Putting the fun back in funds | VailDaily.com

Putting the fun back in funds

Randy Wyrick
Special to the DailyThe 250 people who attended the Minyanville in the Mountains event manage more than $15 billion.

VAIL ” Some of the brightest minds in this spiral arm of the financial universe banged bulls, bears and baseball bats in the Minyanville softball smackdown. When the smack was spoken and the bulls and bears tallied their wins and losses, it was Mighty Casey meets Minyanville with no one quite sure whose side the beer was on.

Minyanville is a magical land where ideas and information are freely exchanged, along with a healthy dose of irreverence and virtual high-fiving, except when they get together once in a while and the high-fiving is real.

Everyone with a Web site and a server is trying to “build community” by getting the people who visit to linger for more than 10 seconds and possibly even interact with one another.

But how many of those communities are inhabited by people willing to pony up a sizeable pile of their own American dollars to travel from all over God’s green Earth for a family reunion in Vail? Hundreds attended to enjoy the workshops, the softball and one another.

Welcome to Minyanville.

Minyanville is what so many others are trying to create on the Web without nearly this level of success. Todd Harrison’s aim is to do for finance what ESPN did for sports, MTV did for music and Discovery did for science.

“No one has ever done it for finance,” said Harrison, formerly a vice president at Morgan Stanley and president of the $400 million hedge fund Cramer Berkowitz.

“If Walt Disney can do it with two rodents, Mickey and Minnie, we can do it,” Harrison said.

Toward that end, cartoon characters Hoofy and Boo were created by an Oscar-nominated artist. Hoofy is the optimistic bull, and Boo is the pessimistic bear, representing the two major market philosophies people are familiar with.

“People get it. People from the financial media look at it and ask, ‘Is it finance or entertainment?’ The answer is ‘Yes,'” Harrison said.

They’re off to a rocking start with 2 million page views per month, the same neighborhood as CNN and MSNBC ” a pretty nice neighborhood. Minyanville is now in 110 countries and includes some of the smartest people in the financial world.

Minyanville’s Buzz and Banter provides real-time investment information and advice as the trading day unfolds. You’ll find between 60 and 100 Buzz posts every day, besides all the commentary going back and forth constantly.

Now they’re going beyond giving one another investment advice to creating cradle-to-grave financial education called “ABC to 401(k).”

“The goal is to teach people to think for themselves,” Harrison said. “Finance is intimidating, but it’s so important. We’re an ADD society in an information-overload world.”

Not so long ago, late one night at the end of yet another 20 hour day, Todd Harrison sat with his head in his hands and wondered something like, “If I had a brain, would I have it out on the table and be playing with it?”

The World Trade Center had collapsed six blocks from his Manhattan office. Harrison watched people throw themselves to their deaths ” he was one of those running the other way through the dust and soot.

He was swapping instant messages with a friend on the 102nd floor who told him he’d just fallen in love. Then he didn’t say anything more.

“People were falling from the buildings like ants,” Harrison said. “When the second plane hit, it shook the entire area; it shook our entire world.”

About the same time, his beloved grandfather had died and Harrison had spent every weekend for months at his bedside in Miami. His death left a big hole in Harrison’s life where the love used to be.

His response? He walked away from Wall Street gigs managing hundreds of millions of dollars for thousands of people to launch a Web site featuring cartoon characters who teach you how money works. He went from getting people to do what he needed them to do because he was paying $90 million a year in commissions, to something in the neighborhood of “I’ll buy you a beer later.”

“You learn who your friends are,” Harrison said.

Harrison has a great group of friends. About 250 or so were just in town to do a little fishing, play a little tennis and softball, ride horses and swap stories and insight. You should know they’re among the most influential money managers is this spiral arm of the universe. More than $15 billion under management was represented by various hedge fund managers.

You should also know that there’s a conspicuous lack of federal indictees on the roster ” as in none ” a relatively hopeful occurrance in the Ken Lay and Dennis Kozlowski era.

The night of Sept. 11, 2001 he was at his desk trying to write a financial column, which seemed so silly. Occasionally his phone would ring, friends anxious to know if he was still alive.

“What comes from that perspective is perspective,” Harrison said. “Sometimes it takes something bad to make us know when we have it good.”

He fell into writing quite by accident. The Cramer in Cramer Berkowitz took a couple days vacation and told Harrison to cover his column on thestreet.com. Good writers write about what they know about, and Harrison knows about making money work and pop culture ” which more or less explains why his columns were peppered with Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin lyrics and laugh lines from Animal House.

Apparently, irreverence is an idea whose time had come because when Cramer returned, Harrison had more Web hits.

The word “minyan” comes from the biblical term for quorum. Harrison uses “critters” to illustrate marketplace characteristics illustrated by Daisy the Cow, Hoofy the Bull, Snapper the Turtle, Boo the Bear and Sammy the Snake.

Harrison learned about the power of the Internet when wrote about his grandfather and letters of support and encouragement poured in. He sat at his grandfather’s bedside and read some. Some he didn’t. All he cherished.

He started Minyanville in 2003 to occupy his time and talent, and the Rudy Peck Foundation in his grandfather’s honor. The foundation runs the Critters Choice Awards. Harrison ended up with a Fender Stratocaster guitar signed by, among others, Warren Buffet. He sold it on eBay for $60,000 and gave the money away.

These days, Harrison is preaching capital preservation, debt reduction and savings.

“How long has it been since savings was an investment advice?” he asked.

Debt at all levels is at an all-time high. The federal deficit is 330 percent of the annual gross domestic product. Corporate debt is spiraling and consumer debt is at record highs and climbing. With increasing energy costs and other daily expenses increasing, Harrison said some of the increasing consumer debt is people using credit cards to pay for essentials.

The man is honest about his position in all this.

“I stand to gain from continued prosperity, but we’ve never had to take our medicine and it’s past due,” he said. “We’re at the biggest bubble of all time. This debt situation is like a drunk who needs some time to sober up and we just keep feeding him shots to keep him feeling good. It’s been that way since 2001.”

Business Editor Randy Wyrick can be reached at 748-2977 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado

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