Five Things I Learned from Carol Loomis Today

Took the advice of Ben Carlson and Felix Salmon and listened to the Longform podcast episode with Carol Loomis. It’s pretty fantastic.

For the uninitiated, Carol Loomis is a lion of financial journalism, having started as one of only two female reporters at Fortune Magazine in the 1950’s. Along the way, Loomis shattered some of the male-dominated traditions of the industry, coined the term “hedge fund”, became the best of friends with Warren Buffett and and earned a lifetime achievement award that only encouraged her to keep going where others might have called it a career. She’s tackled some of the most important stories of each era, notably covering the relative backwater of Wall Street derivatives in the 1990’s when no one understood how important they would become in a subsequent crisis.

When I got my Fortune column last year, Loomis was one of the legends I name-dropped in my enthusiasm for the new gig.

The journalist trekked out to Brooklyn in early August to tell her story to Longform and it was quite a discussion. Some of the things I learned from listening:

1. Back the right horse – Carol Loomis was instantly impressed by Warren Buffett upon their first meeting at a lunch in New York and, from there, a friendship sprang up that would last fifty years. Loomis covered Warren, despite the potential conflict of interest and even ended up editing his letters to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders each year. Her take is that she knew early on that this was a potential conflict worth maintaining. She bought shares of Berkshire shortly after their meeting and always made it a point to disclose this in her stories. That friendship paid off in spades over the ensuing decades, not to mention the benefits of buying Berkshire stock at 18 bucks per share!

2. Don’t fear the unknown – the Fortune system didn’t involve specific beats for reporters. Stories were assigned and writers were sent out with next to no information in some cases. Loomis credits this system for her ability to learn fast and ask a ton of worthwhile questions.

3. Get the complete picture – One piece of advice Loomis learned from another reporter could be very useful for investors: Don’t stop asking questions until you begin to hear the same thing over and over again. Until then, you probably don’t have all sides of a given story nailed down. Think about the applicability of this idea to the due diligence process investors must go through.

4. Stand up for yourself, no matter what – Carol Loomis had to slap a male reporter who made a pass at her while in the office in the 1960’s (shades of Mad Men-era harrassment). She had to battle the sexist Economic Club of New York to get an invite to an important event that involved a story she was covering. And when that same club came calling to offer her a membership, she turned them down. Self-respect opens doors for you when you put it on display. It takes more courage than “going along to get along”, but it also sends the message that you’re serious and not to be trifled with.

5. Balance your cynicism with optimism – okay, this is one that I relearned (see: Optimism as a Default Setting). I try to remind myself of this all the time. Cynicism is probably best replaced with a healthy skepticism. But for investors to go through each day looking for the end of the world and imagining that everything is a scam is probably not a great posture. Loomis admits that she is, ultimately, an optimism. And why wouldn’t she be? During her tenure at America’s premier money and investing magazine, she’s witnessed a 36,000% gain in the S&P 500 with dividends reinvested! The S&P 500 began 1955 at 35.60 and closed 2014 – the year Loomis officially retired – at over 2000! Empires and industries have risen and fallen, and yet American-style capitalism has endured.

The entire hour-long podcast is a real treat. Find some time to give it a listen:

Longform Podcast #152: Carol Loomis

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