By Alex Dixon
Born in New York City in 1931, Alfred Malabre wrote for The Wall Street Journal for 36 years, from 1958 to 1994. He’s written seven books about the economy and is currently living in Charleston, S.C., where he still occasionally writes about golf for the Journal’s Encore page.
He spoke with UNC-Chapel Hill student Alex Dixon about how he covered the economy, his thoughts on the state of journalism, and learning about gold from the man who inspired the Goldfinger character in the James Bond film.
What drew you to economics reporting?
My father gave me a six-month subscription to the Journal, which I never read, and I think he hoped I’d go to work on Wall Street or something instead. I thought hey this is a damn good paper and this is when the Journal’s circulation was just beginning to take off. So I decided to apply to this place. So instead of going to work on Wall Street I ended up working in Europe and going all over the world. The managing editor offered me the chance to start an economic beat, and I grew to like it very much. But I didn’t major in economics in college; I was an English major. But I discovered there’s a lot of meat there.
Where did your grasp on economics come from without the background in it?
It was really just osmosis and a lot of reading. A lot of hard work. A lot of talking to important people. Because I worked for the Wall Street Journal, that opened a lot of doors. When I was wet behind the ears on the new beat, the managing editor said you ought to try to learn something about gold. So I called up Charlie Engelhard, who ran a huge gold investment company and he was the model for Goldfinger in the James Bond film.
He gave me a lot of knowledge that he had about how the gold market works, how gold is mined. But gold isn’t as important anymore. Some of my early stories were very naïve. For example, I once wrote a story which appeared in the paper that said because people were borrowing more and going deeper into debt this was a bad thing but actually if you go deeper into the data over decades you’ll find that borrowing is good for the economy.
What kind of stories were you writing? Were you strictly covering the economy? Were you making economic predictions?
Well, it wasn’t so much predictions as it was analysis of data. And I used to interview people like Arthur Burns and Alan Greenspan. So I would say it was a combination of analysis, a little bit of forecasting, but mainly sort of taking stuff and very often I would try to find something that was important but hadn’t been really written about. In 1968, one of the things that the Democrats were saying was that the Republicans are the millionaire’s party and blah blah.
And I went back and got some statistics and I discovered that actually rich people do better under the Democrats than they do under the Republicans. And that’s still true today, by the way. The easy money policy of the Fed has enabled people who are wealthy enough to own stocks to do very, very well. People of more limited means tend to keep their money in savings accounts and CDs and that sort of stuff and because the rate of the expansionary money policy of the Fed has kept interest rates so low, people with those sort of savings are getting very slim return on their money.
On the other hand, someone who has more money and tends to invest more in stocks would’ve made a killing. But anyways, that’s the sort of stuff I looked for. I tried to be very impartial and I’ve never been a registered Republican or a registered Democrat. I pretty much tried to call it as I saw it.
How were you were able to bring economics to a relatable level for readers?
The Wall Street Journal is not a technical newspaper. We don’t print economic formulas or econometrics. If I got an economic study from Brookings or something, I could at least understand what they were talking about but then I had to translate that to a language that the layman could understand. That was a very important part of the job. I think that’s very important in journalism in general. And the first book I ever wrote was precisely trying to make economics understandable. In fact, the title of it was Understanding the Economy for People who Can’t Stand Economics.
What were your inspirations for your seven books?
I never thought I’d write any books. And I was approached by a guy who was the editor of a firm that’s now defunct. He sent me a letter and said “I’ve been reading your column and we think you write very clearly. We think there’s a market for a book that’s sort of understanding economics for the layman.” So I said sure, what the heck. And the last book, Lost Prophets, I think that’s the most sophisticated of the books I wrote, was written for Harvard Business School Press. And that was more academic. It has been used not as a textbook, but as supplementary reading in a number of economics courses.
And in Lost Prophets, you kind of introduce the reader to various economists from the last century, correct?
Lost Prophets really begins in post World War II beginning with the Bretton Woods Conference. The first chapter’s about the international monetary system and it really goes one through the different theories: you know supply side economics, etc. And the basic theme of the book is that economists become so absorbed in this theory or that theory that they tend to forgot that there’s a basic pattern to economic activity. And they can tweak it but they can’t really change things that much.
It seems people get unhappy with these theories and they get replaced or discredited to an extent, for example with Keynesian economics in the ’70s. So how do you think economics coverage has changed over the years that you’ve done it and how is it continuing to change?
Well, I think it’s still good. I don’t read a heck of a lot of papers anymore. When I worked I used to get free subscriptions to everything under the sun but now the only thing I don’t have to pay for is the Wall Street Journal. I think the Journal’s coverage is good. The Journal’s changed a bit since I was in it. I guess with Murdoch now they have guys all over the world.
When I went abroad in 1960, we had a grand total of four guys covering the whole of Europe. And in those days newspapers weren’t pinching pennies like they are now. Heck, I used to stay at the Ritz. No more, those days are over. I’m not too optimistic about print journalism in general although I love it. In the morning, there’s no way in hell I’m going to sit in front of the computer to read the Wall Street Journal. I want to hold something in my hands.
Alex Dixon, a native of Gastonia, N.C., is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in economics and journalism.