CIBC Oppenheimer analyst Steven Eisman says he would rather wait tables than go back to his previous career as a corporate lawyer. "I hated it-it was so boring."

And the bank and finance company specialist says he would rather do what he is doing now than anything else. It is easy to see why, judging from recent events.

Mr. Eisman, 35, has made a reputation as a financial analyst to watch by relying on an exhaustively researched data base to value companies-and using it to back up calls that often run against popular opinion and Oppenheimer's investment banking business.

The Harvard Law School graduate has been called everything from "on- target and honest" to "just a cranky guy" by the financial community. But his stubborn independence earns him points, even from critics.

Veteran analyst George Salem pointed out the breakdown of the "Chinese wall" between analysis and investment banking while announcing his retirement this week, after 30 years of stock picking. This breakdown is business as usual to analysts in Eisman's generation.

"The Chinese wall concept is asinine-there are heated conversations all the time" between analysts and investment bankers, said one analyst who asked not to be named.

"Analysts have figured out that the name of the game is to be closet investment bankers," said Ray Garea, right-hand man for value investor Michael Price. "They'll make a lot more money that way."

Against the backdrop of this new ethic, Mr. Eisman stands out as a curmudgeonly defender of the traditional separation. Even if there is no wall preventing him from finding out where his employer's interests lie (indeed, he signs off on the investment house's deals), in his financial reports, Mr. Eisman has called them as he sees them.

Last September he published a report with junior analyst Vincent Daniel knocking the entire specialty finance sector-despite CIBC Oppenheimer's prominent role in the rush to take these companies public. The firm brought Aames Financial Corp. and Mego Mortgage Corp., among others, to the market.

"What I admire him for is saying, 'I don't give a damn about investment banking, I'm just going to do the research,'" said the anonymous analyst.

Since Mr. Eisman published the report Oppenheimer has not had any investment banking business in the specialty finance sector, until a deal announced Thursday that outsiders say Mr. Eisman grudgingly approved.

It was his call on Green Tree Financial Corp. that got him the most attention. Mr. Eisman predicted that the phenomenally popular company would have to take a writedown, contrary to what everyone else on the street was saying.

Months later Green Tree did just that, and its notoriously well-paid chief executive announced he would give back part of his bonus.

Some peers criticize his dismissal of the entire specialty finance sector as just plain stubbornness-and not sound investment advice. In fact, many of these companies have seen significant gains in recent weeks.

But he dismissed the criticism. "Let me tell you a story," Mr. Eisman says, cavalierly swinging his legs onto his desk. "I've been here before. I covered mortgage banks. In 1993 I was gung ho about the sector, but after the refinancing boom was over, there was over-capacity there."

The current bounce in subprime stocks is only due to First Union Corp.'s purchase of Money Store, he said, and his long-term view of the sector is grim.

Analysts feel considerable pressure from the investment banking side of any firm to tout stocks that the firm banks, Mr. Eisman notes. "I don't blame any analyst for publishing research saying the glass is half full, not half empty."

Difficulties arise, though, when "you become negative on an industry where the firm has a big investment banking presence, which is what I did," he said. "But I would rather have my bankers hear it from me than anyone else."

Now, he notes, Oppenheimer can take a subprime company public, despite the market's skepticism, because investors know that Mr. Eisman is taking a critical look at it.

"I'm here for the long term. The only thing I have to sell is the reputation I have," Mr. Eisman said. "To work in this business on the sell side, you have to be part egomaniac to think that anyone should ever listen to what you say," he added.

But, what about the cranky rap? "I can be abrasive," he admits. "I'm not a diplomat, but I'm trying, I'm trying."

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