Alan Abelson died on Wednesday May 8th at the age of 87. As a writer, columnist and editor for 57 years, Abelson became the signature voice of Barron's, a highly influential business and financial magazine in the US. We belong to the Alan Abelson generation. Please allow me to explain.
Abelson's Barron's: Its Formative Influence On A Young Man
In the early 1990s, I was a young man dreaming of a career in the investment management industry and I threw myself passionately into learning everything I could about financial markets. In the pre-internet age, for those of us with no access to Wall Street research, perhaps the richest single accessible source of up-to-date financial information and opinion was Barron's weekly magazine.
For a student with no money, Barron's newsstand price of $3.50 could be little daunting. Indeed, to a small-town southern-raised boy that had never even heard of Barron's growing up, the magazine looked, felt and seemed to be priced like a rich Yankee's luxury. To this very day, I can vividly recall suffering from guilt each time I bought a copy.
Despite these very real pangs, I would religiously get up early in the morning each Saturday and make a beeline through New England's rain, wind, sleet, ice and snow in order to snag a copy. The twenty-minute walk from my dorm room was filled with excited anticipation; my sensations were those of a child on Christmas morning -- and the Harvard Square newsstand was my tree. After obtaining my copy and tucking it under my shirt and coat to protect it from the elements, I head straight back to the dorm and would literally devour Barron's from cover to cover. In addition to scrutinizing every single article, I would imbibe every data point provided in the Market Week statistics section. Indeed, the whole process of systematically combing through the weekly issue of Barron's became kind of devotional ritual for me in which, for about six to eight hours, I would indulge in an informational feast that nourished my hopes and dreams of a future in the investment industry.
Alan Abelson's "Up And Down Wall Street": Dessert
During this great Saturday feast, there was always a great tension that built up within me: It involved the decision about precisely when to read Alan Abelson's "Up and Down Wall Street." It was the sort of dilemma that confronts a child when simultaneously served his meal and a chocolate chip cookie.
Reading Alan Abelson's signature column was a pleasure so exquisite to me that I would often put it off until the very end of my Barron's feast -- sort of the way a child will sometimes save the most delicious morsel of a scrumptious dessert until the very last bite. Other times, I simply could not resist the urge, and would read the column as soon as I opened the magazine. At other times, I would exercise my capacity for self-denial in a strategic manner and would resolve to read the column half-way through the feast, just to spice up the whole experience.
But, always, I read Alan Abelson's column two, three or four times.
For Alan Abelson's writing defied the logic that says, you can't have your cake and eat it too. It was a dessert that just kept on delighting.
What Made Alan Abelson's Writing So Special
I have another confession to make regarding the writings of Alan Abelson: I cannot today remember a single specific stock recommendation or market-timing call that he made. It matters not in the least what his recommendations were regarding the Dow Jones Industrial Average or Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) or Citigroup (NYSE:C). His influence on myself, and an entire generation, was deep -- not so much for what he said, but because of the spirit with which he said it, and the way in which he said it.
The first distinguishing characteristic of Alan Abelson's writing was the spirit of skepticism that oozed from it. Abelson supplied an entire generation of financial professionals and individual investors with this critical attitudinal antidote to the eternal hope and greed that Wall Street sharks feed off of. Whether it was the latest "new era" or the next can't-miss stock, with his keen sense of history, incisive analysis and ultra-sharp wit, Abelson was there every Saturday to remind us that there was (rarely) anything truly new under the sun; only nouveau fools to be parted from their money.
The second distinguishing characteristic of Abelson's writing was his inimitable literary style. The way Alan Abelson conveyed ideas was even more important than what he said because his delivery what made the idea stick in your mind. His style was pure genius. Dead seriousness of purpose was punctuated by intermittent hilarity, all executed through a combination of a brilliantly sequenced idea flow and a rhythmic prose cadence -- all of it calculated to extract maximum intellectual and emotional impact.
Alan Abelson was a modern day Voltaire - as much a gadfly to America's Wall Street as the Frenchman had been to the Catholic Church of his day. And I dare say that as an English-language literary stylist, Abelson had few peers in any literary genre during the second half of the twentieth century.
Alan Abelson's Legacy
I believe Alan Abelson has left two very considerable legacies that are underappreciated.
First, some might be tempted to argue that Abelson's legacy was to have been a "perma-bear" journalist that caused many investors to forego profits that they otherwise would have obtained if they had not been so impacted by Abelson's inveterate skepticism. Such a view would be very petty as his great legacy cannot possibly be accounted for by adding and subtracting basis points from the performance of a benchmark index such as the S&P 500 or an index ETF such as S&P 500 SPDR (NYSEARCA:SPY).
Alan Abelson was our generation's financial Elijah whose spirit and style made a deep mark on our conscience. And financial markets, which have an alarming tendency to spawn bubbles, were safeguarded as a result. Indeed, I would go so far to argue that if Alan Abelson had not made such a deep impression on an entire generation of budding financial professionals, the history of financial markets in the 46 years that he wrote "Up and Down Wall Street" would have been filled with more destabilizing booms and busts -- e.g. the Nasdaq (NASDAQ:QQQ) of the late 1990s or SPDR Gold Shares (NYSEARCA:GLD) in the early 2010s -- than was ultimately the case.
Alan Abelson's other notable legacy was as the godfather of the modern-day financial blog, a genre that has forever changed the global financial landscape. Today, whether they are aware of it or not, thousands of bloggers on economic and financial topics are trying to do what Alan Abelson accomplished every Saturday for 46 years through "Up and Down Wall Street." Consciously or unconsciously, Abelson's column lingers in our minds as the impossible standard against which all financial blog entries are judged.
Abelson's Generosity: A Personal Note
Before finishing my second year in law school, I was looking for a summer job in the investment business. I had knocked on every conceivable door, and they had all been slammed shut. Desperate to make something happen any which way I could, I wrote a letter to Alan Abelson naively relating to him that I was a world traveler and independent trader and asked him if he could provide me with Jim Roger's address (he had recently featured some quotes by Rogers in a column) so I could inquire about a summer internship with the world famous "investment biker". I sent the letter to Abelson believing that there was less than a 1% chance that he would reply - about the same chance, by the way, that I assigned to any firm choosing a Harvard Law School student over elite business school students for a job interview. To my great surprise, I received a reply from the great Alan Abelson himself, in which he relayed to me a message sent by Jim Rogers.
This simple act of generosity on the part of Mr. Abelson is a detail that I have carried around with me forever. Every time I have had an opportunity to pay it forward, I have. In this way, Alan Abelson's legacy carries on.
I have a final confession to make: I stopped reading Abelson's column in Barron's when I got my first full-time job on Wall Street 16 years ago, and I have never read it since. I am not really sure exactly why that is. Perhaps, it was my access to the vast resources available at a major investment firm. Perhaps it was that I vaguely intuited that Abelson's brilliant prose was too brilliant to enable me to appreciate truth in a certain dimension. Maybe it was for the same reason that I have never been able bring myself to go back to my childhood church to listen to the fire and brimstone preacher that had such a profound influence on me during my youth, and to whom I am forever grateful. I'm not sure.
What I do know is this: Alan Abelson never left me. And I am absolutely certain that if prompted to reflect, many financial professionals will relate personal stories very similar to the ones I have shared here regarding the lasting impression Abelson made on them.
Because of his enormous influence on the spirit and culture of American finance, any US investor or financial professional that got his start prior to the turn of the millennium is a member of the Alan Abelson generation.
Thank you, Mr. Abelson. Rest in peace.