Couldn't sleep. Blew the NewsHour gig on PBS. Furious at myself. It's 2:30 in the morning, and I keep playing it over and over in my head. Just get out of bed and write it down, write the thoughts down, explain it to the people who read you every day, explain how hard it is on national television to not be a bear, to not be negative, to not cast aspersions on a market that you know and love and can and do beat. Explain it; they get it. They aren't limited to the seven minutes of soundbite. They understand the torture you feel when you have to reduce the market to the "Greater Fool Theory." Were you a Greater Fool when you bought Cisco (CSCO) - Get Report at 50 times earnings in 1991? Is Soros the Greater Fool for buying Qualcomm (QCOM) - Get Report after most of its run? Is Julian Robertson the Greater Genius because he bet against the market? Come on. Get up already. Clock says 2:40. Doesn't matter -- get up already. This stuff can't wait. Cut to the cortex. No, that's not the lead. This is the lead, this incessant disappointment, this botching, this inability to spell out what I see happening every day on my screen. It's 2:44 -- get up and write it down.
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Message Boards. The responsibilities of a fund manager and the responsibilities of an interview subject talking to civilians trying to make up their minds about stocks sometimes clash violently.
Last night, these responsibilities went to war for me. The setting was the
report on PBS. I stopped doing these nonbusiness shows a couple of years ago because every time I tried to do it I always came off as some snarling, petulant bull who couldn't stand to be paired with the resident bear.
I made up my mind to stop doing this stuff two years ago last fall when I was "dueling" with
on the steps of the
across the street from the
. I had signed on to be
Good Morning America's
Market Guru, a job I actually liked very much when
was host. (His retirement hastened my switch to business cable shows. He understood the markets, and when he came back I wish I had stuck around
because he is a great communicator about the real world and an all-around great guy.)
The market had just crashed 500 points the day before. Charlie wanted to do the show from the Exchange, but there was some glitch that blocked us, so we did it outside across the street. I remember it being a frigid day, but due to some weird body fluke, I am never cold, so I was out there with my suit on and still hot and steaming even as everyone else was all bundled up and freezing.
This particular 500-point thrashing stemmed from the unwinding of the speculative boom in Asia. Until I got up to those steps, I was quite confident that it was the buying opportunity of a lifetime. In fact, I had been buying U.S. stocks hand over fist in Europe before the bell just in case others would come to their senses faster than I had and realize that you had to take down huge amounts of stock right then if you were going to hit it out of the park.
Gibson went to Grant first, and Grant talked about how overheated and dangerous and absurd the U.S. market was and how you had to be very, very careful because this was the beginning of the big downturn that he had been looking for. (Of course he did not say, "Oh, these many years because I have been wrong for as long as I have been wearing clothes" because nobody is asking for absolution on these shows. They are just on message.)
He then talked about how he felt that Asia, particularly Korea, was far safer than the dangerous U.S. market. Man, I was thinking, is this guy ever erudite. Incredibly wrong but incredibly erudite. Same old wrong, erudite Grant. Kept thinking about that word "erudite," like I was about to take my SATs again, or something. Always thinking about wrong.
And then Charlie turned to me. He wanted to know how dangerous it was, and whether I could comment on Grant's dire view. Now remember, Grant is right there. He is erudite as hell. There's that word again. You can't just get on national TV and
the guy. He's a scholar and to all appearances a gentleman. You can't crackback block the guy with all of these zebras looking around. You will be out of the game.
But I don't care.
I told Charlie and the rest of the country for that matter -- because people do watch those shows -- that I didn't even have time to listen to that mumbo jumbo. I am buying everything in sight and if anybody at the Federal Theatre had anything to sell me, I would buy it right then and there.
He looked at me and asked me a question that would allow me to hedge or defer to the erudite Grant or at least moderate my enthusiasm less I drive people into the oblivion, the abyss that Grant so eruditely foreshadowed.
I debated right then picking up my cell phone and placing an order to buy 100,000 shares of
on the wire, from the steps of that theatre, but then I figured the journalism police would be all over me for trying to goose Intel and make a few bucks off the public. Even thought that bit of
ordering would answer the question better that anything I could say.
Instead I just went with more truth. I told Charlie how I woke my wife up this morning and made her put in the kids Uniform Gift money that day rather than wait until that usual year-end moment. I said that I didn't know how else to show people how I felt about this decline other than to tell them that story. I wanted to tell how I hated calling the sleeping
that early, but I didn't want her to be swamped in the
busy-signal maw. I decided that was, in the word the venture capitalists and research analysts all like to throw around, too "granular." And I skipped it.
The "debate" was over. We took a word from
. When the camera stopped and the mikes went down, Charlie asked me about Intel. I then picked up the cell phone and placed the order in front of him and ran the three blocks back to work. We made a fortune that day, enough to retire on if I didn't love the job so much. But I also decided that I didn't want to have to do that kind of stuff anymore, where I had to paired off against the erudite bear or the cautious naysayer with all the academic trimmings.
Last night, however, I relented and went on the
. I was paired with the very smart and likable Elizabeth Mackay from
, so I wasn't worried about erudition and the bear as much as I was worried about the big calculus: encouraging speculation in a hot market vs. grabbing some money before the vault closes.
Sure enough, the interviewer, a smart guy, asks about the obvious bear traps out there. Why shouldn't he? He is doing his job. I said that we could be on a collision course with Japan circa 1986 or '89 depending upon the inning, if easy money continues. Ooh, really scary!
He then asked me whether I was playing the Greater Fool game. Just to refresh, that's the theory that says you really don't believe in what you are buying -- you are simply buying it hoping some greater fool comes along and takes you out at higher prices. Nihilistic investing by charlatans praying for mountebanks to buy them out.
Right then, I knew what I was suppose to answer. If I wanted to seem rigorous about my internal logic, I would have to say, "Not at all. Let's take Qualcomm, when everyone in India and China and Indonesia and Timor gets phones, they are going to use Qualcomm phones, and this company's stock could double or triple from here." Or, "I couldn't disagree more. You see,
, which just tacked on 500 points in the last quarter, could easily quadruple if
switches 100% of its supply ordering to it." Or, "
, if they get it right, could be the next
and I would buy them with abandon."
But I don't care.
I said, "You bet I am." I said that I had just told a couple of partners that I found myself playing it.
Boom. Before I could get another word in, we were off to the other guest. "Why, you antirigorous, lightweight fool, you," my brain said almost so loudly that you heard it in the mike. "You can't blame this meltdown on the Y2K bug. Look at yourself, admitting to being the greater fool, with no further explanation. Where's the fool's cap?" For some reason, the desire popped into my head to show the nation my collective school report cards to let them know I am no fool. Why, I can't be a fool -- I was a Merit Scholar.
I figured that the interviewer would toss it back to me so I could say, "You know, though, a lot of people thought I was playing the greater fool game in '87 when I loaded up on Intel and Microsoft, or in '91 when I took down millions of dollars of Cisco and
, or two years ago when I got huge in Yahoo! and
But the next thing I know, someone was loosening the microphone and I was on my way to get some Thai food takeout for my wife.
So now nationally, I am a Greater Fool who is just playing the game because I don't believe in what I own and am just speculating that someone will take me out higher. I have denigrated myself and my firm by telling a truncated version of the truth, which is that I am looking for stocks that will go higher and that I hope the reason they go higher is the fundamentals, but that there might be other forces at work that allow me to profit from these selections.
That's what you get when you make the bargain though, and the bargain, of course, is the mention of
. Ah, and what an intellectually corrupt bargain it turned out to be.
Now I can go back to sleep. If I didn't have to go to the office and play the fool for one more day in 1999.
James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. At time of publication, his fund was long Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Yahoo!, Sun Microsystems, America Online, Qualcomm and TheStreet.com Inc., and Cramer was also long TheStreet.com. His fund often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns, both before and after the columns are published, and the positions that his fund takes may change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Cramer's writings provide insights into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to comment on his column at