Alpert was vague about the publication date of the story, which is standard practice for financial publications, but probably added to the confusion at CNBC. Barron’s is dated Mondays, but is printed early Saturday morning, so CNBC had some basis to fear the story was running that night.
Alpert’s leak questions triggered a full-on red alert at CNBC, which set to work to find alternative explanations for the stock movements in question, and hired outside counsel from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which ran up bills exceeding $100,000. Before it was all over, CNBC officials had zinged 570 e-mails to each other about the Barron’s probe. For our purposes, who said what when, and how it was said, during the early stages, don’t matter since the leak discussion came to nothing and were properly dropped.
But for CNBC officials, it does matter, and they’re still sore about their integrity being called into question and being forced to scramble—and devote hundreds of hours—to prove a negative. Adding to their stress was the fact that the Barron’s query came as the network’s general counsel, Lauren Donovan, who had a central role in the discussions, was in the final stages of a battle with cancer, to which she would succumb in December. (Alpert, for his part, was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, for which he would later have surgery. Neither side knew about the other’s health issues.)
On August 7, CNBC sent a letter to Barron’s that, among other things, reinforced the point that any Barron’s mention of leaks from the show would be “false and reckless” (CNBC’s emphasis), about the strongest legal language available. The reporting culminated in a tense, four-hour interview on August 13 that had all the trappings of a deposition. CNBC taped it, while its lawyers gave a presentation devoted to refuting any leak allegation and building a case that publishing such a suggestion would be libelous. The discussion about Cramer’s stock-picking prowess proceeded almost on a separate track and was clearly secondary to CNBC, if not to Alpert.
The story that ran on August 20 made no mention of leaks. To the ire of CNBC officials, a graphic headlined “10 Biggest Pops,” appeared with the story, listing some stocks that moved up before Cramer picked them. However, the caption concluded that Cramer “jumps on stocks that are in the news and moving up,” a perfectly innocent explanation.
The main story, though, is decidedly unfriendly to Cramer. Its tone is borderline contemptuous, and it describes CNBC as evasive to the point of being unprofessional, especially for a news organization.
When we asked Cramer and CNBC for their own records of Mad Money’s stock-picking performance, they had more excuses than a Tour de France cyclist dodging a blood test.
Cramer himself is shown as hostile to measuring his own picks. Alpert writes:
Hoping to get Cramer’s advice on how to measure his Mad Money picks, I called him a few weeks ago. He tore into me. “I’ve never read a single article that I thought wasn’t a massive distortion of what the show’s all about,” he said. When I said I just wanted to see Mad Money’s record, he replied: “I’ve never seen an analysis that I’ve regarded as honest, and I doubt yours is any different.”
And the story says that “a comprehensive and careful review” shows Cramer hasn’t beaten the market at all and in fact trails it badly, depending on the method of measurement and time period covered.
Faced with the fact that CNBC airs stock picks but keeps no official record of them, the story recounts, Barron’s found its own, one on a site called yourmoneywatch.com, that lists 1,200 picks, and a second on the Web site of TheStreet.com, a company closely associated with Cramer, which contains more than 3,400 of his picks. (Pinpointing the latter list takes some doing, but it can be found at here, by clicking on the “stock screener” button, then “find these stock picks” without selecting any criteria.)
Alpert found that the market beat Cramer by at least four percentage points—a big number—when using the 1,200-stock list and was flat-to-down using TheStreet.com’s broader list.