Arranging to interview Louis Rukeyser, sometimes referred to (by press agents) as "America's foremost business journalist," is a bit like arranging to interview the elusive Greta Garbo. He's not a recluse but he's constantly on the move.
Mr. Rukeyser lectures on personal finance more than 100 times a year and hosts TV's "Wall Street Week" on about 200 PBS affiliates every Friday evening. Just recently he started hosting a new syndicated weekly show -"Louis Rukeyser's Business Journal." It is already carried via satellite in nearly 100 markets. In whatever time is left he writes books and a thrice-weekly newspaper column. It is rumored that sometimes he even sleeps. Rukeyser lives in Greenwich, Conn., commutes to Baltimore, Md. to tape "Wall Street Week," and rides in to New York City to tape his new show.
The producer Viacom, co-producer with Gateway Productions (a Gannett subsidiary) of the Journal show, arranged to send a chauffeured limousine to Greenwich one Saurday to pick up Mr. Rukeyser and bring him to the New York studio. It was suggested that the limo could pick me up and take me to Greenwich , where I would be joined by Mr. Rukeyser, who would then have an hour and a half for an uninterrupted interview in the car on the way to the New York studio. I was assured that, since Lou Rukeyser detests New York City. and seldom visits there, this was the most efficient way to hold his attention for at least 90 minutes. So, just a bit reluctantly, I agreed.
Once we arrived in Greenwich, the chauffeur pointed out the various estates we passed. Just across the road from the Rukeyser property is, according to the driver, the largest private estate in all of Connecticut... an impressive expanse of green.
Not that the Rukeyser estate is unimpressive. I noted a charming, rambling clapboard house with a swimming pool and bathhouse in the rear and a fenced-in dog run under a huge old spruce tree.
Louis Rukeyser appeared, looking for all the world like the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
On the road, we proceeded with the interview. At first it was disconcerting when he referred to himself in the third person -but soon I became accustomed to it, and we chatted about him as if he were a TV personality not actually present in the back seat of a limousine, headed for New York City.
"First off," I said hesitantly, "I'd like to ask you an idiotic question...."
He smiled knowingly. "There are no idiotic questions," he pontificated, "just idiotic answers."
It was my turn to smile. "Well, try this one then:" I said, "If you're such a great financial expert, how is it you aren't a retired millionaire by now?"
He took a deep breath. "Lou Rukeyser has been a working journalist all his life and he's never had enormous sums to invest. But, I've got a nice house, three daughters, four dogs, three horses. I have, over the years, as I was able to put some money aside, been putting my money where my mouth is. And the results have been very encouraging. But, I'm just a working journalist, not an independent plutocrat. All the money I have is money I've earned and invested."
He smiled broadly and continued facetiously: "Of course, I carefully read the book 'How To Make Money On Wall Street' by Louis Rukeyser and found it a superb guide."
"In other words," I said, "the answer is that you arem a millionaire. "
He shrugged his shoulders. It was an answer.
Rukeyser thinks that TV coverage of business, especially on the regular news programs, has been dreadful.
"When there has been any approach to business at all, it has tended to be totally superficial, as when they throw out the consumer price index or an oil company's profits for the last quarter and you are supposed to have some fast emotional reaction before they go on to the next story. Or else there is the crusading story, finding some bad guys and putting the spotlight on them. Now, I have nothing against exposes. I've done them myself. But, it's as if you covered Washington only in terms of its scandals and gave no attention to the ongoing business of government."
Does financial journalist Rukeyser believe that the average small investor has need for professional advice or professional management of his money?
"I would say the former but not the latter. If you're bothered by money and don't want to be bothered looking at the financial page every night, then turn it over to somebody else be it professional manager or mutual fund. But, my advice for most people is to hedge on that a little bit -maybe to have some of your money managed professionally and the other part look after yourself.
"You never learn anything unless you manage your own money. It is actually fun. And you may find out that the money you are managing yourself is doing better than the money that's managed professionally, which is not only good for your portfolio but marvelous for your ego."
Can the average small investor benefit from seminars sponsored by brokerage houses?
"I would be careful about an investment seminar that included only speakers from the sponsoring organization. Sometimes, there's too much advice -40 speakers, each of whom claims he's called the last 43 turns of the market and if you listen to him you'll be rich by St. Swithin's Day. If they don't pretend to be infallible, some seminars can be useful, though. I speak at some of them, myself."
How about the prophets of doom on Wall Street?
"I think it's interesting" said Rukeyser, laughing and shaking his head, "that the two worst groups at forecasting the US economy since that low point in 1974 have been the government's own economists who have been extremely overoptimistic and those extreme pessimists who go on telling us that we are about to fall over the precipice. The pessimists have consistently underestimated the strength of the American private economy. It hasn't happened. In my judgment it is not about to happen. We have a troubled economy but we do not have a catastrophe."
How about that highly publicized prophet of doom, Joseph Granville?
"I think it is ironic that the day he predicted was going to be the worst day in the history of Wall Street turned out to be the best day in six months. He's been overpublicized by the news media. His forecasting is very much less than he pretends it to be. Self-promotion is his gift."
Should the small investor try to save money by using a discount broker?
"I think they're a good idea for that small minority of investors who really don't need or want advice. They'll really save you some money. But for the average investor, I don't think they're the answer. The discount is relatively trivial in terms of the total investment. If you're getting good advice from your regular broker, I'd stay with him."
Does Rukeyser recommend money market funds for the small investor ?
"I think money market funds are the most important financial advance of the last decade. I'm both amused and outraged at the notion that has been promulgated in recent months by some members of the financial community that the most terrible thing that ever happened to the US economy was giving the small investor an even break at last. It has always been possible for the wealthy to get market rates of interest at times of high interest rates. But you used to have to have $100,000 to get a bank certificate of deposit at those rates and at least $10,000 for a Treasury bill.
"For the first time, through the money market mutual funds, the average saver has had a chance to find out that high interest rates are a two-way street, that you don't just have to pay them, you can also receive them."
Are the new tax-free All-Savers certificates a good deal for the small investor?
"They're a gimmick. Not a solution to the problems of the thrift institutions or to the problems of the American saver. But you might as well take advantage of them as long as you are in a 30 percent tax bracket or higher. But, you'd better be prepared to say bye-bye to that money for a year without being able to get at it."
How does he account for the seeming antagonism between President Reagan and Wall Street?
"I think it is a thoroughly phony battle. First of all, what is Wall Street? It is the brokerage industry which, I would say, is 90 percent favorable to Ronald Reagan. But, second and more important, Wall Street is a marketplace where more than $5 trillion is invested right now by, millions of people all over the world. And it really is no business of Wall Street to be pro or anti anybody. Their job is to run an honest marketplace where people can vote with their cash.
"Then the question comes up -why did the stock market go down 188 points from June to September? Why did the bond market collapse if all these money people are supposed to be so fond of Ronald Reagan? I think there has been considerable skepticism in the financial markets as to the ability even of this more conservative administration to get federal spending under control, to control inflation. I think when and if there is solid evidence that that is being done, that the administration will not have to worry about Wall Street. Wall Street will be enthusiastic, not reluctant.
"So, why does Reagan keep beating on them? Simple. He has finally found a scapegoat that nobody loves. Wall Street has a lovability quotient below that of Howard Cosell. Not only do all the ideologues hate it as a symbol of capitalism, but anybody who has ever lost a buck there hates it, too."
If Rukeyser were asked for only one piece of good advice for the small investor, what would it be?
"I would suggest that he embark on a program of what used to be called dollar-cost averaging, of putting set amounts of money into a set list of top quality rapidly-growing American companies, and then invest that money at those preset intervals. He should pay no attention to how many shares he is able to buy with that money on that particular day, where the Dow Jones industrial average is on that particular day, what the merchants of hysteria are putting out on Page 1 that day.
"Someone who does that regularly in the early and mid 1980s is going to live awfully well and may be a little rich ten years from now, So, what I would recommend is patience and a little faith in the future of this country. It will pay off."
Can Louis Rukeyser, with his two TV programs, columns and books, influence the market himself?
"I think what we've learned from the misplaced arrogance of forecasters who thought they could call short-term swings is that the markets are too big for any one person to push them around."
When does he expect to see an upturn in our economy?
"I would expect a resumption of real growth sometime in 1982. Not, at this point, runaway growth, but identifiable, indisputable forward motion in the economy.
"I would expect the perception will lag a little bit because it usually does. When polls are taken about the economy, people usually report on how it was a few months ago. If President Reagan is lucky, it will happen early enough in 1982 so that the perception will be there by November."
The limousine pulls up to the New York recording studio and the chauffeur opens the door for Louis Rukeyser to transfer from car to studio.
One last question. Can we now sound the trumpets -"America's foremost financial news personality" is bullish on America's financial future.
"I'm definitely optimistic. But my optimism is guarded because we have seen over the last 20 years the infinite capacity of politicians of both parties to louse up an otherwise healthy economy."
The TV sage of financial news takes his briefcase and moves indoors, metamorphizing in a few seconds from interviewee to interviewer.