America’s Top Economic & Business Commentators

Canvassing 100 industry insiders and academics, Tunku Varadarajan identifies the most important writers on business and economics who are helping us navigate the turbulent times.

JB Reed / Bloomberg News via Getty Images ,JB REED

JB Reed / Bloomberg News via Getty Images

15. FELIX SALMON

Columnist, Reuters

Salmon is, arguably, the most statistically dexterous journalist in America, and his work has set “a new standard in statistical investigative reporting” (according to the citation that went with a recent award for “excellence” from the American Statistical Association). His reporting on financial markets can be relied on, always, to cut through the considerable chatter at the souk.

Quote-Unquote: “Back in January, the bien-pensant received opinion was that AIG’s stock was worthless, and that the market was delusional in valuing the company at $26 billion. The company’s debts to the U.S. government were just too large, we all said, for there to be anything left over for shareholders. Does anybody still think that way?”

14. ALAN ABELSON

Columnist, Barron’s

Abelson’s weekly column is astute and unvarnished: He avoids fads and popular analysis, reads the footnotes to financial statements, and recognizes steam building in the business cycle or the economy. His skills are undervalued because Barron’s is such a staid publication, lacking sex appeal. But the man himself has a passionate following.

Quote-Unquote: “WE'RE ALL GOLD BUGS NOW! And were he still among the quick, that consummate speculator, John Maynard Keynes, would be stocking up on the barbarous relic along with the rest of us.”

Brendan McDermid / Newscom

13. BARRY RITHOLTZ

Editor, The Big Picture

Ritholtz’s irreverent blog is read on Wall Street, in Washington, and by many “mom & pop” investors. It is centrist and pragmatic, a daily offering of non-ideological, data-driven observations on the markets and the economy. Ritholtz manages to annoy both the left and the right, and he is as harsh on Obama as he was on Bush. Unusually for a blog, his Comments section is outstanding—testimony to the quality of his readership.

Quote-unquote: “For those of you who are stuck in the old Left/Right debate, you are missing the bigger picture. Consider this about the Bailouts: It was a right-winger who bailed out all of the big banks, Fannie Mae, and AIG in the first place; then his left winger successor continued to pour more money into the fire pit.”

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

12. HOLMAN W. JENKINS Jr.

Columnist, The Wall Street Journal

Jenkins has a knack for making markets accessible and dry finance appear like fun. His tone, always irreverent, ranges freely between hilarious and disdainful, and he is particularly adept at spotting—and pricking—cant of any kind. It is a travesty that, as yet, Jenkins has not been awarded a Pulitzer, for there is more than a touch of the Henry Hazlitt to him.

Quote-Unquote: “What was obvious to common sense, the naked eye and the open ear is now systematically upheld in the research of finance professors. To wit, shareholders of large, publicly traded banks have a higher appetite for risk than is compatible with our regulatory system.”

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11. AMITY SHLAES

Columnist, Bloomberg

The engagingly bookish Shlaes often takes on, and bests, the ideas of the Krugmanite left. She has written a memorable book on the Great Depression, " The Forgotten Man, and she operates at the intersection of scholarship and the real world. An English major from Yale, she is an economics autodidact, a condition which could explain her ability to make the subject intelligible to the layman.

Quote-Unquote: “Unlike Palin, Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren doesn’t choose to play up her gender. But it is clear that one reason she was able to push the Consumer Finance Protection Agency into being is that she presents herself as a refreshing picture of maternal common sense.”

Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

10. CHARLES GASPARINO

Senior Correspondent, Fox Business Network

Gasparino is the best business reporter on TV. He broke many of the stories that moved the market when the world was coming apart in 2008. He is influential because he does not kowtow to CEOs, has outstanding sources, and is a very industrious reporter. A man of abrasive charm, he is often described as the “Rocky Balboa” of Fox Business News. (Disclosure: Gasparino also writes for The Daily Beast.)

Quote-Unquote: “Rep. Barney Frank and Co. are getting set for yet another hearing this week on the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-controlled mortgage lenders. Once again, they're not after the truth—they're looking to conceal it.”

Daniel Acker / Getty Images

9. CAROLINE BAUM

Columnist, Bloomberg

The libertarian Baum is an adamant (and elegant) opponent of the neo-Keynesian currents swirling in Obama’s Washington. Her spirited twice-weekly column tends to upend conventional wisdom—the more something is accepted as fact, the more appealing to her the target. (The Daily Beast, in an earlier list of consequential right-of-center media commentators, has already noted her “ uncluttered U-of-Chicago monetarism.”)

Quote-Unquote: “Time is running out for Congress to extend the Bush tax cuts before they expire on December 31. Thank goodness for that. I’m bored with the subject, tired of the debate and sick of the finger-pointing to score political points.”

Mark Mainz / Getty Images

8. GRETCHEN MORGENSON

Assistant Business and Financial Editor, and Columnist, The New York Times

Morgenson is a star in the Times’ outstanding Business section (brilliantly edited by Lawrence Ingrassia). A punctilious reporter, she nails the bad guys, and those who operate in the “gray area” hate her as a result. A Pulitzer-winner, she puts out consistently impressive commentary on ratings agencies, mortgages and Fannie & Freddie, among other subjects.

Quote-Unquote: “It’s one of the toughest lessons an investor has to learn: while the value of assets can plummet posthaste, it takes forever to shrink the debt that was used to buy them.”

Daniel Acker / Getty Images

7. JAMES B. STEWART

Editor-at-large and Columnist, SmartMoney

Stewart is the most levelheaded and dependable of all financial advice writers. His common sense, clarity of prose and mind, and refusal to obfuscate or talk down to his readers, set him apart from other writers in a notoriously dodgy niche of business commentary.

Quote-Unquote: “In April I said I wouldn’t want to own Goldman shares until my confidence in the firm’s integrity was restored. With the firm’s settlement and pledges to do better, I believe that time has come.”

Will Ragozzino / PatrickMcMullan.com

6. MICHAEL LEWIS

Contributing editor, Vanity Fair

Surely the best popular financial journalist in the country, Lewis manages, somehow, to make business stories wildly entertaining. An eloquent chronicler of our financial excesses, among other social phenomena, he is something of a Voltaire for our time.

Quote-Unquote: “…what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was turn their government into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it.”

Joanathan Ernst / Newscom

5. DAVID LEONHARDT

Columnist, The New York Times

One of the reasons why the Times’ Business section often knocks the socks off The Wall Street Journal, Leonhardt is an agenda-setter, and the best economics reporter in America—even when he teases us with a bit of partisan leg. He is—it is said in Washington—President Obama’s favorite economics writer.

Quote-Unquote: “In their Pledge to America, Congressional Republicans have used the old trick of promising specific tax cuts and vague spending cuts. It’s the politically easy approach, and it is likely to be as bad for the budget as when George W. Bush tried it.”

Gino Domenico / Bloomberg via Getty Images

4. DAVID WESSEL

Economics Editor and Columnist, The Wall Street Journal

A survivor of the pre-Murdoch Journal, Wessel is admired for his grasp of economic subject-matter and his ability to explain arcana effortlessly. Of the people we canvassed for this piece, a higher proportion of academic economists raised their hand for Wessel than for any other journalist. Within the paper, he is cherished for mentoring younger writers, which, given our continuing need to be economics-literate, must count as a major public service.

Quote-Unquote: “Even in a country as committed to democracy as the U.S, economic policy cannot and should not be made by public opinion polls, particularly when the public is so closely divided.”

Mel Evans / AP Photo

3. PAUL KRUGMAN

Columnist, The New York Times

Krugman is, shall we say, all over the map in the matter of topics that he covers for his op-ed column: Of the commentators featured in this list, he alone ranges beyond the boundaries of economics and business, and into the territory of pure politics. He is also, almost certainly, the most widely read of the writers featured here—though his writing excites derision and admiration in somewhat equal measure.

Quote-unquote: “…important people have no special monopoly on wisdom; and in times like these, when the usual rules of economics don’t apply, they’re often deeply foolish, because the power of conventional wisdom prevents them from talking sense about a deeply unconventional situation.”

Xinhua / ZUMApress.com

2. MARTIN WOLF

Columnist, the Financial Times

“Professorial” and “magisterial” are two adjectives frequently dispensed by the group we canvassed, in description of Wolf. The FT’s heavyweight economics columnist, he is, many believe, the best macroeconomic journalist in the English language. Reliably wonky, he is never inelegant.

Quote-unquote: “…not only can we deal with the private sector debt overhang by increasing the fiscal deficit, but we must do so. It is the only way of avoiding a deep slump and the immense disruption of mass bankruptcy.”

1. JAMES GRANT

Editor and Publisher, Grant’s Interest Rate Observer

Grant, who has a massive institutional following, is a contrarian with a profound knowledge of financial history. He writes with an enviable, almost courtly, elegance, and has a capacity to simplify complexity unmatched in his field. Also he writes with humility, aware of his (and everyone else's) inability to make foolproof forecasts. A gentlemanly, intellectually adroit conservative, he is at his best when addressing the many follies of the Federal Reserve.

Quote-Unquote: “The trouble with Wall Street isn't that too many bankers get rich in the booms. The trouble, rather, is that too few get poor—really, suitably poor—in the busts.”