Each evening, at 6 p.m., Roy Weitz arrives home from work as a financial advisor for a family foundation, to his quiet, Tarzana, Calif. neighborhood. He reads the L.A. Times and popular investing magazines, eats dinner with his wife and then, at 9 p.m., ascends to a tiny, upstairs office where he quietly wages his war on the mutual fund industry.
For nearly five years, Weitz, now 49, has made a hobby of being the editor, publisher and only reporter at FundAlarm.com, a website he founded and devoted to providing investors with information about mutual funds. But unlike many other fund industry websites, the commentary on FundAlarm is often spiked with cynicism, rumor and punchy criticism of advisers and their products. And so, Weitz has developed a reputation in the industry for causing trouble.
His salvos sometimes prompt executives to fire off angry messages to him via email or the site's message board, he said. But Weitz, a soft-spoken man with a dry wit, takes the verbal beatings in stride.
He says his brand of what he calls tell-it-like-it-is commentary is necessary in a business fraught with misinformation. And journalists, bound by their own standards and corporate ties, "just can't or won't go after that," he says. During a recent interview, he described a few of the tiffs in which he has engaged. A public relations executive at a major fund company, for example, accused him of calling one of the firm's portfolio managers a liar.
"I really wasn't," Weitz deadpans. "I was just suggesting that he has a history of not telling the truth."
And, when a fund company announced that it would use a new mutual fund as a "training ground" for new portfolio managers, Weitz said he wrote that, since the firm was not taking the product seriously anyway, it might as well waive its management fees, make t-shirts for investors and host pizza parties.
"It's sort of the gossip sheet of the mutual fund industry," Weitz said of his website. "People have criticized me for being too negative. They say, Don't you have anything good to say?'"
"I do, but not here," he said.
The site is intended for the average investor but it has developed a surprisingly large industry readership, he said. Nearly 100,000 people visit FundAlarm each month, although many are repeat users, he said. Executives from major fund companies, such as the Vanguard Group of Malvern, Pa., and Strong Funds of Milwaukee, often visit the site, he said. And Weitz, evidently proudly, points out that reporters from The Wall Street Journal and other major financial publications log on regularly to mine story ideas. Those reporters frequently call to get in touch with people who post messages on the site, he said.
Weitz got the idea for the site while he was walking his dog during the summer of 1996. An investor in mutual funds for more than 15 years at the time, he could not stop thinking about a fund he owned that was performing poorly. "Is it a management change?" he recalls wondering. "A style change? What went wrong?"
He decided to get to the bottom of the problem, then published, on a website he created, everything that he learned.
Today, Weitz, who has earned a bachelor's degree in English from Queens College in New York, and a law degree and an M.B.A. from UCLA, updates FundAlarm at the beginning of each month. He spends roughly 60 hours each month on the site, working weeknights until about midnight and on weekends, he said.
Weitz makes an average of $300 a month on FundAlarm thanks to a partnership program with the online retailer Amazon.com, of Seattle, he said. He gets a percentage of every book sale by Amazon to customers who reach the Amazon site through his site, he said.
His sources are people who work throughout the industry. Weitz said he verifies the news tips he receives. But, his standards of verification would not hold up in traditional news rooms. For example, if someone tells him a person has left a company, he will simply check to see if that person is still in a company's telephone directory.
He spends his days working as a financial manager to a private family foundation. The foundation has asked him not to name it in association with his website partly because of the controversy surrounding the site.
"Everybody I know scans Roy's stuff when it comes out, mostly to find out whether they've been lampooned," said Dave Nadig, co-founder of MetaMarkets.com, of San Francisco. "He's a real truth teller. That's a rare thing in the mutual fund industry."
Robert Loest is not so confident in Weitz's judgement. The senior portfolio manager at IPS Advisory, of Knoxville, Tenn., says Weitz can be rash and irresponsible.
"It makes for interesting reading, but I think he can be pretty inaccurate sometimes," Loest said. "He shoots from the hip. He doesn't check his facts."
Loest's comments stem from a series of run-ins conducted on the site or online with Weitz, according to both Loest and Weitz. In one, the pair hotly disputed the appropriateness of management fees. In another dispute, Weitz called one of IPS' new fund products "a dumb idea," Loest said. Then Weitz started an e-mail pool, offering, according to Loest, $100 to the FundAlarm reader who most accurately predicted the date of the new fund's demise.
"He didn't call us and ask us how it worked," Loest said. "He didn't do anything."
Loest said he sent Weitz an e-mail discussing the issues. He also posted a response on the FundAlarm message board. Loest does not read FundAlarm, but he posted the comments because of the site's ability to influence investors' thinking, he said.
"Clearly, he has some influence," Loest said.
Weitz said he makes every effort to ensure his postings are accurate. He has only had to run retractions or corrections two or three times in the site's five-year history, he said. But, he never described himself as a journalist.
"I don't have to get the other side of the story, and I don't," he said. "I just kind of write what I feel, what I think is right. And if I'm wrong, I'm wrong. It's not objective journalism. That's handled more than adequately by real journalists."
The controversies with Loest and others may draw attention, but much of FundAlarm's content is relatively staid. Weitz chronicles departures of fund advisers so that investors might correlate the change in management with the start of a fund's lackluster performance, Weitz said. He also posts commentary about new investment products and provides a message board where readers can exchange ideas.
Recently, on the site's message board, a user called Frankie wondered if a federal interest rate cut might precipitate trouble in the stock market. Another user named Ted, a frequent visitor, often posts links to informational articles - the topics include European funds and investing in energy interests.
Most of these users are fans who applaud Weitz for cutting through the spin and misinformation that he says plagues the industry, Weitz said.
"He's remarkably honest and he tells it like he sees it," says Kunal Kapoor, a senior analyst at Morningstar, who stumbled across FundAlarm about a year ago. "He's certainly fun to read and I think he does a great job."
Aside from the controversy and no-holds-barred commentary, Nadig, the co-founder of MetaMarkets.com, whose company has been skewered more than once on FundAlarm, said there may be another reason people keep coming back to the site - "He's about the funniest man I know that's associated with the mutual fund business," he said.