This week I’m reading Josh Brown and Jeff Macke’s Clash of the Financial Pundits (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014) during my work commute. Brown and Macke interview financial media pundits and bloggers. Minyanville’s Todd Harrison has overshadowed the book’s release in announcing that the popular financial news site will pivot to financial services:
Our current business model does not extend to financial services, and that’s OK — it’s broken anyway. I do, however, believe that what we’ve built is extremely valuable to a broker-dealer looking to leverage a fertile audience, acquire new customers, optimize the social sphere, turn clients into community, market through new channels, engage next-generation investors, and build a lifetime relationship.
This, in my view, can be accomplished by attaching Minyanville to an existing financial services firm as an incubation lab and allocating our assets and abilities across their business model. There are several reasons this makes sense — among them, education, credible content, and creativity are rare commodities on Wall Street.
Financial institutions have been reticent to embrace the online world given regulatory and reputational concerns; they now understand the digital realm isn’t going away and the millennial generation — along with a massive transfer of wealth — is quickly approaching. If they don’t incubate the human capital and creative elements necessary to service the entire vertical across multiple channels, they will be left behind.
Minyanville provides a plug-and-play, end-to-end solution that delivers smart market commentary with editorial rigor through a FINRA- and SEC-compliant mechanism. This is not traditional research; content is the best online currency — engage the audience in a daily dialogue with one foot inside the firewall (give them a reason to stay in the walled garden) and the other foot outside the firewall (broaden the brand shadow and more effectively target the marketing spend).
Over 14 years ago when Richard Metzger and Gary Baddeley hired me to edit the Disinformation website they were pivoting to television production, publishing, DVD, and video-on-demand interests. Stratfor’s George Friedman planned the StratCap hedge fund before Anonymous hacked his geopolitical intelligence website.
Behind all of these moves are two strategic realities: (1) most web content generates zero income – a painful truth for editors and writers; and (2) value creation often lies in tailored products and services for a website’s audience. Minyanville’s version of (2) was a subscription service for premium content. Disinformation’s version was book, DVD and video-on-demand projects — the site became mostly user-generated content from March 2008. This was all prior to Henry Blodget’s career ‘second act’ with BusinessInsider.
I made a series of decisions about these shifts over the past decade. After undergraduate and postgraduate school I pursued a university-based research career from 2004 whilst doing a second editorial stint with Disinformation. I stopped freelancing for magazines during this period due to publishing embargoes that the research consortium I worked for placed on my research. After leaving TDC Entertainment on 29th February 2008, I turned down several offers to edit websites or to be involved in publishing projects. After March 2007, I self-funded my academic research. Today, I blog – as Josh Brown does – primarily for self-education.
On the surface Harrison’s pivot decision for Minyanville to partner with financial services as an “incubation lab” looks like an entrepreneurial venture. I’m a little skeptical:
(1) As Brown and Macke show in their new book, most financial commentary is noise that is unhelpful to traders. Twitter, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Dealbook section in The New York Times, and a Bloomberg or Wall Street Journal subscription provides most of the major financial news and the major newswire services.
(2) Harrison omits that most website content is usually either for subscription traffic, or is a loss leader.
(3) I read Fundamentals of Stream Processing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) and it confirmed that the real alpha is already in complex event processing, machine learning algorithms, news analytics, and high-frequency trading algorithms. This area is at least 4 to 5 years old in quantitative finance already. It may continue to disrupt the broker service model that Harrison has in mind. How many of Minyanville’s customers really have the financial assets to become high net worth customers for a broker?
(4) Harrison looks to the Millennials as the new investor class – but most of them can save money and time by paying US$1 for William Bernstein’s monograph If You Can: How Millennials Can Get Rich Slowly; investing in a low-cost index fund like Fidelity or Vanguard; and reading free web commentary for self-education. More Millennials are likely to use mobile services than subscription-based websites.
(5) As George Friedman found with his StratCap venture, developing alpha/edge in investment and trading is a very different skillset to financial news or commentary. My experience from several different contexts over a 10-year period is that news arbitrage strategies are hyped by journalists and editors — but have significant alpha decay for traders — particularly in a market dominated by high-frequency trading algorithms and low-latency arbitrage. Brown and Macke confirm that this is the case for retail traders who try to trade the news on Bloomberg or CNBC – and that the major news outlets are set-up with availability and disposition biases in mind.
(6) Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (New York: Doubleday, 2000), Thomas Schuster’s The Markets and the Media: Business News and Stock Market Movements (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), and Dean Starkman’s The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Financial Journalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) show that the financial media-retail trader nexus has been a problem noted in the 1995-2000 dotcom and 2003-07 real estate speculative bubbles, and also in the 2007-09 global financial crisis.
I will keep an eye on what Harrison’s Minyanville evolves into and what it incubates. However, Harrison’s pivot decision looks like an exit.