Thursday, February 12, 1998
Mystery of Beardstown Ladies

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A blocky little woman, she has a round face and comfortable, old-fashioned spectacles. Gray hair. She is wearing wool and sensible shoes. Forget nouvelle and weird mushrooms. She orders beef for dinner and butters her bread with hands that look like they know their way around a pie crust.

And 350 people are waiting to hear her advice on money. She's a financial whiz.

One year, Betty Sinnock and her friends made 59.5 percent on their investments. Over the past 14 years, they have averaged a return of more than 23 percent. It is fair to say that Betty and ''the girls,'' her Beardstown Ladies' Investment Club, have frequently cleaned the Wall Street boys' clocks.

Not that they'd put it that way.

''We do our homework,'' she says firmly, ''and we thank the Lord for our success.'' Literally. Every month at every meeting in tiny Beardstown, Ill. They don't invest in companies that traffic in tobacco, alcohol or gambling.

Fourteen ladies. Betty, 65, is the youngest charter member and the only one with related professional experience. She's a trust officer at a bank. Most other members are retired - a 77-year-old elementary school principal, an 86-year-old art teacher, a 70-year-old hog farmer and a 90-year-old school nurse.

Using their heads

So, what do the Beardstown Ladies have going for them? Why are they on network television? Why are their books on the New York Times list of best sellers?

Investment counselor Nathan Bachrach, who brought Betty Sinnock to town this week, says, ''People want to hear about the money business from people who don't make it sound complicated.'' That would be the Beardstown Ladies.

Elsie Scheer, 79, a retired teacher's aide, advises in their Little Book of Investment Wisdom: ''Fear of investing is like fear of flying. If I always do what I've always done, I'll always get what I've always got.''

You also have to use your head. And your heart, sort of. Betty tells about a member who was in the hospital for a cardiac ailment. ''The doctor started talking about a new pacemaker that would not only kick-start her heart but would slow it down if it beat too fast.''

The Beardstown Lady interrupted to ask the name of the company that makes this device, then asked one of her children to bring that week's Value Line to the hospital. Research. ''Buy,'' she told the club from her hospital room. The stock's price has doubled since then and split once.

As I listen to her, I don't know why I am so surprised about the Beardstown Ladies. They are simply doing what I have seen women do my whole life.

Baffled, bamboozled

My mom is a financial genius, too. Dad was in charge of revenues. She was in charge of spending. She could quote the current price of hamburger and always knew who was having the best back-to-school sales.

Yet a lot of these same women - so shrewd with money their whole lives - are baffled and bamboozled by talk of Moody's and Standard & Poor's and Fannie Mae and bonds. No wonder they love the Beardstown Ladies.

Here's what they say about back-end load mutual funds:

''A commission paid by the investor, payable when a transaction is completed. Like dining in a fancy restaurant, the bill doesn't come until you're ready to leave.''

They include recipes in their books and photos of themselves on tractors and in the kitchen and with their grandchildren.

They know who they are and what they are. Ladies. From a small town. They make sense, which is always a lot harder than making money.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.