Alan Abelson, Who at Barron’s Was a Thorn in Wall Street’s Side, Dies at 87

May 20, 2013 | Alumni

By DOUGLAS MARTIN

May 11, 2013

Alan Abelson, a former top editor of Barron’s magazine who made waves — sometimes tsunamis — by writing a pugnacious, sagacious stock market column that denounced Wall Street hucksterism and routinely rocked share prices, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 87.

The cause was a heart attack, his daughter, Reed Abelson, a business reporter for The New York Times, said.

No subject was sacred to Mr. Abelson, including the celebrated investor Warren Buffett, whom he chided in his column, “Up & Down Wall Street,” for being overly optimistic in the 1996 annual report of his company, Berkshire Hathaway. Mr. Abelson suggested that Mr. Buffett should have added the words “just kidding.”

In the 1990s, he was consistently scathing in his criticism of the run-up in technology stocks, a stance that was proved right when the tech bubble burst. In December 1992, he pointed out that the $28 billion I.B.M. investors had lost that year exceeded the $16 billion estimated cost of cleaning up after Hurricane Andrew. “The case for an official designation of I.B.M. as a disaster area seems unanswerably compelling,” he wrote.

His sarcasm about government economic promises was biting. “We’ll get a second-half recovery,” he once wrote, “it just won’t be the second half of this year.”

Mr. Abelson was one of those rare journalists who come to personify their publications.

Barron’s, a weekly tabloid that is more technical than most popular financial magazines, comes out on Saturdays. In the days before global markets, readers of Mr. Abelson’s tips and analyses on Barron’s front page could ponder their moves on Sunday, a day before the markets opened. Barron’s, which has a circulation of about 300,000, has been published by Dow Jones & Company since 1921. Dow Jones has been owned by the News Corporation since 2007.

 

Mr. Abelson’s power prompted executives worried about negative articles to threaten to punch him in the nose early in his career and to sue him in later, gentler times. “Go right ahead” was his brisk rejoinder to those threatening to sue. Many did, but none won.

The losers included Business Week magazine, which in 1975 reported that some investors sometimes found out the contents of Mr. Abelson’s column in advance. He responded with a libel suit demanding that McGraw-Hill, Business Week’s owner, admit that it had no reason to believe he had leaked information on purpose or acted unethically. McGraw-Hill made the admission, and Mr. Abelson dropped his suit.

Alan Howard Abelson was born in New York City on Oct. 12, 1925, grew up in Queens and attended Townsend Harris High School. He entered the City College of New York at 15, studied chemistry and English, and graduated in 1946. The next year, he earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa, and went to work as a freelance journalist.

He became a copy boy at The New York Journal-American in 1950 and was promoted to reporter and then, with a $5-a-week raise, to stock market columnist.

Mr. Abelson joined Barron’s as a reporter in 1956 and was named managing editor in 1965. He started his column in January 1966 as a piecing together of odds and ends about the stock market. His last column, three months ago, sardonically defined a Wall Street expert as anyone who can spell Mr. Buffett’s name.

In 1981, Mr. Abelson was appointed Barron’s top editor. Dow Jones asked him to resign in 1992 after circulation fell, but allowed him to continue writing his column. “I’m a terrible manager,” he told Manhattan Inc.

Mr. Abelson’s wife, the former Virginia Eloise Peterson, who owned a bookstore in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., died in 1999. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his son, Justin, editorial page editor of The Recorder of Greenfield, Mass., and five grandchildren.

In 1998, the G. & R. Loeb Foundation gave Mr. Abelson its lifetime achievement award. “Few journalists have been as influential as Alan Abelson,” the foundation said. “For 41 years he has given us his insights, wisdom and a moral view of a world in which ethics and straight dealings are often rare commodities.”

What many readers and investors most valued in him was his insistent contrarianism in the face of boosters proclaiming the wonders of a particular stock. “He never promises false hope,” The Street.com said in 2001. “Rather no hope. For that, his readers love him.”

Originally published by The New York Times