Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Have No Fear, Richard Sparks Is Here! (And Here. And Here. And Here.)

Seventeen minutes ago, reporter Jack Healy posted today's rundown of the New York Stock Exchange's 411-point drop on, under the headline, "Dow Down 411 on Investor Worries."

In the third paragraph, Healy turns -- as reporters so often do -- to an expert to explain the day's events. Today's expert is Richard Sparks.

“It’s just a downward spiral caused by fear,” said Richard Sparks, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research. “We’ve got bad news everywhere.”

Good quote! But if it sounds a little generic, maybe even a little familiar, maybe that's because Sparks has said it before, over and over again, with only a slight variation, to five different Times reporters in the last two months.

Yes, it seems Dick Sparks is that human commodity reporters love more than anything: the quote machine, the gift that keeps on giving. And apparently, the Times doesn't mind allowing Sparks to appear repeatedly in the newspaper of record, handing reporters his hopped-up homilies about the stock market for their constant use.

Sparks had been quoted in the Times before the latest financial crisis, of course, but recent events pushed him to a prominence he'd never had before. The latest run on Sparks quotes began on September 19, in a story by Vikas Bajaj and Michael M. Grynbaum called "Investors, Hungry for Hope, Send Dow Up 410." Sparks had this to say:

“It’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen,” said Richard Sparks, an analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research.

Sparks turned up next two weeks later in an October 3 story by Grynbaum -- again, on page 1 of the business section -- entitled "Persistent Anxiety Over Tight Credit Sends Stocks Plunging." Again, Sparks stoked the notion of investor fears.

“There is uncertainty on every front right now,” said Richard Sparks, an analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research. “There is an inordinate amount of fear in the market.”

Less than a week later, Sparks landed his next Times quote, again under a Grynbaum byline -- this one shared with Keith Bradsher -- in an October 9 business section story called "For Dow, Final Swing Was Down."

“It just feels like more of the same,” said Richard Sparks, an analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research. “This is an extremely weak market with a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

Sparks is right -- it does feel like more of the same!

The next day he got quoted again. This time, however, Grynbaum apparently passed off Sparks's phone number to his colleague, Vikas Bajaj. In Bajaj's October 10 front page story on that day's market drop -- "Panicky Sellers Darken Afternoon on Wall Street" -- Bajaj quoted Sparks this way:

“There is a downward spiral of fear,” said Richard Sparks, senior equities analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research.

A downward spiral of fear! Wait, isn't that what Sparks just told Healy today? No, not exactly. Today's quote made reference to a "downward spiral caused by fear." Big difference.

Grynbaum took back Sparks's phone number the next week for his October 17 story, "Dow Gains 401 Points in Day of Wild Swings." What would Sparks say to his friend Grynbaum about the upward spiral in the markets?

“These days, 400 points — at least over the last couple of weeks — is par for the course,” said Richard Sparks, an analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research. “I think that the only thing that might bring stability is time.”

Par for the course! Of course.

The very next day, reporter Sharon Otterman borrowed Sparks's phone number for her October 18 stock market roundup, "Dow Falls, but Finishes Up for the Week."

Perhaps buoyed by having a new Times reporter to talk to for a change, Sparks went a little wild.

“The magnitude of the shifts was simply unbelievable,” said Richard Sparks, an analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research. “As long as I live, I may not see another week like this again in the markets.”

That bit of hyperbole may be why Times reporters didn't quote Sparks again for 11 days -- not until Vikaj Bajaj called him for his October 28 story, "Even as Dow Soars 11%, Skeptics Lurk," on the front page of the business section. Chastened, Sparks offered Bajaj something a bit more benign.

Richard Sparks, an analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research, said, “The market is going to have to do a lot more to impress me.”

Okay, Richard, we'll make sure the market keeps that in mind.

Two weeks went by before Sparks's re-emergence on the Times website this afternoon. Let's hope Healy (who frequently covers the market for the website) keeps his phone number handy, so we can all keep careful track of Sparks's fear levels as they fluctuate.

But hey, Healy, remember -- he belongs to Grynbaum.

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