Time to Stop Writing About Stocks and Start Buying Them

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By Jerry Knight
Monday, May 29, 2006

After years of writing about Washington investing, I'm getting ready to buy my first stock in a local company.

I couldn't do it until now for the simple reason that journalists should not own stock in companies they write about.

Now I'm taking up The Washington Post Co. on a very attractive early retirement offer, so this is my final Washington Investing column.

I've already opened an account at E-Trade, the big online financial services firm whose executive offices are in Ballston. Once I turn off my computer for the last time and turn in my building pass, I'll find out whether I really know what I've been writing about.

I've learned a lot since the last time I looked at Washington stocks as a potential investor rather than as a journalist. That was a time, some years back, when I wasn't writing about local stocks so I went looking for one to put in my individual retirement account. Before I could do it, however, my job changed again and I was locked out of local investing.

Good thing. I had been thinking about buying shares in Hechinger's.

Before Hechinger's went bankrupt seven summers ago, the homegrown home-improvement chain was one of my favorite local companies -- a good business, run by good people. Just as Giant Food used to be, and MCI and US Airways.

But I confess that I didn't understand how rapidly retailing was changing -- and neither did the people running Hechinger's.

It was selling building materials, tools, hardware and housewares under one roof before Home Depot opened its first store, before Lowe's broke out of its base in the North Carolina mountains, before economists figured out that retailing was rapidly becoming an industry dominated by national giants. In less than a decade, Hechinger's went from industry leader to industry left-behind.

Never underestimate how fast things are changing. That may be the most important lesson I've learned covering Washington investing.

The evolution of home-center retailing from prototypes to a dominant duopoly took maybe 30 years. MCI went from being the scourge of the Bell System to a member of the family in only 20 years. The heyday of America Online lasted barely a decade. And in the dot-com craze, Internet and telecommunications companies went public and went bankrupt in as few as five years.

I never would have guessed when I began writing about Washington business 28 years ago that by the time I retired, Washington would be a one-department-store town.


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