COVER STORY PODCAST
Before the market opens on a gloomy mid-October Friday, the hyperkinetic, red-faced Jim Cramer is pacing the floor of TheStreet.com Inc.'s headquarters at 14 Wall Street. He's obsesssing over news reports: The Food and Drug Administration has seized thousands of allegedly faulty drug-infusion pumps made by Baxter International Inc. The company says it's trying to fix the problems as fast as possible. But Cramer is shaking down his "brain trust" of five twentysomethings for leads on which competitors stand to steal a march on Baxter.
"Oh no. Come on!" bellows Cramer, 50, pulling up stock data on the panoply of Bloomberg screens that wallpaper his workstation. "We've gotta get on this!" he barks, launching out of his chair, sleeves rolled up, demanding research reports and calls to Wall Street trading desks and relevant executives. It's barely 9 a.m, but you already know that James J. Cramer will be talking, instant-messaging, writing, and fixating on this pump thing all day long.
It's pouring outside for the eighth straight day. Across the street at the New York Stock Exchange, traders are digesting a bad inflation number that will likely spook the market lower for the third week in a row. It's one of those days that undoubtedly has the average Street drudge plotting his escape with the desperation of a Shawshank lifer.
Cramer has been there and done that. He paid his dues in the '80s as a Goldman, Sachs & Co. () broker, followed by 14 years at Cramer Berkowitz, his $450 million hedge fund, where he earned an average return of 24% a year after fees. There, he had enough mega-paydays to kiss the Street hustle goodbye forever. With a net worth he says is between $50 million and $100 million, you might think Cramer would be out bronzing in St. Barts with daiquiri in hand.
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Instead, he rises at 3.45 a.m. weekdays. After scanning headlines online, checking messages, and shooting e-mails to his TV producer, he works out in his Summit (N.J.) home gym until 5.30 a.m., when he calls traders and brokers and writes his first online story. Later, Cramer carpools his younger daughter, Emma, to school, before setting off on the 75-minute trek to Wall Street. By the time his workday is over, usually around 7 p.m., his driver will have logged 120 miles, Cramer will have banged out six Web columns, done a radio show, and scoured his larynx taping Mad Money, his surreal nightly call-in show on CNBC that is perhaps best described as Louis Rukeyser meets televangelism meets Pee-wee's Playhouse. At some point, he'll work on his monthly column for New York magazine. "I'm hard-core about the market," he says, his bobble-head emerging from a wall of flickering screens.
At one level, none of this makes much sense. With the market trading sideways and in danger of posting its fourth losing year since 2000 -- and real estate still the cocktail party topic of choice -- stockpicking is not exactly a growth industry. (Cramer trades stocks for a charitable trust; he no longer owns any stocks personally, other than his 15.4% stake in TheStreet.com, which he co-founded, worth about $15 million.)
Why, then, is Cramer so in-your-face? In the aftermath of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's attacks on Wall Street research, analysts hide behind weaselly ratings such as "In-Line" and "Equal Weight," and scores of stocks are no longer covered. "The analysts," Cramer pronounces, taking a break from another drug-pump tantrum, "they are colorless and odorless and sanitized and fear Spitzer to the point of death." Even CNBC, he complains, is "terribly gun-shy about being anything but 'corporate crime watch' when people still need to make money."
Cramer senses a huge information vacuum. "You can't just be neutral on everything," he says. "Go see a shrink!" What he sees is a woefully underserved market for unabashed, aggressive stockpicking -- his kind -- that is laced with bombastic sound bites like "Back up the truck!" and "Get the paddles!" and lends itself to the showmanship that has made Mad Money a cult hit with 384,000 nightly viewers. No Warren Buffett, Cramer is a trading mercenary to the core. His rapid-fire in-and-out moves are raising chat room buzz to levels not seen since day traders reigned supreme during the bubble. All of which has turned CNBC's once-moribund 6 p.m. slot into one of its top-rated hours. "What's smart about Mad Money is it does away with the usual boring guests and lets Cramer vent in a way that is hard not to watch," says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz, who profiled Cramer in his book The Fortune Tellers. "It occupies some sort of netherworld between sheer entertainment and useful financial advice."
On-screen antics such as animal noises and airborne chairs don't faze the Cramer faithful. "You could put him in a clown suit for all I care," says Philip Mason, a law student and certified public accountant in Houston who watches Mad Money avidly. "He's an excellent stock screener who gives me ideas when I am not doing that well on my own." Mason credits Cramer for persuading him to get into Motorola Inc. () at 18 in June. (The stock is now at 21.) Cramer also made Brian Johnson, a Mad Money blogger in Tacoma, Wash., wealthier -- albeit unintentionally. Johnson's blog, which tracked Cramer's on-air stock picks, drew as many as 30,000 monthly hits and enough banner ads to make him consider quitting his day job -- until, he says, CNBC slapped him with a cease-and-desist letter. "It was incredible," he says. "Cramer's fans wrote me constantly."
For Cramer, all of this is a long way from his old hedge fund days. "When I took your money," he says, "you owned me. Waive the 13th Amendment. I wanted to get rich -- that was the covenant." Burned out, Cramer cashed out of his hedge fund at the end of 2000 -- the dot-bomb year in which his fund trounced the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index by 38 percentage points.
But his here and now, he insists, is journalism, which he swears was his first love all along. You have to take at least some of that claim at face value. After all, he worked his way up to editor-in-chief of The Harvard Crimson, where he was a rabble rouser with an Afro who led rallies against apartheid and Richard Nixon on the side. An attack in the Crimson on alleged elitism in the history department led, he says, to the administration's withholding his diploma at graduation. "My parents were crying," he says. "It was horrible." (He did finally manage to wrest the diploma from Harvard that summer.)
Upon graduating, Cramer slummed his way through several entry-level reporting jobs in search of his big writing break. Cramer pulls out his wallet and carefully peels out a ripped, sweat-stained pay stub for $172, dated Mar. 1, 1978, from the Tallahassee Democrat, where he covered the Ted Bundy murders. Then-executive editor, Richard Oppel, says "Jimmie was like a driving ram. He was great at getting the story." While that tenacity made Cramer a successful reporter in both Florida and California, his finances were in a shambles after his house was burglarized and checking account emptied. He ended up homeless, and for nine months slept with a .22-caliber pistol and a camping hatchet in his beat-up Ford Fairmont -- a lurid chapter of his life he describes in his memoir, Confessions of a Street Addict.
Cramer recalls getting pulled over by a bunch of Colusa County (Calif.) police officers. "Like I would have a license and registration when I was living in my car," he quips. The officers held him splayed atop the hood of his Fairmont for two hours, pulling his ears. (Cramer thought they were trying to force an armed-robbery admission out of him; in fact, they were looking for a robber with an earring.) "My dad cut off my Amoco card and told me to get a real job," he says. "I hit rock bottom."
ALTHOUGH HIS OLD Harvard Crimson buddies later helped him land a job at The American Lawyer magazine in 1979, when he slept on the floor of his sister's Greenwich Village apartment, Cramer finally yielded to his father's insistence that he apply to law school. "I figured maybe I could become a prosecutor," he says, shrugging his shoulders.
In 1981, Cramer returned to Harvard. There he had access to the just-launched Financial News Network, the forerunner to CNBC. With its nonstop ticker and real-time analysis, FNN rekindled Cramer's long-dormant interest in stocks. As a child in Philadelphia, he used to memorize ticker symbols from business pages that he spread all over the living room floor and ran a fantasy portfolio. While cutting his law classes, Cramer would either be in his dorm watching FNN or at the business school library waiting to pounce on new stock research. "It was unbelievable," he says. "This was it for me. I knew it."
With money he earned working as a researcher for law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, and as a miserable summer intern at the Manhattan law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, Cramer started dabbling in obscure stocks such as Standard Press Steel, American Agronomics, and Bobbie Brooks. "Nothing but oil was working," says Cramer. Still, he felt the market was on the cusp of a big rally, and he maxed out his academic loans to raise money to invest.
As his brokerage account swelled, so did Cramer's obsession with the market. He started leaving stock tips on his answering machine every Sunday night. He recalls, "I was like, 'Hi, this is Jim Cramer. I'm not here right now. Take a look at PEOPLExpress, which has a good business model..."' Dershowitz urged him to register as an investment adviser. Cramer agreed, but says back then he never considered himself more than an amateur with a knack for making money.
ENTER MARTIN PERETZ, editor of The New Republic and Harvard professor, who approached Cramer out of the blue with a $500,000 check. Peretz, who would later co-found TheStreet.com with Cramer and invest in his hedge fund, had been profiting from tips on the answering machine for months (after initially calling to ask him to write a book review), and wanted Cramer to run his money. "He seemed to know very deeply so many stocks," says Peretz, who would prove loyal. "At one point, I was down $80,000 and he didn't give up on me," says Cramer.
Cramer made Peretz $150,000 in two years. He parlayed his record into a three-year stint as a broker to the ultra-rich at Goldman. Then he spent nearly 14 years at his hedge fund, opened in 1987, where he routinely took home $10 million a year and more.
Back to 2005. It's 10:50 a.m. Cramer peeks at his watch, launches himself out of his chair, and is halfway out the door. "My producer is going to kill me," he says. "Pumps! We've got to find out about these pumps. Gimme ideas!" he hollers to his brain trust one last time, struggling into his jacket as he heads for the exit.
With the area in front of the NYSE closed to traffic, Cramer walks 40 yards to meet his driver for the commute to CNBC's studios in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. It's still raining, but Cramer couldn't care less: He lives for this not-so-random walk down Wall Street. This is Cramer as Stock Star, as a Mad Money viewer once called him. The instant he hits the street, he's getting winks and "booyahs!" -- the show's trademark shout-out -- and dumbfounded stares from Wall Streeters and tourists alike. "Look. Look. It's him, the Cramer guy," says a sneaker-clad woman to her husband and two sons. "It's the crazy money man from CNBC," a man on a coffee break whispers into his cell phone, before aiming the phone at Cramer for a snapshot. Just as Cramer settles into the back seat of his BMW 760 and hooks his laptop up to the cigarette lighter, a woman taps on the window. "Could I get a picture with you?" she asks breathlessly. "I love your show." He obliges.
Cruising north along the East River, Cramer wastes no time. "Just let me check some e-mails," he says, pulling out stacks of research and clearing away the newspapers, magazines, and wires littering his mobile control room. The instant his wireless card picks up a signal, messages from his brain trust about several investment themes pop up on his screen: Baxter, Occidental Petroleum (), Africa. Yes, Africa. Fed up with the U.S. budget deficit and what he views as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's intransigence about raising rates, Cramer is on an Africa kick today, looking for gold plays there. After years of making rich people even richer at Goldman and Cramer Berkowitz, Cramer says he wants to help the little guy. "I'm trying to show people at all times what I would be doing at the old job," he says, already halfway through one last online column for the day. "I want to keep you in the game -- keep you from getting discouraged."
To the consternation of his CNBC publicist in the front seat, he blows a kiss to Roger Ailes, the former head of CNBC who left to run Fox News () and is on the verge of launching a Fox business channel. Cramer briefly worked for Ailes after Fox picked up a Street.com show in 1999, when Cramer was in the CNBC doghouse. (Cramer later settled after Fox sued him for playing hooky from the show.) "His attention to product detail was awe-inspiring," says Cramer. "It always came down to 'How often am I helping people make money?"' That's the standard by which Cramer says he wants to be measured.
Cramer's forays into TV and print stockpicking, however, have come at a cost to his reputation. In 1995 he drew the attention of the Securities & Exchange Commission for failing to disclose that his fund owned three stocks he recommended in a SmartMoney column. The magazine later took responsibility for leaving off the disclosure; the SEC wrote to Cramer but never pursued the matter. Still, a former boss at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Frank Lalli, who was then editing the competing Money magazine, said that he felt he should have done a better job instilling a sense of ethics in his young reporter. "I regret that I failed," he wrote. The controversy, Cramer says, made him deeply despondent and put him on medication. "Suddenly," he says, "it's like I'm Ivan Boesky." In December, 1998, CNBC briefly suspended him from its Squawk Box program while it investigated the sell-off in shares of dot-com WavePhore, which he had blasted on the air. (Neither he nor his fund ever had a position in the stock; true to his prediction, it is now worthless.)
So does Jim Cramer actually make people money? Not if you listen to his many critics. Alan Abelson, the longtime voice of Barron's, ripped Cramer's boosterism in an April, 2004, column that argued that Cramer's group of then "super six" stocks resembled his 10 dot-com bubble picks of 2000, which ended up tanking by an average of 90%. "In retrospect," concluded Abelson, "a more fitting description of Mr. Cramer's top 10 picks in February, 2000, given their subsequent melancholy fate and the appreciable number that are no longer with us, rather than 'The Winners of the New World' would have been, 'The Winners of the Next World."'
He's also the target of a regular fusillade of online zingers. "Cramer says Buy, I SHORT BIG TIME," writes a user in a Yahoo! () message board for the stock Yum! Brands Inc. (), which Cramer highlighted on Mad Money as a smart play on the boom in China. "When a stock starts receiving the carnival barker treatment on CNBC, I know it's close to the end." Adds another message board regular: "I can't believe anyone actually watches that idiot. I don't know if he's good or bad at picking stocks; I just know he acts like a total FOOL!"
BUT CRAMER'S FANS have his back. Damon Plonczynski, 27, a New York City cop, says he started watching CNBC five months ago, when he resolved to learn how to invest. "The first thing I turned on was Jim Cramer," he says, "and it just drew me into stocks. He's a motivator for you to do your own homework." Plonczynski regrets that he didn't act on Cramer's homeland security and natural gas stock recommendations. "I'm kicking myself," he says.
At the other end of the expertise spectrum is Douglas A. Kass, president of the hedge fund Sea Breeze Partners Management and an occasional Mad Money guest. "We disagree on more market subjects than we agree on," says Kass, "but we generally learn from one another." Kass says Cramer persuaded him to cover his firm's short position in Time Warner Inc. () stock in spring, 2003, when it was trading at 12. The stock has since gained 50%.
Testimonials aside, Cramer's roster of Picks of the Week from Mad Money since the show started in March have jumped an average of 7.1% after three months, according to BusinessWeek calculations. That's nearly triple the S&P's 2.5% gain and seven times the meager 0.9% advance of the Dow Jones industrial average. By the end of the first day's trading after Cramer unveils his picks, usually on Mondays, they're up an average of 2.2%, vs. drops of 0.1% each on the S&P and Dow. From the day they were picked to Oct. 18, notable winners include Google (), whose shares have soared 35.7% since he recommended them in late April, and Apple Computer Inc. (), up 24.5% since Apr. 11.
Cramer's undisputed dog is Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. () It has fallen 25.1% in the two months since he picked it. "I think I'm going to be eating crow about this one for at least the rest of the year, if not the decade," he said in a special "Day of Atonement" Mad Money that aired on Yom Kippur. "When you're playing with retail, be skeptical -- more skeptical than I was," he said. Cramer readily admits his screwups, both in print and on screen -- where he will wear a Post-it note with the offending stock's ticker symbol on his forehead, just as he used to demand of his hedge fund colleagues. "Look, you have to do your homework," he says, a self-inoculating refrain that he repeats at least 10 times during the course of the day.
"It has nothing to do with being right or wrong," says Eliot Spitzer, Cramer's friend since their days at Harvard Law School, of the chilling effect his investigations and reforms have had on stockpicking. "It was about believing what you said. This is a guy who genuinely loves the market and is as devoted to making it work properly as anyone I know."
But just how valuable is a Jim Cramer pick that's revealed after the markets close and jumps sharply before average investors can buy the next morning? Consider Conexant Systems Inc. (), a semiconductor fallen angel that once traded above 30. On Sept. 19, Cramer made it his pick of the week after it closed at 1.63. The next day, it opened at 1.94 and went as high as 2, a 23% spike, with 82 million shares traded -- nine times the daily average. "Look, it's difficult," he says, blushing. "I was at Kudlow & Cramer for three years and could have stood on my head to recommend a stock, and it would do nothing." He takes a moment to think it over. "My bottom line is, this is a complete work in progress. If I had to do it over on Conexant, I'd say you're an idiot if you buy it at 2."
The "Cramer effect" is making the pros sit up and listen. "He moves the market," says Gregg Goldstein, a Manhattan hedge fund analyst who started paying closer attention to Mad Money after an influential researcher in Brazil devoted an entire report to Cramer's TV analysis of Latin American companies. "He's really infiltrating all these areas -- my friends, my co-workers, my clients," he says. "Everyone knows who he is and what he's saying."
THE CRAMERMOBILE pulls into CNBC's suburban New Jersey campus at 11:35 a.m. Cramer strides into the building. One imagines Mick Jagger gearing up to play Madison Square Garden. Cramer makes a beeline for his producer, Susan Krakower, another hyperactive character who towers over and gleefully bullies Cramer. She persuaded him to consider the Mad Money format and lobbied studio head Jeffrey A. Zucker for the show when Cramer's contract for CNBC's Kudlow & Cramer show ran out in late 2004. (Lifelong Democrat Cramer felt like a fish out of water while co-host Lawrence Kudlow extolled all things Republican, when all Cramer wanted to talk about was stocks.) "Susan knows TV business news," he says, before ducking into her office for the requisite high-fives. "She thinks like Ailes."
Krakower eggs on Cramer's on-screen craziness. "Our job is to seduce," she says. "We have that first minute-thirty to capture you." Today, she has the TiVo () ready to roll. "The chopping of the heads," she says, "that was so riveting. You've got to go with it." For the final show of the week, she wants to replay Cramer decapitating and castrating little plush bulls -- his way of saying that the bears are in control of the market. This summer, she had him film an ad wearing a straightjacket in a padded cell, with two orderlies lifting the drugged stockpicker by his elbows. She boasts that NBC is now advertising Mad Money during its Today Show and across its stable of broadcast and cable programs. "That's how much this network believes in the show," she says, with infomercial zeal and all sorts of finger wagging and arm touching. She ticks off a list of her boardroom backers: "Immelt, Wright, Zucker" (that is, Jeffrey R. Immelt, CEO of CNBC parent General Electric Co., NBC Universal CEO Robert C. Wright). "That's unheard of," she boasts.
Of course, Mad Money, which airs at 6 p.m., 9 p.m., and midnight on both coasts, was less of a gamble than it might seem for CNBC. In the 6 p.m. slot, Cramer averages 184,000 viewers, an 86% gain over Bullseye, the show it replaced in March. Cramer's total audience grew to 384,000 in October, from 338,000 in May. While these figures are dwarfed by those of Fox's Bill O'Reilly, they do finally afford CNBC some lift for its nightly lineup.
It's not yet noon, and Cramer is dousing his gaggle of researchers and editors in a torrent of stream-of-consciousness. "Baxter: Do you like it?" he yells into a speakerphone to a research associate. "How about financials?" "I want more research on Miller Petroleum. I want to flood the place with everything that's not right about Miller." "Peru is really the next Chile. But I can't do Peru and China -- that sends a reckless signal."
Now it's 1:50 p.m. Cramer is recording his daily WOR radio show in a tiny closet in the bowels of the CNBC building. Once again, he's surrounded by flickering Bloomberg terminals. "5,4,3,2,1. The brokers are ridiculously oversold!," he screams. "More in a moment." During the break, he takes off his headphones. "This pump story," he says, "I'm booking the CEO of I-Flow tonight. I don't feel like recommending the stock, but this Baxter news is a fabulous opportunity for another player." After Steve Miller's song Take the Money and Run leads into his next segment, he tells listeners: "I think I can give you information and help build your confidence." After taking several calls and answering a widower's e-mail, he takes the headphones off again. He has just recommended shares in Goldman -- his old stomping ground. "I got sophisticated at Goldman," he says, tapping the side of his head. "So-phis-ti-ca-ted."
Soon, Cramer is again marching down the hall in his sagging pants. With 75 minutes until Mad Money's taping, it's time for makeup. He squints while the circles under his eyes get powdered. A ruff of paper towels protruding from his collar makes him look like a circus clown. "I'm glad I got out of Comcast at a profit," he says, as its ticker rolls past on the TV screen above. True to form -- one look from his exasperated makeup woman confirms as much -- Cramer just can't shut up. "Refco was a false blowup," he babbles. "This is not Long-Term Capital."
Already 13 hours into his workday, Cramer seems no less a workaholic than he was during his reign of terror at Cramer Berkowitz, where he frequently hurled water bottles at associates and smashed keyboards. He even told his partner, Jeff Berkowitz, that he had no business at his daughter's school play when Intel () was about to report its results.
He takes a breather to talk about the impact of his obsessiveness on his family. After a catastrophic 1998 that nearly sank Cramer Berkowitz, the fund netted clients 47% in 1999 and 28% in 2000. "I was killing the market when everyone else was doing badly, and yet I was more miserable than ever," he says. His elder daughter didn't want to be around him, resenting him for being constantly leashed to his investors by phone. "All I did was say, 'Be quiet. Please leave Daddy alone. Daddy has to trade."'
In 2000, Cramer's wife, Karen, gave him an ultimatum: Slow down, or else. She had been a partner at his hedge fund. He still affectionately calls her his "trading goddess" for persuading him to sell out before the 1987 crash and buy into the October, 1998, panic. (She declined to comment for this story.)
The tipping point came just before Thanksgiving, 2000, on a trip to Las Vegas with his dad. After ignoring his dad to call in orders to his fund for hours, Cramer suddenly turned to him and said they were clear to go to dinner. His dad exploded: "'You're 46 years old, and this is what you're doing?"' Cramer recounts. "'You don't care about anything but the fund. How can you be so miserable?"'
Cramer says the incident forced him to rethink his life. Later, he cashed out of the fund, handing full control to Jeff Berkowitz. "Easy come, easy go," Cramer says, with a clap. These days, his daughter's morning carpool is his top priority. "I never miss," he says. "It's inviolate." On weekends, Cramer tends to his garden's beefsteak tomatoes and chili peppers and digs night crawlers for bass fishing at his country house.
But for now, the obsessive stock lunatic version of Jim Cramer is wanted in the studio. Producer Krakower is pacing and gorging on popcorn; Cramer is sipping tea. The crew is setting up the remains of the chair he smashed the night before, one leg of which cracked a glass panel on a studio wall.
THE CAMERAS ROLL. Cramer hits a button, and a haunted voice from above yells, "the house of pain!" to cue his cameramen to run to the right. From Cramer's cartoonish-sound-effects console comes the roar of a bull. "O.K., home gamers, listen up: This is what the bottom looks like!" he hollers through a megaphone. "You need to start buying 'cause stocks are going to rise!" he says, later adding: "The Fed's job, which is to kill the economy, is almost done! Pretty soon Greenspan is going to be in Sunrise Senior Living."
Cramer explains that because the ratio between ordinary investors and pros who've sold stock short -- one of his favorite contrarian indicators -- is at a five-year high, the moment is ripe to buy. To drive home the point, he goes full throttle with his effects -- from machine gun fire to crashing bowling pins to barking dogs, and a hideous clip of a screaming man flying out of a glass building.
After a commercial break, viewers who have been holding the line for as long as an hour finally get to talk to Cramer. "Let's go to Ashley from Georgia," he says. "A big boo-yoo-hoooya to ya, Jim!" she drawls. "I'm heavily invested in oil, and it's been very bad the last 10 days. I'm wondering: Are we gonna get hit again?" Cramer signals his continued bullishness wordlessly by hitting his load-up-the-truck button. Another chair hits the wall, as Cramer goes through 25 calls in his lightning round, in which viewers get a few seconds to ask his view on a stock. "Investing in Citibank is like investing in a Sunday school ethics class!" he tells one. "Schwab!" () He slams his fist into his Buy button four times. "Am I making myself clear?"
The show closes on a calmer note with the CEO of I-Flow on the phone for 105 seconds on the hot seat. "Sir," Cramer asks, "do we have an opportunity for you to take [market] share with the Baxter recall? Do you not sell products in similar situations?" The CEO guardedly agrees, and Cramer gives I-Flow a halfhearted endorsement: "It's O.K., it's not great."
Even so, the stock's message boards are already abuzz. "Cramer seemed positive toward IFLO [sic] so we may get some volume & positive action next week," says a user at 7:09 p.m. "This pump," Cramer mumbles to himself, shaking his head as he exits the studio, hoarse, red-faced, and soaking.
By Roben Farzad