As a senior correspondent for Fox Business Network and author of five intensely detailed books about Wall Street, you spend your days on the phone with people who work in finance, and a lot of your nights in bars with them. What do you like about these people?
That’s a good question. There’s an attraction, like the attraction to the devil in Paradise Lost. Wall Street is a cesspool. I write about some of the good stuff. I often write about the bad stuff. In order to get that bad stuff, you have to mingle with the people who know what’s going on. Wall Street guys are type-A personalities. They’re a little crazy, they’re profane, they’re smart. And their world fascinates me.
You just drew a parallel between bankers and Satan. How much evil is there in finance?
I’ve been covering Wall Street since 1990. I remember going to my old boss Bob Greene, who was the investigative editor at Newsday and won Pulitzers for covering organized crime. I said, “How come you don’t do more Wall Street reporting?” He said, “I like doing the Mob.” I said, “Wall Street is the real Mob.” That doesn’t mean they’re all bad guys, but there is an evil side to them that needs to be exposed. And Wall Street guys love to talk about their business. Do they fess up to doing bad stuff? After a few drinks, some of them do. Usually they fess up about someone else, and that’s where you get your stories.
So buying a few rounds of drinks for your sources is part of your reporting process?
I can’t drink like I used to, but I can drink a lot and not be drunk. I can put them down, and in the context of putting them down, I can report and get stuff out of people—usually on the second round. In terms of drinking, the financial crisis was rough. I was drinking at two A.M. once and went on the air at 6:30. I wasn’t buzzed; I was hungover, if anything. People were drinking to soothe their sorrows, because we were imagining bread lines.
How do you feel about the way Wall Street guys are depicted in the media? For the past few decades people have viewed them as rock stars, no?
I remember in the 1990s how revered Wall Street was. If you watch Sex and the City, the big catch for one of the girls is some guy on Wall Street. The zeitgeist has changed. Now Wall Street is demonized and attacked in popular culture. Don’t get me wrong; they’re still making money, but the perception is different, and rightly so. I think the public hates them.
Given your distrust of Wall Street, what do you tell people who are just getting started as investors?
If you’re 30 years old, the biggest thing you should be doing is saving and dividing the money into a stock portfolio. You don’t necessarily need a broker to do that, by the way. Open a Charles Schwab account. If you put your money in an S&P 500 fund a couple of months after Tim Geithner became Treasury secretary for Barack Obama, you made a lot of money. When you start accumulating assets, having a broker isn’t a bad thing. People tend to believe anything their broker says about tech stocks, but they tend not to believe everything a used car salesman says about a car. You need to understand the markets, because your broker has an agenda. There’s a good chance he’ll try to sell you some shit. If you understand that, you’ll be okay. By the way, you can’t get a real broker right now unless you have about $500,000.
It’s cruel that the people who most need financial advice can’t get it. That’s changed over the past 30 years, right?
Yes. I broke a story when I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal that I’ll never forget. In 1999 I got a call from a Merrill Lynch broker on Long Island, where they do a lot of high-net-worth investing. He said, “My branch manager sent around a memo today. He doesn’t want us dealing with poor people.” He faxed me the memo. “We at Merrill Lynch want to deal with the future rich people of the world. As a result, you cannot take an account for less than $100,000. If you want to deal with poor people, you can get a nice job at the United Way.” When I contacted Merrill, they tried to get me to not write the story. “What can we trade you not to write this story? You want an interview with our CEO?” I said no way. The story was too good.
So for people who don’t have brokers, are there people on television they should pay attention to?
Me. Listen to me. No, I try not to give investment advice. One of the things I like about Fox Business Network is that we don’t tout stocks, unlike CNBC. I worked at the other network and have a lot of friends there, but that’s a network of touting. Be very suspicious of that. You always step on your dick when you listen to touts.
Is Jim Cramer a tout?
Jim Cramer’s a friend of mine. I don’t think he’s evil. I think there’s a perception that he’s out there to screw people. He’s not. Listen, the best hitters in baseball hit .300, right? Warren Buffett has screwed up a gazillion times.
Who do you want to see in the White House in 2016?
Marco Rubio, because he’s a free-market person, but Hillary Clinton would be a better candidate, if she’s not defined by the far left of her party. This will show you what an enigma I am at times: I’ve been reading stuff about Elizabeth Warren, and I agree 100 percent. She was talking about the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. Jack Lew and Bob Rubin wrote an exemption on Dodd-Frank that allows banks to no longer put derivatives in a subsidiary. What the fuck is that? Fucking Citigroup is writing that law. I agree with everything Elizabeth Warren said. Sometimes people at Fox think I have a little Trotskyite mustache. They think I’m a little too liberal.
Your politics are difficult to figure out. You call Wall Street evil, but you like free markets. You’re in favor of gun control. You occasionally say good things about Obama. How does that go over at Fox?
I’m not the most right-wing nut in the world. Far from it. I was on the air the other day when Ben Stein called Al Sharpton a weasel. I said, “Let’s be clear, he’s not a weasel. I’ve known Al Sharpton a long time. I don’t like a lot of stuff he does, but he raises some important issues about the way the black community perceives police forces in this country.” I never got so many nasty tweets! People called me a greaseball for defending Sharpton. I told a few people to go fuck off.
Why did you leave CNBC for Fox?
I wanted to work here. This was my career path: a bunch of shitty publications to a less shitty publication to New York Newsday, then I finally got to The Wall Street Journal. I was making pretty good money at CNBC. Did I get paid more by Fox Business Network? Absolutely. I have zero stock options, just so you know. God forbid I had stock options tied to our ratings right now, because I’d be in real trouble. But if it works out here—I’m not saying it will happen, but it might—the payoff is going to be great. And not just the money payoff, but the payoff of creating something.
Fox Business Network is struggling much more than Fox News, in terms of ratings. What does Fox do well?
One of the biggest problems with TV is predictability. I know Rachel Maddow really well, and she’s brilliant, but she’s predictable. The rest of them on MSNBC, I always know what they’re going to say. Fox is actually really good at this. It’s less predictable. You may not think so, but I’m telling you, Bill O’Reilly is not doctrinaire. There’s more of a debate at Fox than on other networks. Do I think Sean Hannity likes President Obama? No. Do Ed Henry and James Rosen hate Obama? No way. We have both sides of the story. CNN does too, but I think we do it better. There has to be a reason our ratings are better.
You covered Eliot Spitzer starting in the late 1990s, when he was attorney general of New York and prosecuted Wall Street executives and sued Richard Grasso, who was chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. Did you know Spitzer was a creep before the rest of us knew?
I don’t consider him sleeping with hookers being a creep. I’m more of a libertarian when it comes to stuff like that. That’s his personal life. My wife would hate me to say that, and not one woman on the planet will agree. He was a creep in terms of the hypocrisy. He busted people for that same stuff. He took a deposition of Grasso’s secretary to suggest that Grasso was having sex with her. At one point during a deposition he tried to suggest that Grasso had a love child, just to embarrass him. There was a rumor at some point. Grasso said, “We understand he’s got something going on with some young girl.” That went in one ear and out the other. But I said to Grasso, “Spitzer’s gonna step on his cock someday.” [laughs] I never thought it would be so literal.
Some people are libertarians because they want to be able to take drugs legally and own lots of guns. Are you one of them?
When I was a kid I smoked a little pot and stuff like that, but I was never heavy into drugs. We’re putting African American kids in jail for cocaine. We’re destabilizing lower-middle-class families. Should they be in the same cells as rapists or murderers? Guns are a different story. I don’t think we should be selling submachine guns on the corners, and I know some libertarians who believe that. I disagree with libertarians on a lot of stuff.
You’ve said President Obama fundamentally doesn’t understand the American economy. The stock markets are way up, and unemployment is down. Don’t you owe him an apology?
Listen, the stock market’s better, but who’s making money? Me. Fat cat Gasparino and all the fat cats at Fox. We’re doing great! The average person hasn’t done well. Wages are shitty. If you write code, you get a job. If you want to flip burgers, you can probably get a job. It’s the stuff in the middle that’s getting tight. When Obama first took over, he was threatening to raise taxes and planning a stimulus to get us out of the financial crisis. He was both destimulating the economy and trying to stimulate it. And he should not go on jihads against businesses when he needs them to hire people.
What was your record as an amateur boxer in New York?
Three and one. I had four official bouts, but I’ve been in the ring hundreds of times. I did it for a long time. My mother was begging me to quit. I was going to fight in the Golden Gloves in 1980, and I didn’t, because I got into girls and stuff. I was once sitting at a bar stool, and I saw my sparring partner win the semi-final bout. I was as good as him. That was probably the biggest mistake of my life. That was one of the things that drove me in this business—I decided I’m never going to give up. There’s a persistence in my reporting that I take from that, because I fucked up by skipping the Golden Gloves. My father told me that every day.
Your dad was a tough guy, wasn’t he?
He was a really tough guy, a street guy. He grew up without a father, in a tenement in the Bronx. He was a scout sniper in the Marines. And he worked as a wire lather—it’s a type of ironworker. It was a very dangerous job. He fell off a scaffold 10 times. Maybe that’s why he died in 1985 when I was in journalism school. I don’t know, but he had Parkinson’s disease. He was a blue-collar Democrat who sometimes voted Republican. He was a big Nixon guy but also voted for Teddy Kennedy. And he was very big in his union. He believed that the top one percent shouldn’t control everything. That runs through my veins every day. When Fox goes on the attack against unions, I’m like, Let’s back up a minute.
Was your dad temperamental like you are?
He was a fighter. Some guy threatened my mother once. My father took out an Ernie Banks bat, walked to the guy’s house and stayed there for three hours. I grabbed the bat and ran away, and he still stood there. The cops came. Then the guy called my mother another name, and my father decked him. My old man hated bullies. And that’s part of my thing with Twitter—I hate bullies. Twitter’s full of them, and that pisses me off.
Let’s talk about Twitter. In November you tweeted a number of insults at Ron Insana of CNBC. You called him “fat boy,” “fat slob,” “not just fat but dumb,” “disgusting slob” and, for an encore, “a putrid, balding, disgusting fat-cat bootlicking sycophantic douche.” Is that any way for an adult to talk?
If you’re going to throw the first punch at me, be ready for nuclear war. Telling someone to go fuck themselves is completely within the bounds of ethics, especially when they’re wrong and I’m right. Truth is a defense. The guy we’re talking about is a fat, unctuous, sycophantic Wall Street suck-up. He’d been saying stuff about me behind the scenes, and then one day he said it on Twitter, and I lost it. I’m a combative person. I have to admit, I am kind of a prick at times. Even my friends will say, “He’s an asshole.”
Does your wife read your Twitter posts?
Yes. And she says, “Oh my God, what are you doing?” Often.
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