Wall Streeters like conspiracy theories. Always have

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Felix Salmon, after previously describing the readers of the blog sensation Zero Hedge as loser day traders and getting called out for it by my old friend The Equity Private (now blogging at Zero Hedge as Marla Singer), reconsiders:

Far from reflecting the conspiracy-minded and often-disjointed ramblings of harmful-only-to-themselves retail day-traders, could ZH actually be holding up a mirror to what the market’s really like, once you strip away the artificial polish of the PR departments and the urbane investment-banking types?

Uh, yeah. And this is a surprise why? Wall Street traders are among the most conspiracy-minded group of people on the planet. Always have been, as far as I can tell.

That’s because (1) some financial market conspiracies are real and (b) without theories of some sort to grasp on to, you’re going to get completely lost in the chaos of the market’s day-to-day movements. The same goes for technical analysis, a.k.a. chart-reading. Most of it is nonsense, some of it isn’t, and without it a lot of succesful traders would be completely lost. Ditto for Austrian economics.

Joe Hagan plays up the conspiracy angle in his excellent article on Zero Hedge in this week’s New York mag—as Hagan recounts it, the blog didn’t get any traction until founder Dan Ivandjiiski began pumping up the paranoia:

[A]s his posts got more detailed, a theme began to emerge: Wall Street was a vast conspiracy. Nothing could be trusted. All markets were corrupt. The darker his vision the more popular he became.

Former hedge-fund analyst Ivandjiiski (he blogs as Tyler Durden—the New York Post tentatively outed him last month and Hagan does so definitively in his article) had figured out how to tap into that trading-floor longing for order in the chaos. That, plus he’s is a wonderfully persistent investigative reporter. Most good investigative reporters are conspiracy theorists, by the way. Ivandjiiski singlehandedly turned high-frequency trading into a big political issue. In the process I’m pretty sure he wildly overstated its significance and dastardliness, but that’s part of his appeal.

I always have the feeling when I go to Zero Hedge that I’m eavesdropping on a bunch of conversations between traders. Most of what’s said in those conversations is half-baked hooey—as is most of what Ivandjiiski writes. But there is still truth to be gleaned from it. (I should add that most “serious” journalism—including mine—is probably half-baked hooey as well. It pays to be a critical information consumer.)

So I don’t find it all that surprising that lots of serious financial types and journalists looking for scoops read the blog. I can’t bring myself to read it more than once every couple of days. But then, I wouldn’t survive 30 seconds on a Wall Street trading floor.

Of course, there aren’t enough serious financial types out there to account for Zero Hedge’s impressive 333,000 unique visitors a month. I would think a significant percentage of current readers are regular folks who are furious about the financial crisis, the bailouts and the state of the economy, and are attracted to Ivandjiiski’s paranoid and apocalyptic worldview. Some are also just plain nutters (read the comments to Hagan’s article for a taste), but that’s true of at least some portion of the readership of every publication/blog on the planet except of course this one.

I would guess that the site’s growth will slow as the predicted apocalypse keeps getting pushed into the future (unless of course Ivandjiiski’s right about everything, in which case I will start checking Zero Hedge 20 times a day until the electricity goes out). But I don’t think it’s necessarily a flash in the pan—as long as Ivandjiiski & Co. keep digging up new conspiracy theories and every once in a while one of them turns out to be at least partly true.

Update: I missed Matt Taibbi’s take from a couple of days ago on the meaning of Zero Hedge. Don’t make the same mistake—it’s really smart.