Friday, March 13, 2009

This Is Not a F- - -ing Game

On Minyanville:

"I understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but it's not a f - - - ing game."

- Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, to Jim Cramer

Indeed. We live in strange times. Collectively, our national intoxication with all things finance runs fierce and deep. From moment to moment, no one really knows whether to laugh, cry, or do both at the same time. And so the air on the street is juiced with a mildly psychotic hum. Being a native Kentuckian, I enjoy it, but not everyone is built to handle this kind of environment. The stress can be too much.

How did things ever degenerate to the point where it seemed either appropriate, or even mildly entertaining, to turn finance into a game show like Jim Cramer's Mad Money?

We'll get to that. But first, let's clear something up about what's really going on in the Jon Stewart vs. CNBC battle, which CNBC cleverly turned into the Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer battle.

This is not about Jim Cramer.

It never was. It's about the perceived responsibility financial media has to report and discuss financial issues that may be unpopular. Popularity is a sore point for television networks - for all media, really. There's no "build-it-and-they-will-come" playbook for keeping the lights on and paying the bills. One thing we've learned while trying to build a financial media platform at Minyanville: Advertisers don't like it when you say negative things about them.

Several months ago, Washington Mutual pulled an advertising campaign from us after we published a story saying the former banking giant was dangerously close to tipping over the edge and collapsing. Then, they tipped over the edge and collapsed.

But back to Cramer.

There comes a point in every junkie's descent when the tentative restraint of self-consciousness and self-image loosens up just enough to let the freak out. For most of us, once that line is crossed, there's no going back, ever.

Naturally, no one knows when that moment will arrive. Indeed, the unpredictability of it is what lends the trip down the chute from recreational abuser to full-on foaming-at-the-mouth dope-fiend its delusional aura of impossibility; the conviction that It Just Won't Happen to Me.

For Jim Cramer, that moment came last night on The Daily Show.

It's conventional wisdom that you can't go off half-cocked calling famous people like Jim Cramer a metaphorical junkie and freak without some kind of substantiation and context. In the old days, people were beaten and thrown in jail for far less.

But this is the Age of Self-Evidence. Waist-deep as we are in facts based on theories and weird anti-truths assembled from half-baked rumors and innuendo bubbling up from Wall Street, what's a little more kindling on the fire?

In the metaphorical land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And up until the credit bubble burst and collapsed, Jim Cramer was that one-eyed king.

Nevertheless, as Cramer pointed out to Stewart, "there's a market" for what he does. Indeed. The numbers don't lie. This is, after all, the Age of Self Evidence. Don't even think about attempting to verify the facts behind that assertion, friend. It's as right as rain and as true as a tree stump. It is... self-evident. And the louder it's repeated, the more self-evident it becomes. But the thing about markets is they have a tendency to move, drift, occasionally disappear.

"It's not often that you will hear a goat bleating for no apparent reason, and if you do, it most often signals that something is wrong. Act immediately!"

I took those 2 sentences directly from, and they're worthy of being stone-carved keepers.

The song of the goat. Most Americans have never heard it, and make no mistake: It's not so much a sound as a feeling - the stomach-twisting churn of the bleating goat. So naturally, they have no idea what to do when it arrives.

The Ancient Greeks knew, and feared, the song of the goat. And they had the good sense to capitalize on that knowledge and fear by creating an entire industry around it, one that would make Hollywood's vilest cretins and debauchers scream in horror and moral outrage.

I'm talking about Dionysian satyrs, half-man, half-goat mutants, engaged in frenzied orgiastic rituals, the very foundation of which the Greeks turned into theatrical spectacles they could sell tickets to: tragôidiâ, tragedy; translated literally, the song of the goat. Just like modern finance. Just like CNBC. Just like Mad Money.

That's a weird diversion. But keep in mind that we're talking about the demise of financial gurus. The Ancient Greeks were experts at dealing with this kind of thing; in their day, people paid good money to watch as oracular prophets made weird, dire predictions that usually came true. Looking back at the ancients from our perch today, this enterprise of staging truth-telling performances in exchange for money seems almost quaint.

Wait, just who are you people, anyway? We get that a lot. The reason people have never heard of Minyanville is that, unlike most mainstream financial media, we are quietly trying to go about the business of making finance intelligble to people while cutting through the public-relations bullshit that comprises, and compromises, the majority of financial reporting today.

There are no short cuts. Financial decision-making is hard. It's not a game show. There are things we can laugh at, but at the end of the day the goal is education and empowerment.

So while others in the mainstream financial media have been busy placating CEOs and making nice in order to have access, we've spent our time warning of the structural imbalances building behind the scenes.

Sometimes access is overrated.

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