There’s a longer version of this story I’ve told before but here’s the short version, on the tenth anniversary of the Great Financial Crisis…
As a retail broker trying to understand what was going on during 2007-2009, there was really no source of information that I could count on. Wall Street was lying, the mainstream media wasn’t adept at explaining (or even understanding) markets and economics and almost everything hitting the tape was some combination of rumor, innuendo, political subterfuge or deliberate obfuscation.
There were only a handful of people who truly understood what was happening early in the real estate and credit boom, and so were in a position to document the turn accurately and intelligibly. Of those people, only a very select few had no bias whatsoever – no positions on, no think tank affiliation, no risk of being fired by a big bank, no employment within a media company catering to Wall Street advertisers, no professional axe to grind.
And of this select few, the very best writer and humorist and skilled commentator and relentless documenter of that moment in time ten years ago was named Barry Ritholtz. His blog, The Big Picture, was literally Ground Zero for every single important development, link, opinion and fact about the Great Financial Crisis as it unfolded.
Barry had been railing about lax oversight, reckless investment and the cavernous gap between income growth and home price appreciation for years before things had gotten rolling in the summer of 2007. His opinions were informed by data and almost everything he said was backed up by a chart or a table he’d post to bolster his views. He had political opinions, investment opinions and economic opinions. He fought for them when challenged and issued mea culpas if they’d subsequently been proven wrong. He linked to everyone and everything of value, seven days a week. This while simultaneously making weekly CNBC appearances on Squawk Box and the Larry Kudlow show, often being the lone realist on the panels, not to mention working on his first book, the bestselling Bailout Nation.
Over the course of the next few years, Barry’s blog (and the information it led to me consuming) became my most important teacher in business and in life. I had never met him, but because of the genuine and engaging way in which he wrote and presented ideas, I felt like I knew him. He’s had thousands of readers tell him that very same thing over the years. You don’t have to agree with Barry’s opinions, but you cannot deny the authenticity with which he shares them.
A Memo Found in the Street from September 2008 just after Lehman’s swan dive or The Office of Thrift Supervision is Asshat Central from that December for a taste of how little he gave a shit about propriety or tradition – for Barry it was all about telling it like it is.
Watching him each night as he thrashed ideologues like Don Luskin and others, who mixed politics and investing for a living, was one of the great joys of the period. Clips like this one should be strung together for a documentary:
Add to this – and of course I am biased here – there is not a single person who comes to mind who had been just as right about the crash coming as they were about the potential for the recovery.
Lots of people foresaw the crash but remained bearish even after it came, in some cases growing even more bearish after the bottom. Barry is the only bearish pundit of that era I can think of – and please tell me if I’m wrong – who changed his mind in 2009 and has never wavered since. He got constructive. He accepted the possibility that maybe things had gotten bad enough and that it would be a good time to buy. The rest of the bears were like the kid who makes an ugly face for too long and it stays that way. It wasn’t easy to have earned worldwide renown for being gloomy and then to shed the very fur that had made your reputation. But he did it, and I don’t think anyone else did. Okay, maybe also Bill McBride at Calculated Risk, but that’s about it.
Barry never asks for credit for this, and he is the first to tell people he probably couldn’t do it again.
In 2010, I was invited out to hang with Howard Lindzon’s gang of fintech entrepreneurs and markets aficionados out in Coronado Island. I was broke, with a four year old daughter and a son turning one, a career in retail brokerage that I was deliberately winding down while trying to find an investment advisory role to pivot toward. I had to borrow the money to make the flight out to San Diego and stay at the Del. But I knew I needed to take a risk and meet some of the other financial bloggers I was now networking with online.
I met Barry the first morning of Lindzonpalooza. It was unseasonably cold so the early birds at the pool that morning were in sweatshirts and towels, huddling on chaise lounges waiting for the sun to break over the Peninsular mountain range. I sat down and we told each other the abbreviated version of respective stories. A crow was picking at Barry’s french fries because once he started talking, he never stopped. We’re still somewhere in the middle of that same conversation we began eight years ago. Barry never ends a discussion, he just joins the last one to a new one with a simple “By the way…” or “Stop and think about it…”
Within a few weeks of meeting my blogging idol, I was moving over from a collapsing broker-dealer and into his research firm’s nascent RIA subsidiary. Within a year, we would be taking on clients together – the behavioral investing maven and the former stock broker, fifty fifty – with the sole intent of putting Barry’s decades of experience into practice on behalf of his fans and readers. Almost a billion dollars later and we’re still at it, albeit with a major upgrade in research capabilities, portfolio management, financial planning, administrative support, client interface and breadth of advisory services.
Reading Barry during the financial crisis ten years ago saved my sanity and taught me the right way to think critically, the right way to digest information and focus on, pun intended, The Big Picture. Working with Barry after the financial crisis gave me a career, a path through the industry that I could be proud of, a real sense of purpose after a decade of meaninglessly slinging stocks.
I tell people that the Great Financial Crisis, while painful at the time, was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to take a harsh view at the way I had been working with clients and their investments. It drove me to learn about dozens of subjects I’d never before considered important. It pushed me from the comfortable to the uncomfortable, and demanded that I take a big risk (in hindsight, changing nothing would have been the even bigger risk).
But most importantly, the crisis introduced me to it’s most dexterous and faithful archiver, Barry Ritholtz. And although it was hard for many to see – myself included – things were looking up from there on out.