Clarence W. Barron, father of financial journalism, was full of contradictions

Clarence W. Barron, father of financial journalism, was full of contradictions

The interview is typical Barron, full of bravado, prescience, and an occasional blind spot. Barron, who founded this magazine in 1921, was among the most powerful people of his time—father of financial journalism, a force in conservative thought, counselor to tycoons and statesmen. Barron would be dead in just over a year. And brokers’ loans, taken out to cover margin loans to speculators, would be cited as a culprit in the stock market crash of 1929. His long public life was full of contradictions. He brought down Charles Ponzi yet admired Cornelius Vanderbilt and other “robber barons.” His political heroes were Calvin Coolidge and Benito Mussolini. And the man who said “commerce is broader than nationalism and must overstep seas” took a distinctly colonial stance toward other cultures.

“How about brokers’ loans?” asked the reporter. “The United States is the financial Atlas of the world,” Barron said in a June 1927 interview in this magazine, and America’s banking system “surpasses that of any other country in the world.”

“Not worth a minute of discussion,” replied Barron. “Brokers’ loans are of no consequence.” Clarence Barron surveyed the scene and liked what he saw.

“I am buying Mack Truck for a little speculation,” Walter P. Chrysler told Barron in 1927. “We are paying $3, and I think we shall earn $9 this year.” Barron was free to use such tips and surely did. Whether he assigned “stories promoting companies whose shares he owned,” as Marshall Loeb claimed in Time magazine in 1988, is hard to prove. Barron grew wealthy, with a prime residence on Beacon Street and a summer home in Cohasset, Mass., that sold for $27 million in 2010. He moved in the same social circles as the rich and powerful he covered, and conversations inevitably turned to investing.

After a year managing The Wall Street Journal, Barron bought Dow Jones in 1902 for $130,000 (about $4 million today). On his watch, the Journal’s circulation grew from 7,000 to more than 40,000; Barron’s reached 30,000 by 1927. He was a complicated man in fast-changing times. Born in Boston in 1855, Clarence Walker Barron won awards for school essays and wrote for newspapers as a teen. He was the Boston Evening Transcript’s financial editor when, in 1887, he founded the Boston News Bureau, sending financial news by messenger for a dollar a day.

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