CNBC’s Chief International Correspondent talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about traveling the globe, reporting on and producing groundbreaking stories, and why she believes economic freedom is just as important and empowering as political freedom.
A twist of fate landed Michelle Caruso-Cabrera the job of chief international correspondent for CNBC. She was at the studio, watching the European financial crisis unfold via live camera, as the Greeks rioted in Constitution Square, when she got a hunch to check for flights to Greece. “I logged on to a travel website and wondered if there were any flights to Athens,” she says. “I found one that departed at 5:30 p.m. out of Newark and arrived at 2 a.m. our time. So, I walked into the afternoon meeting, which was just starting, and said one sentence to my boss: ‘There is a flight to Athens out of Newark and if I leave now I can be on it and I can be live tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. for Squawk Box.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Go!’ So, I grabbed a canvas bag and some dry-cleaning that I had in my office and I drove my car to the airport and ended up being in Greece for two weeks. My boss said I was pretty good at covering that assignment and that’s how I became an international correspondent.”
Opportunist: Tell us about your experience in Greece.
Michelle: All the pundits said Greece would have to go through a fiscal adjustment, which is an antiseptic phrase for cuts to pension for the elderly, huge salary cuts and job losses. It’s tough on the people when a country has to go through that. It’s important to show the human cost. We were reporting while teargas and Molotov cocktails were going off and people were hitting each other with bats and we were thinking Greece, this is your fiscal adjustment. It’s some of the work I’ve been proudest of—to show the human cost of fiscal adjustment.
Opportunist: What was it like to cover the European financial crisis and be among the first to alert the world what it meant for the global economy?
Michelle: When you’re a business reporter you see and know in advance when things can get very bad in the economy. You start to see signals in the financial markets that tell you bad things are coming. I felt privileged to be at a network that was at the forefront of warning the world what was coming. It’s important to me to show the cost to the people involved. People get frightened of financial stories, but the European financial crisis isn’t complicated. The government spent too much and promised way too much. If you don’t generate revenue or find money to fulfill those promises, you must quit making promises. If we have been able to explain it simply and help viewers understand it for the simple problem that it is—solving it isn’t simple, but understanding it is—then we have done our job.
Opportunist: Do you believe Greece should leave the euro zone?
Michelle: You know, for the euro to survive intact, for all countries, there will have to be some kind of largesse from the rich to the poor. The Germanys of the world will have to hand over more money to the Greeks and the Portugals of the world. Should Greece have ever joined? It’s kind of a moot point now. They are in. This can be something that leads to change in Greece—to make their economy more competitive. We don’t know how it’s all going to end, but lots of hard choices must be made. If the right choices are made, everybody will be better off. If they are committed to keeping the European Union intact they’re going to have be willing to give Greece another round of loans. In the end, you have to ask yourself what’s more expensive: the marriage or the divorce? We can say, “Germany, look I know we married somebody with far worse spending habits and credit than we ever thought—somebody who did not stick to the terms of the prenup—but divorce is a lot more costly.” In the end, self-interest will keep Greece in and help them out until they can help out their economy and become competitive. I’m an optimist. [Laughs]
Opportunist: You’ve reported from some of the most volatile spots on the globe. Have you ever been frightened?
Michelle: Yes, when I worked for Univision I got arrested during the riots in the Dominican Republic about 16 years ago because they didn’t like our coverage. That was extremely frightening. Also, when the Australian Embassy in Baghdad was bombed. That was a frightening moment because the embassy was across the street from the NBC bureau and some of my colleagues got shrapnel in their rooms. It reminded me that your life could be gone in a second and you should live every single day as if it’s your last. You never look back on those times and laugh. You remind yourself how careful you have to be in the field. You have to be in constant communication with your team and always watch each other’s back.
I had an exchange with Fidel Castro in Cuba that was frightening to me. He wasn’t going to answer any questions, so I yelled out a question and nobody else did. I felt this pit in my stomach thinking I’m going to get thrown out. Castro turned around and looked at me and said, “That’s a really good question.”
Michelle: No, but as a result of that exchange I got an interview with the vice president of the country.
Opportunist: What was it like to be on Cuban soil?
Michelle: I am a Cuban American, and I was going as a journalist and the daughter of an exile. It was a reminder that capitalism is the system that provides the most for the most people. It was tough to watch a country that has suffered for so long. The people are great. They are optimistic, welcoming and curious. Cubans are talkers in general—like the Cuban side of my family—nobody can shut up. [Laughs] America is foreign to them. One Cuban I encountered said, “You know the president keeps talking about globalization. What does that mean?” I’m sure they have a skewed view of the United States the way Americans have a skewed view of Cuba. I have been to Cuba twice.
Opportunist: Tell us about your assignment covering the elections in Iraq.
Michelle: I covered the first round in January of 2005. It was one of the few golden periods when violence had fallen off and it was exhilarating. What I learned is when people say the Middle East isn’t ready for democracy you should not believe it. People understand choice and they were excited to seize their own destiny. Everyone who voted got a purple mark on their thumb to prove they had voted. They were all giving a “thumbs up,” and it was wonderful.
While heading to an interview with the head of Iraq’s Central Bank, we got caught in horrendous traffic. Someone said this was where all the electronic stores were. During Hussein’s time a toaster could cost as much as $80 after the Iraqi government added taxes. Once Hussein was gone the high tariffs were dropped and products got cheaper. The government also stopped controlling salaries, which had been fixed under the previous regime. Salaries went through the roof and Iraqis bought refrigerators, rice cookers, microwaves and satellite dishes. It’s so great to watch the free markets explode and provide benefits to people. Economic freedom is just as important and empowering as political freedom, if not more so.
Opportunist: What do you enjoy most about traveling the globe, reporting on and producing groundbreaking stories?
Michelle: I believe my job is to explain things in a really simple way. I like explaining things simply that people think are complicated. That’s my greatest joy. I was standing on the balcony in Athens explaining what voting that day was about, and my colleagues and anchors sent me a note saying “Wow, that was a great explainer.” Those are my greatest moments.
All I ever wanted to be was a storyteller. I thought I’d work in print but ended up on TV. Being a journalist means you have a calling. Everyone on CNBC could’ve made a lot more money going to Wall Street, but we chose this instead. This is what keeps us awake at night and makes us want to get up and go every morning.
Opportunist: Who is the most impressive person you’ve met?
Michelle: Milton Friedman. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics and he was a great libertarian thinker. He’s known as the father of the idea of school vouchers. He used to do a weekly column for U.S. News & World Report. I interviewed him three times before he died. He was in his 90s but he was incredible even into his old age and could recall economic data at a moment’s notice and articulate complex ideas very simply. I felt so privileged to have met him.
Opportunist: How did you land the interview?
Michelle: I called him up and flew out to San Francisco. He gave me two hours, and we had all kinds of discussions about the economy, the health care system. He got huge ratings. I was so happy to have interviewed him.
Opportunist: What’s your favorite news broadcast?
Michelle: Live coverage from the weekend S&P downgraded the U.S. debt rating. It was the same weekend that the European Central Bank took a huge step to help out Italy. On weekends, we’re normally in taped broadcasts, but we were live in Rome on a Sunday night—watching history in the making. We knew the markets would be moving big time on Monday. I felt privileged to be part of that broadcast, covering the story as we watched the Asian market open.
Michelle: I have a very market-driven way of looking at this. Ultimately, they were wrong for the following reason: the first full market day when the markets reacted to S&P’s assessment, investors around the world bought U.S. debt like crazy. They stuffed a fire hose in their throat and sucked up as much U.S. debt as they could. [Laughs] That same weekend we realized Europe was falling apart. Investors around the world asked themselves, “If everything is falling apart what do I want to own?” They chose U.S. debt. S&P said we were risky, but investors said we were the least risky investment. I have a whole chapter in my book [You Know I’m Right: More Prosperity, Less Government] about why [rating agencies] are useless and what changes are needed. Investors rate debt. They decide every day whether they will buy or sell their debt. We have extremely low interest rates in the United States. Even though our debt is rated lower, investors have told us we are the best-rated country in the world.
Opportunist: What inspired you to write your book?
Michelle: I was sitting on set, interviewing a Republican pundit about the election. He kept talking about social issues and I asked what happened to the Republican Party I remember—the one that was about staying out of your private life. He raised his hand like he was swatting a fly and made me really mad. [Laughs] I wrote that book because it made me mad.
Opportunist: How do you feel about America’s economic outlook?
Michelle: I feel pretty good about it. We recognize our problems early. We have leaders who say, “ If we keep going this way we will be Greece.” We all understand that we have a spending problem—even the most Liberal in Congress believe we have a spending problem—and admitting you have a problem is the first step. We need to deal with deficit, yes, but we can’t do it right now. We need to make harder choices earlier rather than wait too late like Europe.
Michelle: I have a degree in economics from Wellesley, but I always wanted to be a print reporter. I graduated in the middle of a recession when papers were shrinking, but I had interned at The Miami Herald. Univision [the Spanish-language television network] hired me as a researcher and producer, which was a low-paying entry-level job, but Spanish TV was growing at the time. I eventually decided I wanted to be on-camera and I managed to join a CBS affiliate in Tampa, where I covered murders and hurricanes for four years. I got tired of asking the bereaved widow how it feels, though, so, with a degree in economics I decided I’d like to cover news that mattered to people. It also struck me that a lot of people want to count the people they reach, but I’d much rather reach the people who count.
Opportunist: What advice do you have for other young women who want to pursue financial news?
Michelle: TV can be fickle. It’s a tough, mean business. Be ready to be judged every single day on your looks, what you say and just about everything else. You need an extremely thick skin. If you’re up for that, it’s a phenomenal job. You get to be out on the front lines and see world events up close and explain them to your audience in an understandable way. Both my parents are tough. They told me life isn’t fair; don’t expect it to be. In the end you get up, believe in yourself and do your best every single day.
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Michelle: I have no idea. During my first week on the job at CNBC I thought I really like it here I could be here 10 years. At the time I thought that was an extraordinarily long period of time. After 13 years, I cannot imagine working anywhere else. I will stay here as long as they will have me.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.