Thursday, May 26, 2011

Joe Battipaglia: In Memorium

I just learned of the unfortunate passing of Joe He passed away in mid-April, from a heart attack. Joe was beloved in the financial community and the odds are good that if you were at all a regular watcher of financial shows over the past decade you probably saw him on TV.

He always made his case vigorously, but I can't remember even one time I saw him yell at or belittle anyone on one of those shows. His facts spoke for themselves.

Doing a little research online I have since learned a good deal more about Joe. He was a remarkable person in many ways. According to his CNBC guest bio he "was the son of a sanitation worker, grew up in Queens, only child, first in family to attend college. Graduate, Phi Beta Kappa, economics, Boston College, 1976. Played rugby, lacrosse. MBA from Wharton, 1978. Market strategist (private client group) at Stifel Nicolaus, began career as analyst at Exxon and Elkins & Co. Joined Gruntal & Co., where he spent 18 years. Chaired investment policy at Ryan, Beck & Co. Former trustee of the Securities Industry Institute ... Married 1980, wife Mary Ann. Sons Matthew (Dartmouth) and Jeff (U.S. Naval Academy) played college football; also has daughter, Christen. Helped get employees out of One Liberty Plaza, across from WTC, on 9/11. Frequent guest of Larry Kudlow, Fox Business. Suffered heart attack in Georgia, where he had gone to speak at investors luncheon. Recalled in memoriam as "gentle giant," "very generous guy."'

That's a lot for any person, especially one who went so young, 55. He was also 6'7" and 300 pounds. He cut an imposing figure, I suppose.

I knew him personally, not well, I need to add. But I did know him. When we were starting Intelligent Investing at three years ago there was this idea that we would have an "Investor Team" of financial wizards and superstars that we would use in regular rotation for our stories. Build a repertoire of experts, in a way.

The only problem was we had no real experts or stars. I didn't know where to exactly begin recruiting such a team, either. But the fact was, we needed some names, it was what the entire thing kind of was premised upon.

Somehow Joe Battipaglia's name came up. He was extremely well known among those who follow the markets. Maybe not known to everyone on the street, but definitely known to everyone on The Street.

We had little time to lose. We had to begin cranking out stories, and still did not really have our experts. I had a fairly lengthy list of people who hadn't called me back when I asked for their help. The list of those who would help, though, was much, much smaller.

So I, out of the blue, called Joe. I didn't know him. He sure did not know me. Having seen him on TV I was, to be truthful, a bit intimidated. I expected to leave a message and never hear from him again, as had already happened so many times.

Instead, to my surprise, I got him on the phone. I told him about what we were doing, or trying to do, and who I was. I said the word "Forbes" as much as I could to give myself some credibility by association.

After about 25 seconds of my spiel Joe said he would do it. Suddenly, I had a source for one of our inaugural stories, and a big one at that. I believe it was about the future price of oil a hot topic, then as now. I nervously took notes, and he slowly went over every point a few times, patiently. His voice was a rumbling basso profundo, but easy to understand. All in all I interviewed him for maybe 10 minutes that day, but he gave me a lot to work with. I was profoundly grateful.

Because he has so impressed me with his generosity of time and spirit I made sure to call him back before the final draft went online. I went over each of his points, making sure I had the facts just right. Believe me, this can be a dicey time. Sources can often get shockingly prickly when you read back to them what they actually said to you. Joe merely listened patiently, made a few additional supporting points, to make sure I really understood it, and then when it was over said something like "yeah, I think you got it."

The story ran, and we were on our way with a great new channel on the website.

The truth is I think I maybe interviewed Joe one additional time after that. He was busy, always going to conferences. I could often get him on the phone, though, even if he was just telling me no. "You know Dave, I would really love to, but things have just been so crazy here. But please keep me in mind for next time."

I did, and even if he kept not being able to do it I always left those little phone chats feeling pretty good. Here he was, a big man, in his field, in so many ways, but he always had the time to at least take the call.

I never met Joe in person. I think I told him that if I ever came down to Philly I would like to say hi. He agreed, if I am remembering correctly, that that would be nice.

I can't claim some great friendship with him, that would not be honest. But he was a friend to me, a stranger, when I really needed it. He was a good person, a very smart Wall Street analyst, and I am very sorry to learn that he is no longer with us.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The REAL difference between New York and Kentucky

A year ago, while we still lived in New York, I took a job as an editor for a start-up financial newsletter. It was run by a very successful investor and former hedge fund manager I had originally met through Forbes. He was a dynamic person, and lots of fun to be around and I was happy for the job. It was hard work, and I wasn't necessarily a perfect fit for what he wanted, it turned out, but I gave it my best.

In the end he needed someone who was far more of an investment guru than I was, with more ability to break down balance sheets in order to unlock the true potential of stocks. I had little knowledge about this process. My picks tended to be pretty predictable, and not all that exciting.

Not that I was wrong all the time, I wasn't. I read through the reports they already had on file and said that Apple, for example, was a "buy" at $260, it's now at $335. The iPad was brand new and all the analysis I read pointed to it potentially being a smash product on the order of the iPhone, although many poo-pooed that notion a year ago. Worth remembering: the iPhone was also poo-pooed when it came out. I saw parallels. Honestly, Apple still might be a buy, as it's price-to-earnings ratio is only 15, but I digress. (Another digression: it's extremely hard to consistently beat the market over time.)

Whatever, I didn't buy Apple that day, because I'm really not comfortable investing any real money into individual stocks. I guess that's why I'm not already retired in the Caribbean sipping daiquiris, like Dan Ackroyd at the end of Trading Places.

And none of these points are why I'm writing this anyway.

One day my new boss took me out to lunch at a local Pannera. He generously offered to pay for my soup and salad, as well as his own. This being New York these came out to something like $25, by the way. But pay it he did, which I really appreciated.

When he paid, I noticed, he did it with an American Express card. Then I looked still more closely. It wasn't just any American Express card, it was The American Express Black Card.

Something clicked in my memory. The Black Card, I thought, isn't that what, like, Jay-Z uses?

In other words, it is for the truly big money.

That night, out of curiosity, I looked up all I could find about The Black Card. It turns out to have an interesting story. The Black Card (the real name of which is actually The Centurion Card, but no one calls it that) was actually a myth before it was a product. Once upon a time the highest, most-prestigious Amex card you could get was the Platinum card. Which is plenty prestigious, believe me.

Still, the world being what it is, the Universe's various Masters started to say they had heard tell of still another card, that was even more rare, and exclusive. The Black Card. You couldn't ask for it, they could only give it to you. If they felt like it. Maybe.

But at this point there was no Black Card, it was just a neurotic fantasy playing out in the minds of pampered heiresses and Wall Street hard-ons in order for them, somehow, to still feel inferior.

Of course American Express eventually got wind of this. I imagine when they first heard the story their top execs probably laughed their asses off and then, in mid-laugh, became dead serious. Holy crap!, they almost certainly shouted, we've got to introduce this Black Card! The marketing has already been done for us, by the most powerful people in the world! Then they went back to laughing their asses off and eating money sandwiches.

And so the Black Card was released. In a canny move Amex kept it invitation only. Today you can only be invited to get a Black Card if you already own a Platinum Card, are crazy rich, have great credit and, presumably, spend just wheelbarrows full of money all the time.

So, THAT was the card my new boss used to pay for our lunch at Pannera, that day, a year ago.

Man, I thought, this dude is seriously loaded. Which I already kind of knew anyway, but this proved it.

Not long after that I overheard a conversation in the office whereby my boss talked about how he had to pick up his laundry, either within the building or perhaps through delivery. He didn't have the ability to do laundry in his, presumably, posh, possibly penthouse-level, apartment.

Fast forward one year later. We live in Louisville, Kentucky. We do not have a Black, Platinum, Gold or even Green Amex Card. Yet we do have a clothes washer and dryer in our apartment, unlike my old boss. That we have this is considered so unremarkable no one ever remarks upon it. We spend a grand total of $905 a month in rent, which is high for here.

And THAT is the real difference between New York and Kentucky.