It’s Twue, it’s Twue!

We are rapidly accelerating toward mid-term elections that will be described as the most important in our lifetimes (until the next election, that is), and the ones that will decide whether our Democracy lives or dies (until we miraculously survive until the next one, that is). What that means, of course, is that we should all expect to be subject to peak fiat news. For the uninitiated, fiat news is a term we use at Epsilon Theory to describe news which does not include incorrect facts (i.e. we aren’t talking about fake news), but which treats statements, analysis and conclusions as facts themselves, usually because they were derived from those facts.

In short, it’s news that tells you how to think about something, instead of giving you the tools to make up your own damn mind.

Reuters, a good service and not the one I would usually peg for this kind of thing, published a textbook, innocent-looking example of what we mean by fiat news this morning. The headline is just glorious: “Elections could put Wall Street’s favorite lawmaker in top finance role.” Now, typically I’d counsel withholding judgment on the story itself until you read it. After all, headline writers looking for clicks (and their bosses badgering them for clickworthy headlines) can be a bit overzealous. But I’ll spoil the surprise: The lede uses the same language.

Let’s be fair. There is obviously nothing inherently wrong about using the term Wall Street. It can be a loaded term, but it is also a useful term. It’s more specific than “the financial services industry” and also has a more expansive definition that can go beyond specific companies and individuals to convey its lobby, its government influence and the like. Furthermore, assuming that people have the same understanding as we do of a loaded term is a recipe for counterproductive interactions. Full Hearts.

But the context for a loaded, pointed and intentional use of the expression “Wall Street’s favorite lawmaker” is compelling. Mr. Luetkemeyer’s sources of campaign funding are the focus of the article. They are linked (along with the potentially loaded language), to his rise to the Chairmanship of the Financial Services Committee and to his policy views. Congresswoman Waters, on the other hand, is referred to as a “vocal Wall Street critic”, with little in the way of exploration of any funding-related inducements that might guide that view. On this basis alone, it doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to guess that “Wall Street’s favorite lawmaker” was consciously or subconsciously used as a pejorative – and expression of opinion as fact.

When pressed, I suspect that the authors would contest that, and defend the assertion as being exactly that: a fact. After all, look at what the Center for Responsive Politics data says about donations from commercial banks. It’s true, it’s true! Maybe there’s a bit of poetic license here in calling this candidate ‘Wall Street’s favorite lawmaker’ just because commercial banks gave him the most money this cycle, but is that so bad? No. It’s worse. The problem is that CRP’s definition of ‘Commercial Banks’ isn’t ‘Wall Street’, something Reuters and the authors – both of whom are actually quite effective journalists who have written some dazzlingly good pieces – know quite well. It doesn’t take much digging to start calling the narrative here into question. Five minutes at the CRP website is enough. I wonder what it would say if we started with the CRP industry categorization that best aligns with what most people on Wall Street would call ‘Wall Street’: Securities and Investment Firms.

Oh. OH. That’s not the right story. OK, change the channel, change the channel. HEDGE FUNDS!

“(Annoyed Grunt)” What I meant to say was Venture Capital!

No, I didn’t say “Venture Capital!” I said “Bend your cap a little.” The flat bill look is way too Gen Z. What I really meant to say was Investment Management Companies and Private Equity. I’m just SURE he’ll show up here, in the category I really meant. 

Hey, would you look at the time?

First of all, people’s definitions of ‘Wall Street’ differ, but basing the central narrative of a news story on a cherry-picked definition that didn’t include at least the firms in CRP’s Securities & Investment category is complete nonsense. Not including the other categories is more or less forgivable depending on your perspective. Part of the Full Hearts responsibility for all of us means recognizing that this could have been an honest mistake. The people who wrote this story are good journalists. One of them covers the financial regulator beat as well as anyone. But when we are reading financial news, it is imperative that we look at loaded words like “Wall Street’s favorite lawmaker” with Clear Eyes and Full Hearts. Clear Eyes to understand that intentional and unintentional bias creep into articles that would tell us how to think about an issue. Full Hearts to recognize that sometimes words are just words, and that we’ve got to have some grace for the natural way in which each our subjective views creep into analysis that we would like to present as objective.

If you’re following along at home, this is our running guide to fiat news and how to spot it:

  1. Ask “Why am I reading this NOW?”
  2. Look for the tells of fiat news: “but, because, therefore”
  3. Be on guard for overdetermination and overconfident attribution of causality.
  4. Look at loaded words with Clear Eyes and Full Hearts

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  1. “But when we are reading financial news, it is imperative that we look at loaded words like “Wall Street’s favorite lawmaker” with Clear Eyes and Full Hearts.”

    The challenge is - as with noticing narratives - the better you get at it, the more it goes from being a cool “ah-ha” moment to a news version of tinnitus - a constant ringing of bells in your ears as you’ll see loaded words, narratives, subjective views, overdetermination and overconfidence - everywhere, all the time.

    As with everything other than kitchens in restaurants that I’m eating in, it’s better to be informed, aware, alert, but my God, especially in a time of Ben’s widening “political gyre,” it’s exhausting. Clear Eyes and Full Hearts and completely exhausted.

  2. To be fair to the article’s authors, they do spill a fair bit of ink on the positions and opinions of Rep. Luetkemeyer (anti-DoddFrank, anti-CFPB, etc.) that go some way to support their characterization of him a Wall St. ‘favorite.’ I’d argue the data (donors’ occupation) isn’t a causative indicator anyway. Donors who work in finance care about non-financial issues too, and may just as well base their support of him on those. I agree, therefore, that the headline veers into the realm of fiat news, but…

    According to the CRP website you reference (, Rep Luetkemeyer is in fact THE TOP recipient from the following industries in the 2017 - 2018 election cycle:
    Commercial Banks (#1)
    Finance/Credit (#1)
    Payday lenders (#1)
    And #3 for the Insurance industry

    Moreover, Rep. Luetkemeyer has virtually no donors outside the banking/finance/insurance sector, and virtually no “small donors” either. So, I’d say if we’re going to measure him by his donors’ industry of employment (a proxy I question), then I think it’s fair to call him a “favorite” of commercial banks, finance/credit companies and payday lenders. Whether that collection of industries merits the appellation “Wall Street” is a whole separate ball of semantic wax, but I can’t get too riled about that one. I’d call this pitch a strike.

  3. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yeah, I don’t know if it’s a causative indicator either - frankly, I think people actually overstate the influence many donors have. But the authors chose it as the metric they’d use for their evaluations, and this is about them, not about the candidate.

    The argument that the ink spilled on policies merits the “Wall Street’s favorite” moniker is one I’d take even more issue with. That is a circumstantial claim, and exactly the kind of thing I’d argue that we should be very wary of when presented as the underpinning of a statement of fact.

    The question is not calling balls on strikes on “Does this guy seem to have a lot of connections to banking and finance.” Yeah, of course he does. He used to work in the industry, and seems to have a lot of buddies. He may be corrupt as all hell, for all I know. The question is whether journalists are comfortable confidently expressing judgments and opinions as facts, and if their intent to express those judgments causes them to make willful errors. You’d have a hard time convincing me that didn’t happen here.

  4. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    No doubt. I have to remind myself that much of the solution is to remember that it’s always OK to pull back from the table for a while, too.

  5. 10-4. I think we’re in agreement here. I have no prior knowledge of this candidate either, and I agree the use of over-broad terms like Wall St. as pejoratives or boogeymen promotes dangerously lazy thinking.

    Thank you, by the way, for ET and 2nd Fdn. It’s become one of my favorite reads. Keep up the good work!

  6. It truly is exhausting.

  7. Concerned my push back from the table is becoming outright withdrawal. Can’t imagine that would be constructive in the long term. Great example, however.

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