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Tuesday, Jun 6, 2023

The Morals to Stock-Picking Plumber Tale

In a period that included the news that New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will separate from his wife, and that a Chicago gym had created “peekaboo” showers, the most-read story on the Bloomberg News wire concerned Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.’s chief equity strategist, Barton Biggs, and his plumber, Ron Valentine.

The curious relationship, detailed by Tom Cahill of Bloomberg News, began almost three years ago when Valentine turned up to clear a drain during a dinner party in Biggs’ vacation house in Sun Valley, Idaho. This was more than four years after Biggs famously declared that the U.S. stock market was grotesquely overpriced and headed for a fall.

“I recognized him,” said Valentine of Biggs, “because he’s always on TV, bad-mouthing the market.” Valentine told Biggs that he should buy the dips.

Biggs ignored the advice but seized on the device: A plumber who had the nerve to offer stock tips to a Morgan Stanley strategist.

In the months and years that followed, the plumber became a fixture in Biggs’ research reports. These reports invariably described, as Biggs once put it, “the biggest stock market bubble in the history of the world.” As the market continued to defy Biggs’ logic, the plumber came to epitomize its madness. He quit plumbing to pursue stock market speculation. “I’ve got $300,000 in the market on margin,” Biggs quoted the pipe-fitter saying at one point.

Unreal reports

The trouble with the relationship is that it didn’t exist.

After he fixed Biggs’ sink, Valentine never saw or heard from Biggs again. All those picaresque quotes and descriptions offered by Biggs were sheer invention.

“Everything I own is paid for my home, my car,” Valentine said when reached by Bloomberg. “I definitely didn’t buy any stocks on margin and never have. I guess (Biggs) decided he’d just make things interesting and make it seem like these common people were taking these chances, which I don’t do.”

This is one of those Wall Street stories that serves as a parable. It offers up so many morals to the reader that it is hard not to feel improved by it.

Moral No. 1: If you want to know what ordinary people are up to, it is useful to ask them. For the past eight years, Biggs has sought to convince others that the typical American investor has been a mad speculator buying on margin. If he had bothered to keep in touch with his plumber and find out what he was actually doing, he would have discovered evidence to the contrary, and might even have been compelled to confront it. Maybe he would have gone on believing what he wanted to believe all along. Or maybe he would have developed more interesting and nuanced views of the market.

Moral No. 2: The idea of being chummy with common folk is more alluring than the reality. Biggs wanted to seem like the kind of guy who knew his plumber. The truth is that he didn’t think his plumber was worth the few minutes it took to call and ask him what he thought of the stock market. In retrospect, it is clear that what Biggs actually valued was not news of what his plumber was up to in the market, but his own stale ideas of what a plumber must be up to.

Moral No. 3: If you have a talent for passing off invented quotes and scenes as true, you’d better avoid using it for anyone except prestigious Wall Street investment bankers. In the recent past, a Wall Street Journal reporter was fired for claiming that a subject had failed to return a phone call which he had never placed; a Los Angeles Times photographer was suspended for asking a subject to repeat some action, so he could get a clearer shot of it; a New Republic writer became an unemployed laughingstock for inventing whole stories.

The consequences

Mere journalists get fired from their jobs for even slight fictions, and then hounded in print for years by their least able and most self-righteous peers. Yet Morgan Stanley’s leading strategist offers fiction as fact and no one dreams of suggesting that he should suffer anything but a bit of ridicule.

Moral No. 4: Professional financial expertise is in a weird free-fall. It used to be that the only risk posed by the hired help to financiers was social risk. The butler tells New York magazine that you spent 200 grand on liposuction, the maid tells the New York Post that your spouse shoplifts kitty litter, that sort of thing.

Today’s help poses financial risk to financiers. At the same time he was clearing Biggs’ drainpipe, Valentine was cleaning Biggs’ clock in the market. For the eight years Biggs has been short the U.S. stock market, Valentine has been long. No plumber could survive Biggs’ folly.

How long can it be before we turn on the television and find delivering market commentary not Barton Biggs, but Ron Valentine? It would be a delight finally to hear what Biggs’ plumber actually thinks.

Michael Lewis, the author of “Liar’s Poker” and “The New New Thing,” is a columnist for Bloomberg News.

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