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Why Did Financial Flamethrower Zero Hedge Go All in on Conspiracy Theories?
To its fans it’s a top-notch financial analyst publisher. To its detractors it’s trash. But to many it’s an increasingly dark well of tinfoil-hat conjecture.
Banks were overleveraged. House prices were plummeting. Stocks and bonds started to tank.
Then came March 2008.
After 84 years in operation, investment bank Bear Stearns nearly collapsed. The Federal Reserve bailed it out. JPMorgan Chase scooped up its assets. But days earlier, CNBC host Jim Cramer had recommended that the public buy the stock.
Skepticism about traditional financial media was brewing. The public felt like bungled calls were par for the course in financial news.
“There was, during that time, a distrust of traditional financial media,” says Chris Roush, a journalism professor and the blogger behind Talking Biz News. “A lot of people were saying that places like The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times should have warned investors and consumers that we were heading toward the recession and that there was a real estate bubble.”
They did, of course: Roush rightly points out that there were dozens of stories that warned investors and consumers that there was a housing bubble ready to burst. “Investors didn’t heed it,” he notes. Meanwhile, online news readership eclipsed newspapers for the first time, according to a late-2008 study from the Pew Research Center.
In other words, the kindling for a renegade blog like Zero Hedge was piled high. All it needed was a match.
The site’s first post, published on January 9, 2009, and still visible online today, set the tone for a decade to come:
“Wall Street's diarrhea shi(f)ting to Park Street er . . . Avenue.”
The post garnered a single comment.
But Zero Hedge swiftly gained traction, beginning with a series of stories on Goldman Sachs claiming that the bank had used high-frequency trading to profit through the New York Stock Exchange, 2009 reporting by New York Magazine shows. In July of that year, an ex–Goldman Sachs computer programmer had been arrested for stealing computer code from the company. Soon after, Senator Chuck Schumer called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate high-frequency trading. The regulator complied.
Since then, Zero Hedge’s readership has skyrocketed. Google Trends, which tracks web search analytics, shows that searches peaked earlier this year when Twitter banned the site’s account for harassing a scientist who may have had information about the spread of the coronavirus, Buzzfeed reported at the time.
Zero Hedge now publishes dozens of articles each day, ranging from financial analysis to, increasingly, conspiracy theories, most of which are authored by “Tyler Durden.”
Durden is the fictional, nihilistic protagonist of the film Fight Club, which revolves around a man’s journey from white-collar worker to leader of an underground group of men who brawl for entertainment. The character’s iconography is the focus of Zero Hedge’s branding strategy: An image of a shirtless Brad Pitt, who stars as Durden in the 1999 movie, serves as an avatar on Twitter and Zero Hedge’s site. The company’s tagline is a quote from Fight Club: “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
This, in and of itself, encapsulates the Zero Hedge viewpoint. Oft described as a permabear, the site regularly heralds a doom-and-gloom narrative. Recent headlines include:
“‘We Are Headed For The Worst Of The Worst’ Week For Markets”
“Rickards: The Layoffs Are Just Beginning.”
To be fair, 2020 has been . . . gloomy: A pandemic, massive market volatility, severe weather systems, police brutality, shootings, and an impending presidential election have dominated the news cycle. But for Zero Hedge this tone is nothing new.
Yet it’s unclear who, exactly, is using Durden as a nom de plume.
In 2016 ex-employee Colin Lokey revealed to Bloomberg that he and two others had been publishing under the name. Soon after that interview, Lokey disappeared from the internet. Since then, Zero Hedge has provided little clarity about who is now using the pen name.
“The thing that actually bothers me most about Zero Hedge is that everything is under the same name,” Roush says. “To me it is very detrimental to people who read it. I don’t think the average consumer understands or knows how it was produced or created.”
According to Zero Hedge, that’s not the point. Author anonymity is driven by the site’s crusader complex: The Zero Hedge manifesto says that that anonymity shields the public from a tyranny of the majority. “We believe not only that you should be comfortable with anonymous speech in such an environment, but that you should be suspicious of any speech that isn’t,” it says.
In addition to publishing under the name Tyler Durden, Zero Hedge aggregates content from all manner of blogs.
One writer, Tuomas Malinen, spoke with Institutional Investor about publishing on the site. Malinen, founder of a Helsinki-based macroeconomic consulting firm, says he has been reading Zero Hedge for nearly ten years, ever since the euro crisis. He adds that “the financial market analysis of Zero Hedge is top-of-the-line.”
Malinen has had some of his own content published by Zero Hedge. “It has increased our visibility, especially in the U.S.,” he says. “Zero Hedge is read quite widely among the financial market specialists. We consider it to be very beneficial for us.” This visibility has kept Malinen, and his business, coming back with more content.
He says he’s not concerned about the types of stories Zero Hedge posts, noting that though they are controversial, reader discretion for all news sites is required nowadays.
But through various lawsuits, it is now known that a man named Daniel Ivandjiiski — a Bulgarian native who currently lives stateside — is behind Zero Hedge itself.
Months before launching the site, Ivandjiiski was barred by FINRA from working in the brokerage industry for allegedly engaging in insider trading.
Ivandjiiski is hard to get in touch with. The only contact information available on Zero Hedge’s website is an email address for interested advertisers. At the time of publication, Institutional Investor had not received a response from the address.
“He’s a cynical, nihilistic person who thinks the world has exploded,” says author Seth Hettena of Ivandjiiski. “The markets are always exploding on Zero Hedge.”
Hettena has written about Zero Hedge for The New Republic and his personal blog, tying the site to pro-Russian messaging that litters alt-right websites. “Over time they’ve been slipping in, increasingly, the alt-right, pro-Russia view of the world,” Hettena says. “That has brought in a second audience.”
In late 2019, Ivandjiiski’s father, Krassimir Ivandjiiski, filed a criminal complaint in Bulgaria against Hettena, demanding that he take down his reporting on the company and reveal his sources. According to Hettena, his source was a google search, which led him to the company’s registration details. When reached by phone, Hettena told II that Bulgaria’s prosecutors have dropped the complaint.
He believes that Daniel Ivandjiiski is driven not by ideology, but by cash. “What I came away with is that they’re all about revenue,” Hettena says. “If what they’re doing is not going to drive revenue, they’re not going to do it. It’s just pure capitalism.”
But back to that second audience he mentions.
Over time, Zero Hedge has broadened its coverage, moving from strictly publishing financial analysis to also covering politics. Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Donald Trump frequently star on the site’s homepage.
Under the political veneer, though, lurks conspiracy.
In January, Zero Hedge republished a blog post from American Thinker entitled “An Introduction to ‘Q.’” The piece serves as a sympathetic primer on the QAnon conspiracy theory, calling it an “extraordinary phenomenon” and celebrating its purported “accuracy, breadth, and depth.” The post is one of many on the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Just one month later, Twitter banned Zero Hedge’s account for sharing misinformation in a separate story about the coronavirus pandemic. Zero Hedge is “a giant megaphone for the conspiracy world,” Hettena asserts.
He notes that this dual-audience strategy is a smart one: There are few, if any, other websites that meld financial analysis and conspiracy thought. “I think they have a niche that they’ve carved out that nobody else can touch,” Hettena says.
But even the financial analysis Zero Hedge publishes is dubious. Soon after Twitter lifted its ban on the site, Zero Hedge tweeted claims that Robinhood was selling its order flow to high-frequency trading firms that “front-run” trades and increase momentum. Billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya amplified the message, even though payment-for–order flow is a common practice in the industry.
“It’s just not a site that I would go to if I was looking for advice on where to put my money,” Roush says. “When I read stuff on the site, it’s just not journalism to me. And by that what I mean is that it’s not objective.”
But, as Roush points out, Zero Hedge does serve a purpose.
Much of financial media, including The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg — and even Institutional Investor — is either fully or partially behind a paywall. “The bulk of consumers and investors who need this news aren’t getting it because they can’t afford to pay for this high level of business news,” Roush explains.
And when typical consumers can’t afford to pay high prices for financial news, they go for the low-hanging fruit: free content.
One of Zero Hedge’s main tenets is exactly that: “to widen the scope of financial, economic and political information available to the professional investing public.” Zero Hedge also aims to “attack the flaccid institution that financial journalism has become,” according to its mission statement.
Zero Hedge often reposts entire chunks of articles written by reporters for mainstream outlets, giving readers an opportunity to get at least some of the news they may not otherwise be able to afford. The site has also, as Malinen mentions, amplified small bloggers.
Although there is no other site like it, several alternative financial media sites have popped up since the Global Financial Crisis.
Newsletters have blown up: Nathan Tankus’s Substack Notes on the Crises, for instance, exploded in popularity this year, garnering Tankus, a 28-year-old college dropout, a Bloomberg profile. Alternative financial analysis sites like Hedgeye and Real Vision are taking off. Even Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy has become a finance content creator.
This is all evidence that the story of Zero Hedge is not one about the investment industry. Instead, it’s about American media — financial media, specifically — and the way consumers have grown increasingly skeptical of it.
To quote Fight Club: “Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart.” Zero Hedge, though, is still hanging on.