Alan Abelson, Barron’s Magazine Writer, Editor, Dies at 87

Alan Abelson, a columnist who cast a skeptical eye on U.S. financial markets and skewered targets from Alan Greenspan to Warren Buffett during more than four decades at Barron’s magazine, has died. He was 87.

He died yesterday of a heart attack at a New York City hospital, his son, Justin Abelson, said yesterday in an interview. He had been dividing his time between his New York apartment and a home in Croton-on-Hudson in Westchester County, north of Manhattan.

“Financial journalism lost one of its leading lights today,” Ed Finn, Barron’s editor, said in a statement on the magazine’s website. “One of the unique things about Alan was that his keen knowledge of Wall Street was matched by his love of artful writing.”

Abelson began the “Up & Down Wall Street” column in 1966, a year after being named managing editor of the weekly publication. He kept writing even after his 1981 promotion to editor, which put him in charge of Barron’s, and his resignation a dozen years later.

The column was known for its doubting attitude -- or bearishiness, according to Abelson’s critics -- and for a writing style that showcased his wit. After billionaire investor Warren Buffett said in Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s 1996 annual report that the stock was “not undervalued,” Abelson wrote:

“To Warren Buffett we say, truth wounds, cynicism kills -- think on what ye hath wrought and repent! There’s still time to revise that prospectus. A small phrase -- ‘just kidding’ -- inserted on the front page right below those caveats will do the trick.”

Reputation Intact

“Up & Down Wall Street” included coverage of smaller companies with questionable finances or prospects. While his reporting inspired lawsuits, he emerged from those cases with his reputation intact.

“He was very devoted to the magazine, and he took great pride in the work his staff did and the fact that he helped the field of economic journalism,” his son said.

Alan Abelson was born on Oct. 12, 1925, in New York City. He received a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and English from City College of New York in 1946, and a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop a year later.

Newspaper Roots

After working as a freelance reporter and book-review writer in New York for two years, Abelson was hired as a copy boy at the New York Journal-American, a now-defunct newspaper. He later became a reporter on the city desk and then moved to the financial desk.

Abelson was the Journal-American’s stock-market columnist from 1952 to 1956. He then joined Barron’s, where he initially edited the Investment News & Views section and wrote corporate and industry features. He became managing editor in 1965 and succeeded Robert Bleiberg as editor in 1981.

In July 1982, Abelson began appearing on television. He provided business commentaries for the NBC network’s News at Sunrise until October 1990.

Abelson resigned as editor at the request of Dow Jones & Co., now a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., when the weekly was redesigned. He agreed after being assured that the company would select a successor he recommended, Managing Editor James P. Meagher.

‘Monstrous Dimensions’

Dow Jones asked him to remain as “Up & Down Wall Street” columnist, and he did. Here’s how he described Alan Greenspan’s performance as chairman of the Federal Reserve in light of U.S. stocks’ 1990s surge and subsequent plunge:

“Pure and simple, save for the Fed, the stock market bubble could never have reached the monstrous dimensions it did, and its bursting would never have caused such a widespread and profound misery as it has.”

In 1998, Abelson received the Loeb Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award for financial journalism. A year later, the New York Financial Writers Association gave him the Elliot V. Bell Award for outstanding contributions to the profession.

Abelson’s stock-market views drew a retort from Victor Niederhoffer in his 2003 book “Practical Speculation,” which the hedge-fund manager co-wrote with Laurel Kenner, a former Bloomberg News editor.

“Though he is a clever and talented writer, by any objective standard Abelson has the distinction of being one of the worst market forecasters in history,” Niederhoffer wrote. “He has been skeptical, if not outright bearish, on the stock market for his entire career as a Barron’s columnist.”

Legal Victories

Abelson had been a target before. BusinessWeek magazine, in an April 1975 article, alleged some investors found out the contents of his column in advance. He responded with a libel suit that was dropped in exchange for a public admission by McGraw-Hill Cos., BusinessWeek’s publisher, that it had no reason to believe he leaked information on purpose or acted unethically.

Similar accusations appeared in a 1977 suit stemming from his reporting on Technicare Corp., a medical-equipment maker, and a 1987 case tied to the collapse of Creative Securities Corp., a brokerage firm based in New York. Both suits were ultimately dismissed.

“Back in the 1960s, people used to threaten to punch me in the nose when I said something negative about a company,” Abelson told the Washington Post in 1977. “Now we live in different times.”

Abelson’s wife, Virginia, died in 1999. He is survived by his son, Justin, the editorial page editor of the Recorder, a newspaper in Greenfield, Massachusetts, his daughter, Reed Abelson, a reporter at the New York Times and five grandchildren.

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