NEW YORK -- It lacks the ambiance of the august brokerage houses of Wall Street. Rather than being announced from a richly carpeted reception area, a visitor stands on the cold street while a wary secretary pulls back a curtain to determine whether admittance is warranted.
But it is here, in the paneled basement of a row house in the Glendale section of Queens, that Francis X. Curzio publishes an investment newsletter that foresaw what the titans of finance did not.
Unaided but for a staff of three "girls," as he calls them, one of them his wife, Curzio predicted in his October newsletter that the stock market would "crash," most likely that month, and that the Dow Jones industrial average would "bottom at around 1,700." When the Dow plunged 508 points Oct. 19 to the level Curzio had specified, the 42-year-old former accountant suddenly found himself preaching to a congregation far larger than his 1,500 subscribers.
The Wall Street Journal discovered Curzio. So did Newsday and Cable News Network. Hundreds of new subscribers rushed to sign up. And Curzio, who had accurately predicted last February that the Dow would peak at 2,700, was looking like a genius.
"They're calling me the new guru of Wall Street," laughed Curzio, who walks to work from his Queens apartment in a polo shirt and corduroys. "My God, I'm not a guru. We just go by the fundamentals . . . . It was so obvious we were going to crash, I just sat and waited. All the warnings were there."
Although many experts -- Curzio calls them "morons" -- missed the signs, he says the signs were there: rising interest rates, a sinking dollar, weak auto sales, a wildly overvalued market and a bailout by institutional investors. "The big people started selling in August and September . . . . There was no economic sense in owning stocks any more," Curzio said.
While a few investment newsletters, like those published by Merrill Lynch and Standard & Poor's, boast circulations of 50,000 to 100,000, another 1,000 or so publications number their readers in the hundreds. Most are cranked out by armchair analysts like Curzio. A handful also predicted the market collapse but none as bluntly as Curzio's F.X.C. Investors Corp.
"If you own a typewriter, you can go into the newsletter business," said George Wein, president of Select Information Exchange, who ranks Curzio's near the top of the 400 publications he surveys. "One of the biggest factors in the explosion of newsletter publishing is the microcomputer, which almost anyone can afford and which has put the newsletter writer almost on equal footing with the institutional investor."
Still, how can a guy who rarely leaves Queens -- except for his nightly drive to Manhattan to pick up the next morning's papers -- know what makes Wall Street tick? To Curzio, a blunt-spoken bulldog of a man, his distance from the citadels of power is an advantage.
"We get so many calls from people who want us to recommend their stock," he said. "Some say they'll pay you $5,000 or $10,000. They invite me on their yacht in Mississippi or to a convention in Hawaii."
But Curzio won't even have lunch with corporate suitors, not since he felt he was misled by two company presidents. "I say, 'Don't do me no favors; just send me the information.' What man's going to take you into his office and say, 'Things look bad, don't recommend my company'?"
Curzio has never forgotten the lesson he learned in the early 1970s while working as a night broker for a now-defunct Wall Street firm. The firm's president asked him to push stock in a company that took pictures of newborn babies. Curzio said he refused, telling his boss the stock was worthless, and was promptly fired. Months later, he said, the picture-taking company went out of business.
"Most of the brokerage firms are biased when they recommend a stock," he said. "They're in business to help their big clients. We've very unbiased here."
While the major brokerages buy his $190-a-year newsletter, Curzio said most subscribers are "the average Joe Schmo." By his count, 90 percent of the stocks and bonds he has recommended have been profitable. He stays away from "high fliers" and backs mostly blue-chip companies with ample cash and little debt.
"What I like about him is his selections are very conservative and he only comes out with a few," said Snyder Zegel, a longtime Curzio subscriber from Long Island. "I've made money on his investments."
Curzio lives by "book value," the ratio of a company's earnings to its stock price. He is a relentless reader of financial statements and, when questions arise, he bypasses the company brass and calls its accountants for the straight scoop.
By Curzio's reckoning, Disney stock is greatly overvalued because "how many people are gonna jump on a plane and go down to Florida if there's a recession?" At the same time, he said he sees Fedders stock as a good buy because "people are still going to spend $120 for a room air conditioner when it's 90 degrees."
The son of an elevator supervisor, Curzio has been hooked on the market since working as a Wall Street messenger at age 14. He bought Comsat stock for $30 and, when his summer job was over, sold it for $70.
What does the guru of Glendale see on the horizon? He said he thinks we're already in a mild recession and that most stocks remain seriously overvalued. This gloomy forecast, he said, means that his subscriber list is bound to shrink despite his 15 minutes of fame.
"A lot of people are going to get disgusted and turned off to the stock market, and they won't need our advice," Curzio said.