Of all the financial losses and economic hardships that Wall Street has witnessed during the United States' decade of errors and descent, perhaps no loss has been as costly for investors, or as lamented, than the passing of Louis Rukeyser.
For those younger investors / readers who may not have heard of him, Rukeyser, who passed away three years ago, was the host of the Public Broadcasting System's "Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser."
At its core, the show, which ran with Rukeyser as host from 1970 to 2005 and was broadcast on Friday nights after the market closed, was the first, weekly television series to summarize the week's often-dizzying financial and economic news in plain-spoken terms that the typical investor could understand. Simply, Louis Rukeyser defined broadcast financial news coverage and analysis, and was the face of Wall Street for a generation.
And the key to the show's success and usefulness, along with a no-nonsense format, was Rukeyser. A journalist by training, Rukeyser combined expert-level knowledge of the stock market and economics with the temperament and values of a family doctor, to create a calming, trustworthy source that viewers tuned in to religiously. The show became one of the most popular programs on PBS, at one point airing on more than 300 stations and attracting over 4.1 million viewing households.
"Good evening. This is Wall Street Week. I'm Louis Rukeyser. Welcome back."
In addition to a fair, accurate, succinct summary of the week's events, Rukeyser recruited some of Wall Street's and the financial community's most respected analysts and economists to appear as regular panelists. Further, the question / answer sessions and discussions Rukeyser and his panelists had with that week's guest expert were informed, smart, incisive, relevant, and utilitarian: there was none of the 'sensationalism and hype' that so characterizes many of today's financial news and analysis shows. In other words, it was much of what the broadcast realm is not today.
But that's not to say that Rukeyser couldn't liven things up -- far from it. Rukeyser's clever, pun-filled humor was legendary, and his ability to poke fun at some of the biggest decision makers on Wall Street, in Washington -- and at himself -- let you know that he took his work seriously, but he didn't take himself too seriously. And viewers could quickly detect Rukeyser's values, or what he knew was important in life, because he stated them often: his wife Alexandra and three daughters, and his close friends.
Further, one can only imagine the needling Rukeyser would have issued in response to the AIG (AIG) bonus travesty, and to critics of board-reform, following an AIG board of directors that (somehow) did not notice that its business model would jeopardize, oh, just the global financial system:
"Imagine that? Requiring boards of directors to represent the interests of shareholders! Why it's a reform that requires performance for a role, and accountability. Perish the thought of such heavy-handed radicalism in these United States!," Rukeyser probably would have said.
Rukeyser: A role model, for more than Wall Street
Rukeyser's conduct and example is in stark contrast to many of today's decision makers on Wall Street and in Washington, many of whom seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Maybe the second best thing about Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser was that it was perhaps the only thing about Wall Street that week. For decades, even well into the era of cable television and the birth of the Internet, Wall Street Week was the only, substantive, weekly analysis show on national television to wrap up the week's events from the Concrete Canyon.
Further, Rukeyser, the master of puns, was also a master psychologist who understood the impact of financial analysis emanating from his show, and how to present a balanced, fair view of the financial and economic landscape. For example, when the U.S. economy was strong and the markets were roaring, Rukeyser always had a skeptic included in his panel, usually someone like Harvey Eisen, who always had at least 5 problems he was concerned about. Conversely, when the economy was in recession or the market was tanking, he always included a couple of veteran analysts who reminded investors of promising sectors and / or technologies ahead, if only they remain level-headed about current conditions. Usually, Rukeyser turned to Frank Cappiello.
In short, Rukeyser always wanted investors to retain a sense of perspective about things, despite the market's incessant hiccups, obsession-of-the-moment, and hype. "Remember, it's only your money," Rukeyser would frequently say. "It's not your life."
However, the above is not meant to cast aspersions at every, current financial news/analysis show or to deplore the increase in financial information available today. Some shows are doing a good job at increasing investors' knowledge of money, markets, investment, and the stocks they own. But we also know that many are not, and serve as static that simply clutters the mind, or even worse, that misleads investors.
And when you think about it, in the past decade, clutter, errors, and acts that mislead the public have not been limited to financial television shows. The United States seems to have abounded in them in the previous eight years, which is why the nation misses, and could sorely use, more decision makers like Louis Rukeyser, right now.
Financial Editor Joseph Lazzaro is based in New York.
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