When Joe Granville Speaks, Small Wonder That the Market Yo-Yos and Tickers Fibrillate
04/06/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
Joseph Granville may be the clown prince of investment advisers, but lately his flamboyant approach has left fewer and fewer ticker-watchers laughing. The Florida-based stock market seer travels 150,000 miles a year to make his claim that "everyone I touch, I make rich." Standing before audiences that are almost always SRO, he mugs, mocks and flirts, and has even been known to drop his pants to get a point across. He has been called a buffoon, a jerk, a crackpot and a genius. Says Louis Rukeyser, host of PBS' Wall Street Week: "He is the most controversial man in American finance."
Or at least the most publicity-minded. A three-hour oration that Granville, 57, delivered in a Vancouver, B.C. ballroom was typical. Not content merely to talk stocks, he plunged into earthquake prediction. He announced that next week—April 10, to be precise—a powerful tremor will shred California 23 miles east of Los Angeles; in another speech he said Phoenix would become "beachfront property." How can he tell? "I follow 33 earthquake indicators," Granville explains. "If you knew what I knew, you couldn't keep quiet."
In hopes that he does know something, at least about stocks, more than 13,000 subscribers pay $250 a year for his weekly Granville Market Letter. Another 3,000 ante up $500 for the Granville Early Warning Service, which fires off advisory bulletins to clients by telephone and telex.
Early this year that service flashed a bit of advice that is now part of Wall Street legend. Late on Jan. 6, just three days after Granville's newsletter had urged aggressive buying because the market was headed "straight up," his hot line offered contradictory counsel. Thirty staffers at Granville's headquarters in the Daytona Beach suburb of Holly Hill worked until 3 a.m. to deliver a brief, urgent message: This is a Granville Early Warning. Sell everything. Market top has been reached. Go short on stocks having sharpest advances since April. Click.
A selling stampede triggered by the warning hit the stock market as soon as it opened a few hours later. By day's end the Dow Jones average of 30 blue-chip industrial stocks had plunged from a four-year peak of 1,004 to 980. Nearly 93 million shares were traded, making Jan. 7 the busiest day in the Big Board's 188-year history.
Granville's pleasure at what he had wrought only increased as the Dow continued its decline over the next five weeks. "I'm paid to put you in at the bottom and take you out at the top," he told audiences smugly. "I have no ego when it comes to the market. When it says 'Move,' I get down on my knees and say 'Yes, master.' " Why the January about-face? The bullish newsletter, he explains, was based on data that were overtaken by events. "I will never make a serious mistake in the stock market again," he boasts.
In fact, Granville has called, to the day, three of the four major market turns since 1979. Nonetheless, he has missed some lesser squiggles. On Jan. 19 he said the Dow would sink below 900 by Feb. 23. It didn't. On Feb. 24 he said it would drop 16 points the following day. It rose eight points. On March 6 he said the Dow would fall below 900 before it topped 1,000. Wrong again. Says Stan Weinstein, editor of the Professional Tape Reader, a service that competes with Granville's: "He tells unsophisticated audiences that he'll never make another mistake and they believe him. That's dangerous."
No one is neutral on Granville. Says Lou Rukeyser: "There are clear lines separating those who swear by him and those who swear at him." Joe isn't shy about swearing back. He scorns bank trust officers and others who try to forecast the market's direction in traditional ways—by noting trends in corporate earnings, interest rates and other obvious influences on investor thinking—as mere "bagholders." In Granville's lexicon, the Wall Street Journal is the "Bagholders News." He derides economist Alan Greenspan as "a bespectacled prune," named a chimpanzee "Dwarfman" after financial writer Dan Dorfman, and calls the sardonic Rukeyser "Crab Louie." On a recent Donahue show, Granville looked into his host's eyes and announced, "Phil, you're a loser."
In Granville's view, "The degree of public stupidity when it comes to the market is incredible." He maintains that the price of stocks and the overall direction of the market are set simply by supply and demand, and that all other factors—profits, the cost of money, et al—are superfluous. To chart the market's course, he keeps tabs on a group of 18 indicators, among them the daily volume of shares traded and the ratio of rising stocks to declining ones. Because the market's direction can change rapidly, Granville says, "long-term investing is for suckers."
In conversation, Granville is a fountain of dates, facts and figures. Every other sentence is punctuated with "boom"—as in "Truth is Truth. Boom." Though he has lately become wealthy, he still spends seven and a half months a year on the road, bunking in hotels and living out of a tattered suitcase. Separated from his second wife since 1971—their divorce became final last year—he chain-smokes Marlboros, tosses back Margaritas and disco-dances until dawn. In the company of old or new pals, he unwinds by playing poker or trading purple jokes. With women, whom he often calls "Frisbees," he is forever playing the ladies' man. At a restaurant, he may greet a waitress by chortling expansively, "Do you know who I am, honey?" She rarely does, but often delivers her phone number with his brandy. Says Joe: "Women are interested in men who can make them rich. Boom."
Granville, on the other hand, is interested in snaring an audience. Under the sponsorship of one securities firm or another, he makes a half-dozen appearances each month before investors who are eager to see him perform—especially since the show is free. Occasionally his act begins with a startling entrance. At an auditorium in Seattle, he slithered to the stage from a 100-foot wire in the wings, wearing his customary shiny After Six tuxedo. In Anchorage, Alaska, he arrived on a dogsled. In Tucson, he walked across a swimming pool on a camouflaged board, picked up a microphone and announced, "Now you know." He has appeared in blinking bow ties, in togas, in undershorts imprinted with stock quotations. "When people are entertained," he reasons, "they remember three times as much."
Actually, the Gospel according to Joe is a simple one. It is that the brokerage industry is geared to relieve investors of their money, while the stock market itself is an independent entity with no hidden motives. "Wall Street is structured to make you a loser," he says. "I want you to be a winner. What do OPEC prices have to do with the market? Nothinnnnggg! What does war have to do with the market? Nothinnnnggg! What do gold, hostages and inaugurations have to do with the market? Nothinnnnggg!"
Granville makes almost nothing in fees from these appearances, but claims that as many as 15 percent of the people he speaks to sign up for one of his services, and that each performance nets his firm more than $100,000 in new business. From wherever he is, Granville dictates his market letter to his Florida office every Thursday morning. Blanchard Granville, 28, his partner and eldest son, adds supporting technical data and gets the full six-page epistle into the mails on Saturday.
Granville's passion to achieve financial clairvoyance may stem from his youth. The son of a Yonkers, N.Y. banker, he saw his father lose all in 1929. "It wasn't the market that did it," Joe maintains. "It was Wall Street. If he had followed what I teach, he'd have made $8 million on the Crash."
In those days, though, Granville's talents weren't so shrewdly directed. At 15, he was sent away to Woodstock, III. to attend the Todd School, an institution for gifted boys whose other alumni include Orson Welles. Later he majored in economics at Duke and wrote two books on investing in stamps while serving in the Navy in the Marshall Islands during World War II. Married in 1945 to a Smith graduate named Katherine Reese, he was divorced two years later. "When I came back from the war we were strangers," he says. "One night I awakened in a cold sweat and said, 'Honey, we're splitting.' I never saw her again. Boom."
Four years later he married Paulina Delp, a Juilliard-trained pianist. They settled in New Jersey and started a brood of eight children, now aged 29 to 15. In 1956 Granville, then publisher of a philatelic investment letter, went to Merrill Lynch in hopes of becoming an analyst, but failed the aptitude test. Later E.F. Hutton hired him to write its daily market letter. "Joe was his own man," recalls his old boss, Robert Stovall, now a Dean Witter VP. "Even then he attracted acolytes. The type of guy who wears an overcoat in the summer would hang around him and discuss silver or the planets." After seven years he quit to write a textbook on technical analysis and, eventually, to launch his advisory service.
The Granvilles moved to Florida in 1966. Five years later Joe and Polly separated. "Talk about incompatibility," he says. "She would get tired at 9:30. I don't come awake until 1 a.m. She decided she didn't want me smoking in the house. I like to have a drink. She doesn't drink. Boom."
After that, says Granville, "My wife literally kicked me out of my house. I wound up sleeping on the floor of my one-room office." For a while Joe's fledgling market letter wasn't doing much better. It barely survived the 1973-74 bear market, largely because Granville was consistently wrong. Over the next three years he used his spare time to refine his market strategy, revise his textbook and publish a new volume, How to Win at Bingo.
Granville's luck changed in November 1977, when Jack Arnold, a Minneapolis broker, asked him to hold a seminar for prospective clients. "Joe told everybody that the market was going to go down like the Titanic," Arnold recalls. "Then in February 1978 he called and gave us a buy signal. We thought he was crazy, but it turned out to be the market bottom." After running two more seminars, Joe flew home to find $8,000 worth of newsletter subscription orders in his mailbox.
The following year, while Granville was performing in Atlanta, his 21-year-old son Paul died of asphyxiation. The coroner ruled it a suicide. "He got mixed up with one of those swamis that program your mind," says Joe sadly. "If he had been my only child, then I would have lost 100 percent, but God was kind to me; he gave me eight and the majority are alive. I'm probably a lousy father," he adds. "I'm too much of a kid myself." "Offstage, Dad is a pushover," says son Blanchard. "Yet he's not the type to sit in front of the fire and read to his kids. He loves his family, but he's hyper."
Since Blanchard joined the firm in 1978, as a 50-50 partner with his father, it has flourished. The company earned $6 million in 1980, and this year is expected to clear $10 million. Joe Granville tucks his gains away in money market funds and tax-sheltered investments in coal mines and real estate. He does not own any stocks; the Securities and Exchange Commission would not allow a forecaster with his influence to be playing the market. Blanchard, however, does some trading. "But I never touch any of the stocks we recommend," he says. "The money is not important. I do it just so I'm on the firing line." In the Jan. 7 market tumble, Blanchard lost $20,000.
Though Granville has shows booked for the next six months, there are signs that his vaudeville is beginning to make sponsors uneasy. To mute his image a bit, he last month spent $2,000 on three sober pin-striped suits. "We're in a bear market," he says. "People's money is on the line, and they don't have a bullish sense of humor."
Though his gift of prophecy has lately been suspect, Granville insists that the market topped out on St. Patrick's Day, when the Dow hit 992, and that it's all "straight down from here." Is he right? "The market is that creation of man that has most humbled him," observes Newton Zinder, the analyst who replaced Granville at E.F. Hutton. "The ones who usually make the biggest mistakes are those who predict they will never make a mistake." Hutton is talking, but Granville, for one, isn't listening. "My system is as pure as it can be," he says. "I'm trusting the market. It hasn't let me down for six years." Boom.