Personal finance journalist Jane Bryant Quinn is the “maven of money,” a Harvard Business School professor wrote in a recent review of Quinn’s book “Making the Most of Your Money.”
To earn this appellation, Quinn has spent nearly 30 years reporting on the subject for national publications and network news. She writes a syndicated column appearing in 250 newspapers nationwide, including the Los Angeles Business Journal, and is a contributing editor for Newsweek.
Although based in New York, Quinn was in Los Angeles recently to promote the just-published revised edition of her book and to visit her stepdaughter, former MTV personality Martha Quinn, who lives in the San Fernando Valley.
Question: How did you end up focusing your writing career around personal finance?
Answer: I had a job at something called the “Insiders Newsletter” in the early 1960s, a consumer newsletter where I was assigned to women’s issues. I was the new person there and they had me cover personal finance because no one else wanted to. I thought doing those stories was terrific and couldn’t see why no one else wanted to.
Q: You started at a newsletter?
A: Women couldn’t be writers in mainstream newspapers back then. My first job out of college was at Newsweek in the mailroom. When I saw that the highest position a woman could reach there was as a researcher, I quit and found a job at the newsletter where at least I could write. Ralph Nader also worked there at the time.
Q: And from there you evolved into a personal finance specialist?
A: My big break was in 1968 when McGraw-Hill called and asked me to found a newsletter focused solely on personal finance. I was editor of “The Business Week Letter,” but they asked me to use my initials so people wouldn’t know I was a woman. I was J.B. Quinn and I had everyone on staff use their initials, even the men. In 1973 I became its publisher and the first thing I did was drop the initials, and nobody said a word to me.
Q: How did you make it to mainstream publications?
A: The Washington Post knew of my work at the newsletter. They called me in 1974 and asked me to start a column.
Q: After living and breathing personal finance for so long, do you ever get tired of the subject?
A: To tell the truth, no. Because there are always so many new things going on. Look at what is happening in Southeast Asia and the questions that brings up what will it mean for the economy and investing? These are not issues at arm’s length and I find them continually fascinating. However, I am a bird watcher and bat enthusiast and would like to write about birds, bats and flowers from time to time.
Q: What kind of investment questions are people asking you these days?
A: It’s the stock market, and there is a surprising number of people who wouldn’t have been interested in it 10 years ago. You get something like this Southeast Asia thing and everybody wants to talk about it. They also have such faith and belief in the stock market that it scares me.
Q: What are you telling them?
A: When I did the first edition of my book in 1991, I was really trying to push to get people into 401(k)s and into the stock market. But now there’s a conservative tone in the book because I think people are taking much too much risk. Everything people have learned about the stock market in the past 15 years says that it doesn’t matter if it goes down, just wait a few weeks and it not only comes back but it goes to these fabulous new heights. But they haven’t been through a period like 1966 to 1983, when the market went nowhere for 17 years and all anybody made was dividends.
Q: You are cautious about recommending the stock market?
A: I am. It’s not that I have a clue what’s going to happen in the market. The only thing that should be at risk is longer-term money, (and) people have a lot of short-term money in the market. This is nuts.
Q: With all the money flowing into the stock market from 401(k)s, could we still have a long bear market?
A: If the fundamentals become bad if we have trade problems, if a war breaks out, or if Congress does something crazy about free trade we can have a bear market even if people are putting money in 401(k)s.
Q: On the subject of experience, there are a lot of very young fund managers these days. Does that concern you?
A: What have we got, 5,000 mutual funds? So do you think we have 5,000 good mutual funds managers? Absolutely not.
Q: Do you see individual investors educating themselves enough before they leap?
A: People don’t really study it the way they would study to be a good tennis player. So they make bad decisions or give it to somebody to manage and they make bad decisions. I would love to get them over this phase of blindly trusting someone else without investigating.
Q: Do you see any investment trends specific to the West Coast?
A: What I see people doing in California is buying individual stocks. People aren’t diversified. They all want to push (the) hot stocks all technology and all growth. If you work at one of these (high-growth tech) companies you might have 80 percent of your holdings in your company’s stock, and that’s what everybody at IBM did for 30 years. People retired rich and then in ’87, crash and people close to retirement lost 70 percent of their money.
Q: How do you get this message across to people?
A: I try to ask what would happen to your life if your stocks went down really low and stayed low for 10 years? Could you pay your mortgage or keep your kids in school? If the answer is “yes, it would seriously affect my life,” that money shouldn’t be in the market.
Q: Do you see any other peculiar practices among California investors?
A: Real estate. More than anywhere else in the country, people here are still buying houses, renting them out for less than the cost, paying money out of their pocket every month. If you can’t do a real estate investment where you’re covering your costs plus 10 or 12 percent on a cash flow basis, you’ve got a lousy investment.
Q: Are you doing anything special while you’re in L.A.?
A: If you watched MTV in the 1980s, then you know Martha Quinn. Well, she’s my stepdaughter and she lives in Studio City. My husband and I are visiting her and her husband and their eight-month-old baby.
Q: What was it like seeing Martha become a national TV star?
A: At the start, of course, nobody knew what MTV was, but it sounded like a terrific job for her, as she was just out of college. Her father is a lawyer and he looked over her contract and thought it seemed fine. Then we watched with astonishment as MTV grew and Martha along with it.
Q: What did you think of the music and all the images?
A: David and I are more the type of people who go to the opera. It wasn’t our kind of music.
Jane Bryant Quinn
Title: Contributing Editor
Born: Feb. 5, 1939
Education: Bachelor’s degree in American literature, Middlebury College, Vermont
Most admired person: “I’ve admired all kinds of people but have never had a most admired person.”
Hobbies: Gardening, reading, travel
Career Turning Point: 1968, when she began a McGraw-Hill newsletter on personal finance.
Personal: Married; one son from a previous marriage, one son with current husband David Quinn and three stepchildren.