Few people can make words sing as well as Alan Abelson can when he takes quill in hand to wax eloquent on our state of financial being. More poet than economist, his weekly take on Mr. Market’s gyrations is the top of my DO NOT MISS list. Abelson remains the standard against which all other American financial writing is to be judged.

This week’s column is a brief reminder why:

“Epipihanies don’t grow on trees, at least not on buttonwood trees. Which explains, we suppose, why, while mulling the unpredictability of the market from one day to the next, we were totally unprepared for the extraordinary flash of insight when, out of the blue, it struck us: The fault lies not in ourselves but in the quixotic nature of the market gods. Like those worshiped by the ancient Romans, they can be sadistic, mean and cruel to us mere mortals and then, in a wink, turn into kind, compassionate and just plain nice deities.

And so it was last week. On the eve of Thanksgiving (no accident that), they discarded their loathsome personas, donned a few days earlier when they gave the markets a ferocious pasting, and conspired to provide balm for the bruised investor. Wise in the ways of everything, they decided that what could most effectively change the investing mood from sad to glad was to whistle up a wall of worry.

The building blocks were all there and any that weren’t could be summoned up with the snap of the fingers. And, by Jove (or whoever the top dude is among the market gods), it worked! The wall magically sprang up—North Korea giving South Korea a taste of the grape, Ireland and its banks in deep doo-doo, and Portugal and Spain getting their tin cups ready, the swelling probe of Wall Street doing evil things, unbelievably bad housing numbers (it makes us grimace even to rattle off all this worrisome stuff)—and triggered a rousing rally.

Frankly, the notion that trouble makes the market go up seems more than a bit off-the-wall, except that the occasional spot of woe purportedly keeps animal spirits in check and cools speculative fever, thus assuring the rally’s durability. Elegant theory, we agree, but far from a sure thing in practice, as 1973-’74, October 1987, the dot.com boom or (it may seem like a distant memory to you) 2008-’09 painfully demonstrated.”

As someone who dabbles in putting thoughts on page, I very much appreciate his ability to convey, in a few short paragraphs, so much so eloquently.

He is the American Shakespeare of economic commentary . . .


A Surfeit of Worries
Barrron’s Up and Down Wall Street, November 27, 2010

Category: Financial Press, Markets

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17 Responses to “Epipihanies Don’t Grow on Buttonwood Trees”

  1. machinehead says:

    ‘[Abelson] is the American Shakespeare of economic commentary . . .’

    Hank Williams used to be called the Hillbilly Shakespeare.

    Like Ol’ Hank, Abelson doesn’t shy away from the dark side — the pain and the heartache.

    Somebody sure needs to poke fun at Wall Street — a crowd that’s taken far too seriously in Washington DC.

  2. steveg62 says:

    He’s all that, but for the 25 years or so I have been reading Barron’s, Abelson has been consistently bearish!

  3. hondje says:

    What’s an epipihany? ;)

  4. Terry says:

    Are you serious? Abelson is the worst part of Barron’s and the magazine is so much better when he is out. Abelson is in love with his own words and is just another permabear. It’s time for him to retire.

  5. Alan says:

    I find he is always thought provoking and intelligent.

  6. DL says:

    Some argue that Abelson should be judged solely by his predictions.

    I would say that he should be judged, quite separately, by his writing skill.

    And on that latter score, I agree with BR.

  7. What’s an epipihany? ;)


    Some day, like a bolt of lightening, you’ll know ;)

  8. I will, as well, disagree w: “Are you serious? Abelson is the worst part of Barron’s and the magazine is so much better when he is out. Abelson is in love with his own words and is just another permabear. It’s time for him to retire.”

    Abelson is a great writer; He shows, if nothing else, that it’s possible, and apt, to bring Literary Art to a Field (FinEcon), widely thought of as “Dry”. Something, surely, our Textbooks would do well to learn.

    and, though I’ve never thought him a ‘permabear’, his meta-message of “the existance of Risk/Risk Management” should have held his readers in good stead..

  9. JoseOle says:

    I’m in the Abelson-is-a-great-writer-but-has-a-strong-bearish-bias camp. At any moment in time there are always numerous economic and financial facts from which to select for emphasis. Abelson gravitates toward emphasizing the bearish facts. I personally put the highest odds on the Krugman/liquidity trap scenario, so I’m no permabull, I’m just trying to be objective (about Abelson and everything else).

  10. weidenaa says:

    Abelson’s tasteless and overbearing style-mongering gets in the way of communicating his message. His writing needs to be more direct, more muscular, less arch, less fey. To call the author of “Which explains, we suppose, why, while mulling…” ‘eloquent’ is to debase the meaning of the word. Interesting that you fawn, er, say that he is “the standard against which all other American financial writing is to be judged.” John Authers, Gillian Tett, Martin Wolf, and John Dizard can and invariably do write rings around the American Abelson, but of course they are all published in the [British] Financial Times. As for American financial writers, Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris of the New York Times are better communicators than Abelson. Thank God they do not push hard to “take quill in hand to wax eloquent.” The gold standard is Nick Paumgarten’s “The Death of Kings” (The New Yorker, May 18, 2009), just a stunning piece of writing. He has the expression, the rich vocabulary that is not self-conscious, the precision, and the ear for phrase, that are required to attain eloquence.

  11. GregP says:

    If I may imitate his style:

    Abelson is disposed, on rainy days, days on which he’s as potted as a plant, or in any other circumstance when the whim strikes (and a word processor is at the ready), to conjure stretched metaphors and make his reasoning difficult to follow through excessive punctuation.

    Stylistically, a good writer? Hardly.
    Content that makes one sit back and ponder? Nope.

  12. Charlatan says:

    This is probably the worst opinion I’ve ever seen Ritholtz express. It seems so overboard that I wonder whether BR is just trying to get a rise out of people (something he likes to do now and then).

    Abelson has shown zero prescience over the years. Predicting a collapse for umpteen years doesn’t count. And he is quite simply an awful writer — neither eloquent nor entertaining.

    Any decent writer, including BR, could easily write a column duplicating Abelson’s style and pass it off as an original. I don’t think you could say the same thing about Shakespeare. : )

  13. MikeW says:

    That Jeremy Grantham is another who’s no slouch at financial wordsmithing.

  14. soloduff says:

    “Market gods”? This is an explanation? –If Abelson indeed the best of financial writers, financial writing is in worse shape than I thought. Many years ago, a fellow named Karl Marx–he of the “economic underworld” named by Lord Keynes–observed that, under capitalism, one knows what one puts into the system, but no one knows what will come back. Marx went on to propose an explanation; as much later did Keynes. –This is what the adults expect from financial writing.

  15. Thomaspin says:

    Tedious old fart.

  16. Patrick Neid says:

    I would have to put James Grant at the top of all financial writers.

    That said the more remarkable achievement does belong to Alan Abelson, who some of us have been reading for over 35 years–he is writing his column today in his mid 80′s having been born in 1925. Ponder that. His macro bearishness stems from having witnessed a financial world gone slowly mad over his lifetime.

  17. ubnutsagain says:

    @ Alan:

    “I find he is always thought provoking and intelligent.”


    LOL … yagottaluvit!