outs until Dow Jones lured him away in 2000 to write a column for the Journal's European edition. Back in the US after two years, Eisinger, just a decade out of college, took up a column described in the publicity build-up for the redesign as a daily forecast of market-moving events or, more ambitiously, a demystification of markets. In just over two years of writing "Ahead of the Tape," Eisinger has done a lot of both, developing a must-read for market-watchers and carving out a reputation as one of the financial journalism world's more prominent skeptics. This month, he leaves "Tape" for a new column called "Long & Short" that will appear on the same page, but just once a week and in a larger space that offers more room for his trademark bearish analyses of markets and trends. It also gives him the chance to conduct more deeply reported examinations of companies and business leaders. Over lunch in the food court in the Dow Jones building, which overlooks Ground Zero, Eisinger is candid about his old column, which he says he won't miss. "Forecasting is a mug's game," he says. "Short-term moves in the stock market are essentially unpredictable." His new venue will take him out of the daily grind and allow more time and space to consider his subject matter. Eisinger cites as influences writers like Michael Kinsley and especially Warren Buffett biographer and former Journal writer Roger Lowenstein, whose "Intrinsic Value" column he sees as a direct inspiration for "Long & Short." As far as topics go, he suggests that his tack will remain contrarian as he runs off a list of potential economic ills, including trade deficits, budget deficits, and consumer-debt levels. "These are things economists aren't worried about. They think they'll mend themselves." Asked where Eisinger's bearishness comes from, a friend, New York Times business reporter Alex Berenson, says, "Jesse thinks a lot of people involved in the markets are not that sharp, which, if you cover them for a long time, is an impression you can take away. There are very few people whom he trusts and listens to, and most of those people are on the short side." To this analysis, Eisinger replies, "I don't think the issue is intelligence. The issue is that there are a lot of intellectually bankrupt people on Wall Street who'll say things they don't believe when they aren't acting like sheep out of fear they will be wrong," he adds. There aren't a lot of venues in journalism that lend themselves to postmortem as much as "Ahead of the Tape," concerned as it is with the immediate future, as opposed to the immediate past, the turf of most newspaper writers. But Eisinger doesn't blanch when asked to talk about what he got wrong, picking a macroeconomic trend he was behind on. "I didn't foresee the big move in the stock market last year and was pretty bearish at the bottom, in the spring period when things were going to hell in the market," he says. "I was getting to the point where I was thinking of getting bullish and turning, but I didn't write it. I didn't foresee that the economy was going to turn around. I didn't believe it. Now, you have to believe the economy is turning around. The question is whether it's turning around enough." Tallying the things he got right, he points to his bullishness of homebuilders, his skepticism about certain GE businesses and Krispy Kreme, and his criticism of the widespread failure to count stock options as expenses. More recently, he points to a column predicting a few medical-device makers' performances down to a T. Even in his misses flows a willingness to question conventional wisdom. One financial communications expert chalks this up to his independence. "Unlike many investment columnists or market observers, Jesse does not rely on third-party sources, such as sell-side analysts or portfolio managers, to bolster his opinions, nor does he serve as their mouthpiece," says Rick Anderson, SVP and partner at Fleishman-Hillard. "He is the genuine article. Most of his research and thoughts are his." Because of the hype-free outlook he brings to markets, it's easy to read into this a doomsday-ish quality to Eisinger, but where you might expect humorlessness and bleakness there is instead self-deprecation and sarcasm, what he calls "my main mode of being." Recalling their days at The Street.com, Berenson agrees. "He was funny, loud, obnoxious, and he had strong opinions. We sat near each other and we'd constantly be fighting about ridiculous issues. He's a gambler and I'm a gambler, and we still gamble a lot." Both Berenson and Eisinger play in a regular poker game with hedge-fund managers. But Eisinger plays down any intellectual connection between a fondness for gambling and a career built in part on writing about risk. "It's not an animating theme for me," he says. "I'm not allowed to own individual stocks, so it's a little outlet for that desire." 2002-2004: Financial columnist for The Wall Street Journal 2000-2002: The Wall Street Journal Europe, "Heard in Europe" columnist 1997-2000: TheStreet.com, senior writer, biotech and pharmaceuticals 1995-1997: Dow Jones Newswires, biotech and pharmaceuticals reporter 1993-1995: Quick Nikkei News, New York, GA reporter 1992-1993: South Pacific Mail, Chile, GA reporter.

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