CFA Society Chicago Book Club:

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

age of ambitionMost of us have a well-formed macro perspective on China. It’s the world’s second largest economy and a key U.S. trading partner with growing influence in Asia and globally. In Age of Ambition Evan Osnos takes us beyond the statistics, building a complex portrait of China through its people. The author introduces us to citizens from all walks of life with widely different views on politics, the economy, social issues and the Country’s future. He reveals the monumental changes, challenges and contradictions China faces by telling their stories, tracing their lives over the years and exploring their goals, aspirations and attitudes. It’s an up close and personal look that’s highly engaging.

We follow several progressive reformers like Ai Weiwei, a famous artist who publicly mocks inequities; Han Han, a snarky and wildly popular blogger who takes aim at rampant hypocrisy; Liu Xiaobo, a leading voice for human rights who won a Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned for advocating political reforms; and Chen Guangcheng, the “blind peasant lawyer” who helps his poor rural neighbors fight injustice by local officials.

We also meet conservative nationalists like Lin Yifu who defected from Taiwan to China in 1979 with the dream of helping China reclaim its greatness. He became a chief economist at World Bank and evangelized China’s central planning methods. Tang Jie is a graduate student whose viral patriotic video inspired Chinese people to stand against protests of China’s repression in Tibet. He and other nationalists view foreign criticism as part of an ongoing plot to encircle and weaken China. Interviews with these and other personalities span years and it’s fascinating to observe how their views develop as the country rapidly evolves.

The author takes us beyond the headlines of scandals and disasters like China’s real estate boom, organized crime and explosive growth in Macau, riots in the Uighur region, earthquake in Sichuan, conflict with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands and the “Harmony Express” bullet train crash. State controlled media tries to shape these stories but is often undermined when details emerge. The collapse of schools in the Sichuan earthquake and the “Harmony Express” crash were eventually linked to corruption that allowed shoddy building practices. Fraud was so widespread in the railroad ministry that its chief Liu Zhijun was convicted of taking kickbacks and bribery to win a Party Central Committee post. However, the truth-seeking public also can pay a price. After the Sichuan earthquake, parents who demanded information about missing children were detained.

Several book club attendees thought the author could have quantified the material better. And we also noted he doesn’t take a position or recommend action to resolve the country’s challenges. It’s true, Age of Ambition isn’t China-by-the-numbers, but it does offer rich insight into the Chinese worldview and their perspective on the country’s challenges. Our discussion was made especially interesting having Yunjin Wang and Yang Xu, CFA, add clarity and context about their home country. Both felt the book was accurate, but also noted significant changes have occurred in the short time since it was published in 2014, including the crack down on fraud and tightening of the “Great Firewall” by incoming President Xi Jinping, as well as the profound effects of ongoing economic shifts.

Key takeaways from Age of Ambition were the existential threats facing the Communist Party and their hold on power:

EXTREME WEALTH INEQUALITY

Market-based policies have created dramatic growth, but the benefits have gone mostly to politically connected businessmen and officials. China’s true Gini coefficient of wealth distribution is estimated at 0.61, among the world’s worst. This inequality stands in stark contrast to the Party’s ideal of a classless society. There’s growing frustration with the lack of social mobility. Wages for college grads have been flat since 2003 and there are six million new college grads per year. Meanwhile economic growth is slowing. “Parental connections” were found to be the most decisive factor in a child’s earning potential instead of “parental education,” the typical factor in other countries.

THE INTERNET

The Party is wary of fast-moving ideas, even those that support the government. Control of information is absolutely crucial to them and the book gives a fascinating look at their methods: the “Great Firewall,” text message monitoring, “Fifty Centers” paid to disrupt sensitive online conversations, orders issued to news outlets and publishers on forbidden words and topics, etc. But despite this censorship we see how artists, bloggers and activists use the internet to expose corruption and express their views, often with tragic consequences. Internet and mobile phone penetration are growing fast, so this challenge will continue.

INNOVATION

To transition its economy toward domestic consumption and grow its service industries, China needs to foster innovation, but official propaganda aiming to have citizens “sing as one voice” and a deeply-rooted requirement for conformity work directly against building a culture of creativity and innovation.

INDIVIDUALITY

The Party controls the legal system, education, industry, media, communications and faith groups, but as Chinese people become educated, urbanized and wealthier they’re craving more autonomy in their work, family and spiritual lives. This works against Party efforts to “harmonize” society.

Overall, Age of Ambition is a well-written and highly insightful book that’s sure to enrich your understanding of China’s people, challenges and future.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Liz Ann Sonders

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The Distinguished Speaker Series recently welcomed Liz Ann Sonders at the Metropolitan Club in the Willis Tower.  Ms. Sonders is currently Chair of the Investment Committee at Windhaven Management Inc., and is Senior Vice President and Chief Investment Strategist of Charles Schwab & Co, Inc.  Her responsibilities at Schwab include market analysis and interpreting economic trends for Schwab clients as they pertain to the equity market.

It is Ms. Sonders view that the following factors mostly favor this “unique” bull market:

  • Central bank policies have diverged with Japan and ECB leading the way in providing any perceived need for liquidity. The US central bank is not going down this path, but rather is looking for opportunities to tighten liquidity.
  • Due to the continued outperformance of the US economy, global economic indicators remain slightly positive. The level of pessimism remains high.
  • A generational shift toward higher savings as driven by the “great recession of 2007-2008” has muted the recovery.
  • The 5-year normalized P/E ratio reveals that the equity market’s value is only slightly above average. This metric is her preferred method of determining the richness of the equity market.
  • Corporate earnings hit a trough in the first quarter, but will recover for the remainder of the year.
  • Leading economic indicators do not lead to the conclusion that a recession looms in the near future.

Ms. Sonders claims the twitter hashtag #NoRecession as her idea; however it is far from “trending” and she does not expect that it will.  The level of pessimism concerning the future of the equity market can be compared to sentiment following the crash of 1987.  This is reflected in equity fund flows that remain negative for equities, making the market mostly reliant on corporate buybacks.

Inflation is something that might derail the bull, and per Ms. Sonders it should be on investors’ radar.  Commodity and wage pressure have not forced the Fed’s hand, however they are keen on attempting to normalize rates.  The velocity of money is most important and that has been slow to increase.  Ms. Sonders postulates that the Fed is driven more by the currency markets and the strength of the dollar may be more of an influence of the direction of the Fed.

Ms. Sonders also touched on the high amount of government debt now held by the US and how she thinks that is affecting the economy.  She stressed that high debt levels have led to low US growth and made the economy prone to mid-cycle slowdowns.  However, it has also served to dampen economic cycles on both the upside and the downside.

In her opening remarks Ms. Sonders referred to Martin Zweig and Sir John Templeton who helped shape her thoughts as an investor.  Sir John Templeton stated that bull markets mature on optimism and die on euphoria.  It appears that we have yet to reach the “optimism” stage.  Bull markets have never been killed by longevity.

In the Q&A session following the presentation Ms. Sonders commented on the following:

  • Gold is less an inflation hedge and is now being used more as an alternate currency. Some sovereign debt now has negative carry similar to gold.
  • Active strategies now have an advantage over passive investment strategies; there will be no reversion to a “nifty 50” as seen in the 1970’s.
  • Increased wages have implications for inflation; a September rate hike is not unrealistic.

CFA Society Chicago Book Club:

The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight Over Fracking, and the Future of Energy by Gary Senovitz

GreenBlackOne of the benefits of being a part of the book club is learning about industries, markets, or products that are outside one’s normal course of life.  I know little of the oil and gas industry, having spent most of my life researching and working in the financial service industry.  I would encourage everyone to keep an eye on the Book Club upcoming lists, and choose one or two that would increase your breadth of knowledge and join us for the discussion.

What happens when a self-described New York liberal (the Green) meets an oilman (the Black)?  Or in an interesting twist of fate they are the same person?  Senovitz is a Managing Director of a Private Equity firm (Lime Rock) in New York that specializes in the oil and gas industry, and is also a devout liberal worried about environmental issues and the future effects of climate change.   The end result is a very entertaining and even handed account of hydraulic fracking and a great story of its history and development.

The book begins with the history of hydraulic fracking and with riveting accounts of its biggest pioneers such as Audrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy, George Mitchell of Mitchell Energy, Mark Papa of EOG Resources  and Harold Hamm of Continental Resources.  The four are described as the Mount Rushmore of the Shale Revolution.  Their stories are a big part of the boom that led to the success of fracking: risk takers always seemingly on the edge of bankruptcy.  They persevered by staying true to their beliefs and their refusal to give up while others scoffed and laughed at them.  Many accomplished their success, simply because they did not know what else to do but continue to try.

The narrative continues to wind through many of the issues surrounding fracking.  The author breaks down the Documentary Gasland as more staged propaganda than facts and leading to an unneeded public hysteria, but also highlights real concerns such as surface contamination and noise which are very damaging and must be properly managed.  Senovitz remains tortured that fracking will lead to more carbon use, but he runs through large amount of statistics to make his case that it is really a natural gas boom that has led to the United States greatly reducing its dependence on coal and lowering its carbon emissions.  Other benefits include creating jobs, reducing American dependency on foreign energy and improving lives globally by spreading cheaper energy worldwide.

The author also describes the ongoing battle between the Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) vs. the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) factions.  States like New York and California (NIMBYs) have no problem utilizing massive amounts of the energy from states like North Dakota and Pennsylvania (YIMBYs), but refuse to let fracking on their home turf.  This visible hypocrisy is well discussed, and the author leaves no doubt that the NIMBY’s arguments are more political than sensible economic or scientific positions.

We found the book to be quick paced, and enjoyable.  The narrative provides a wealth of information that is important for all to consider on this controversial activity.  The Green and the Black is one of those special books which keep many of us returning to the book club.  Please join us in the future; we believe you will not regret the time.

Best Practices in Risk Management

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What is risk?

Many metrics and measures fall into the overall category of investment risk, including operational risk, market risk and credit risk. Investment risk is generally defined as “loss arising from changes in interest rates, credit spreads, equity prices, foreign exchange or commodity prices.”  Liquidity risk, at the forefront of many investors’ minds these days, could also be added to this list as a standalone item or included as part of price risk.

While a definition of market and credit risk may be fairly understood, the concept of “operational risk” is sometimes more nebulous. Operational risk could be described as “losses due to anything else, aside from market and credit risk”. But there are other ways to lose money that shouldn’t necessarily be categorized as true risks, such as not having the right strategy or the right timing on an investment, which could be considered outside the scope of what a risk management function can do.

Michelle McCarthy, Managing Director at Nuveen Investments, stated that each type of risk has its own type of P&L distribution. Credit, with its main reward being coupon payment and repayment of principle, has much lower upside and a bigger left tail, or possibility of large losses, than market risk, which follows a more normal distribution. Operational risk also displays a larger loss potential. Combining the three main types of risk into a single cohesive measurement becomes difficult given their differences in distribution.

There are also two primary styles of risk, binary risks and risks of degree. Binary risks are purely unwanted and offer no upside potential, and include things like fraud, theft and legal violations. Companies can use controls and processes to manage these risks to as close to nil as possible. Risks of degree offer upside potential, and are the result of an investment decision. These types of risks are market or credit-related, and need to be managed and monitored. As a risk manager, McCarthy looks out for hidden risks that may not show up in a risk report, risks that are disproportionate to the amount of the potential gain, and risks that have a potentially unexpected return distribution.

What types of risk metrics are important to a hedge fund manager? Jennifer Stack said that at Grosvenor they often look at many different measures instead of relying upon a single number, and utilize Value-at-Risk (VaR), contribution to VaR, stress testing and factor models the company has built. While VaR is helpful for a total portfolio view risk that can integrate exposures across asset classes, different asset classes often require different risk measures.  For instance, looking at the Value-at-Risk (particularly historic Value-at-Risk) of real estate is often misleading as returns look smooth and volatility appears artificially low as a result. Regarding how best to protect a portfolio, Jennifer said that as a hedge fund investor, “sometimes the best hedge is to sell.”

 

Organizational Structure

Mike Edleson of University of Chicago kicked off the panel with some background on his institution’s endowment. He described their organization as “very enterprise risk focused” and said that they employ a total of 28 investment professionals, with 3 devoted to risk management.

Noreen Jones of NYSTRS said that her pension sees its primary goal as funding liquidity. Every month, NYSTRS delivers benefit payments to 150,000 retirees, and these payments total $600 million a month. The pension’s risk management group is only two years old and was created in response to a regulatory analysis of a gap on calculating and reporting risk at the total plan level. In response, NYSTRS built their risk group from scratch and currently employs four risk professionals tasked with measuring and monitoring the risk of a $100 billion asset pool. Initially, the risk group found it difficult to get a buy-in on a formal risk management approach across portfolio management groups. While the public market groups were used to routine risk measurement and monitoring, the attitude of the private market teams was often “My portfolio didn’t lose money, so where’s the risk?”

Grosvenor Capital has $45 billion in AUM and approximately 400 employees, mainly in Chicago. Its primary business is a hedge fund-of-funds, where it invests money on behalf of institutional and individual clients into various external hedge fund portfolios. Jennifer Stack, the firm’s head of risk, said that their primary goal is to “achieve not only great returns, but to achieve great returns on a risk-adjusted basis.” Grosvenor operates under a system of checks and balances between its risk function and investing functions to achieve that goal.

The panel discussed how risk ought to fit in with the broader investment function. According to David Kuenzi of Aurora Investment Management, risk management can’t be merely a policing function focused on divesting “too risky” securities; it needs to be a collaborative exercise with the portfolio management team.

Sometimes being a risk manager can be a very lonely place. During the Dotcom boom of the late 1990s, McCarthy had to have difficult conversations with star portfolio managers making piles of money on internet stocks about their sector concentration risk. To Jennifer Stack, risk “is not so much about policing, but having a second set of eyes.” And often the best portfolio managers will welcome a conversation about risk, added McCarthy.

 

Risk Budgeting

“We’re a little different than other endowments,” Mike Edleson said of his employer, the University of Chicago endowment fund.  Instead of a traditional investment policy statement that would dictate targets for asset class allocations, University of Chicago follows a risk budgeting approach. “There are 12 or 13 things that we’ve found to be our primary risk and return drivers,” Edleson said.

As University of Chicago researched risk budgeting and a potential shift away from a policy statement to guide investment allocation decisions, they determined that equity market performance was the most important factor for overall risk and return. This led them to the formalization of their risk budget, which is comprised of four pillars:

  • An overall portfolio beta of between .75 and .80
  • A liquidity constraint that caps private investments at 35%
  • The ability to maintain a beta of between .75 and .80 even during a financial crisis (betas typically rise during large market drawdowns)
  • An absence of leverage (which takes into account the use of implied leverage often embedded in derivatives)

University of Chicago is not the only investor looking at employing a risk budgeting framework. Jones said NYSTRS is also working on one, and the Employees’ Retirement System of the State of Hawaii is also building an allocation strategy around risk factor groups instead of asset classes. Edleson said that staying right on their risk budget forces a discussion around trade-offs into each allocation discussion, putting risk at the forefront of every decision made.

 

Liquidity Risk

Buying illiquid assets may look good on the way in, as each subsequent purchase by a portfolio manager tends to raise the price, but could pose a problem on the way down if there is a dearth of buying interest.

For Jones at NYSTRS, coming up with the $600 million due to beneficiaries each month is a huge challenge that is at the forefront of the fund’s investment officers’ minds. In addition to the benefit payments they must pay, they also must deal with flows from rebalancing activities and undrawn commitments that need to be paid. They do a cash flow projection to help guide their allocations and measure their liquidity in months of payroll. Given their high liquidity needs, NYSTRS has a large chunk of its portfolio in Treasury securities, one of the world’s most liquid markets.

In a hedge fund context, measuring and managing liquidity can be a bit different. Jennifer Stack of Grosvenor looks at liquidity in two ways: the degree of mismatch between a manager’s long term investment and short-term financing, and the underlying asset liquidity.

While investors usually want as much liquidity as possible, there is a potential for too much liquidity. University of Chicago actually rejected two hedge fund managers’ proposals as they found the redemption terms to be overly generous given the liquidity of the underlying securities. The endowment didn’t want to find itself last to redeem if there was a stampede out the door, which could result in the endowment holding the most illiquid portions of the manager’s positions.

 

Managing Risk in a Crisis

Another risk management puzzle arises because “Humans are stupid, and we love to buy high and sell low,” said Edleson, “Especially those in the investment community”. As with any shrewd investor, the University of Chicago endowment wishes to be countercyclical with their private market allocations, but this is “horrendously hard to do in practice”. So University of Chicago always does the same thing, and keeps their beta consistent across normal and distressed market conditions.

“How does one account for betas changing in a crisis event?” McCarthy posed to the panel. At Aurora, David Kuenzi likes to run his portfolios through a stress test focused on the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008, which he said was “a gift, in a sense” to risk managers as it provided a recent event to use to see how portfolios might perform in a crisis condition. While many securities of today’s portfolios weren’t around in 1987, one of the most common stress test scenarios risk managers like to use, many of the securities in today’s portfolios were around in 2008.

Another facet of risk that University of Chicago focuses on is the potential for regime change, particularly how correlations between securities tends to change over time. As risk-on, risk-off has been the flavor du jour for the macroeconomic environment for nearly a decade, this isn’t always the case. Edleson said that over time, stock and bond correlation is positive about 50% of the time and negative 50% of the time, making it difficult to discern any general relationship outside the context of each particular regime. In addition to stress testing prices, it’s worthwhile to stress test the correlations between market variables and model the effect of potential regime changes on the portfolio.

As risk evolves from measures like duration to Value-at-Risk to modeling macroeconomic shocks, there are a dizzying amount of metrics investors can look at and use to manage their portfolios. As risk practitioners, “We don’t know the future, but we can know our exposures,” said McCarthy. We can determine how our portfolios might break down in an extreme event, and we can instill a culture of risk awareness in our organization in order to avoid huge losses, with hope of buying during a crisis as opposed to selling.

 

Panelists:

Mike Edleson, CFA – Chief Risk Officer, The University of Chicago Endowment Fund
Noreen Jones, CPA, CFA, CAIA, FRM – Director of Risk Management, New York State Teachers’ Retirement System
David Kuenzi, CFA – Partner and Managing Director, Aurora Investment Management
Jennifer N. Stack, Ph.D. – Head of Risk Management, Managing Director, Grosvenor Capital Management

Moderator: Michelle McCarthy – Managing Director, Nuveen Investments

Putting Investors First

DSC_2831Each May, CFA Institute and local societies join together to create awareness around placing investors interest first. This event reminds us of why we work in this industry – to best serve our clients.  Moderator Darin Goodwiler guided panelists Jonathan Boersma, CFA, David Hershey, CFA, and Brian Thompson through a discussion on the current regulatory and ethical environment investment professionals are navigating. The panelists provided insights from CFA Institute, the SEC and consulting and investment management disciplines.

Most of the discussion covered the Department of Labor (DOL) rule and its impacts. Given the goal of DOL is to provide objective advise to investors, 93% of 1400 surveyed want the law and 51% think the law is already set up to meet this objective. Broker dealers will be impacted the greatest and it is likely that security sales will be a differentiated title from what we have known as advisors. As the DOL regulation progresses, we can expect to hear a unified message from the SEC and FINRA via social media and other communication channels.  All who give advice to clients are be held to the same standards and it was noted that CFA charterholders, candidates and members have long been held to a very high standard of loyalty, prudence and care. Due to this, no change is expected for this group.

One thing DOL won’t help with is people behaving badly. Culture and management play a role. Ethics training and regulation can help but regulation backward looking is implemented because we learn from our mistakes and play “catch-up” from innovation. Thompson commented that ethical decision making plays into awareness like yoga does into moods and breathing. Panelists felt that best practices are using GIPS and having a strong and visible Chief Compliance Officer.

This event was part of CFA Institute’s annual ethics initiative. For those wanting to practice ethics by role play in an interactive environment, please see http://cfa.is/1WTtG0G to access on-line programs offered by the CFA Institute.

 

Building My Brand: Soft Skills for Success

DSC_2838What is the difference between our social selves and professional selves and why would it ever be bad to be social? What do we need to be successful financially and professionally? Melissa Ford, a business and life coach helped us develop an outer focus leading to success and better outcomes.

DSC_2841The social self is the self that is created as we grow up. It is likely created by authority and is reactive, self-focused and needy; sometimes even to the point of being creepy. It represents the inner fear and doubt we might feel when our manager indicates they want to talk to us or when we are in a new group and want everyone to like us. Our professional aura concentrates on serving, contributing, being confident and creative. At the center of the professional self we find power, focus and energy. We are the creators of our professional selves.

So if the professional self is better for success, how do we shift to it and what should we be aware of? It is a doing versus being problem. Tips that can help us get into this mindset and stay there are as follows:

  1. DSC_2842Work on active listening skills. Move out of broadcast only mode.
  2. Put yourself in situations with people who are in professional mode.
  3. Work on empathy and give yourself a break. This may take time and practice.
  4. Notice how you feel and when you catch yourself in social mode, move to professional mode.
  5. Roleplay your professional self and then make adjustments based on feedback.

Melissa told us that the best thing is to just “flip the switch” and turn on the professional. We will know that we are in our professional mindset when we start overriding pre-programmed responses and we can do this easily on difficult days like Monday mornings. It’s all about getting out of the comfort zone.

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CFA Society Chicago Company Presentation: AstraZeneca

DSC_2846The prospect of curing or even “containing” cancer has proven to be an elusive goal. One company that has recently joined the battle against this disease is AstraZeneca, a UK based Biopharmaceutical Company. On June 6th, CFA Society Chicago hosted a presentation by AstraZeneca given by Luke Miels, Executive Vice President Global Products and Portfolio Strategy. Mr. Miels outlined AstraZeneca’s going forward strategy and its plans to return to growth in 2017.

After a brief review of the company’s most recent acquisitions, Mr. Miels illustrated that an increase in research has yielded an increasing number of high-impact publications and Phase III trials of prospective breakthrough drugs. This increase in research and development has set the table for an acceleration of growth that is forecast to occur in 2017.

AstraZeneca will focus on three main therapy areas: Respiratory, Inflammation & Autoimmunity, Cardiovascular & Metabolic disease, and Oncology. There are currently 10 AstraZeneca drugs in late-stage development targeted to treat these diseases. The drugs he highlighted did not exist five years ago. Mr. Miels went on to describe five growth platforms that will support the three main therapy areas. These platforms currently represent 56% of AstraZeneca’s business.

For each of the three main therapy areas, Mr. Miels listed the existing or late-stage trial treatments, the evolution of the treatments and the areas for which the treatments are most profitable. It appears that AstraZeneca is having its greatest success in emerging markets and the EU. It has developed successful treatments for severe asthma and COPD (Beralizumab), a super-aspirin (Brilintal/Brilique) and a treatment for diabetes (Faxiga).

AstraZeneca is a relative newcomer to Oncology. There are new treatments in development for ovarian cancer (Lynparza) and lung cancer (Tagrisso). AstraZeneca intends to focus on tumor resistance, DNA damage response, Immuno-oncology and antibody conjugates in its fight against this terrible disease. The ovarian cancer and lung cancer treatments appear to be more effective for patients with DNA mutations that make them susceptible to these cancers.  Research is ongoing by multiple drug companies on what treatments might make the immune system be able to recognize and fight an invading cancer.

There were several questions posed to Mr. Miels following his presentation. They focused on patent expiration and generic drugs. One question focused on the manufacture of a drug after patent expiration. Mr. Miels stated that it still was cheaper for the company with the patent to manufacture the now generic drug; however there is little incentive for the company to do so.  Another question concerned the efficacy of a biologic generic drug.  Mr. Miels stated that generics of chemical drugs are exact copies, however due to the nature of its manufacturing; biologic drugs are never exact copies.

Crunch Time! CFA Society Chicago Cram Session

DSC_2760Dan McKenna, CFA Institute’s Manager of Supplemental Study Tools, led off with insights and advice directly from the source.  New charterholders and study partners, Shai Dobrusin, CFA, and Jay Bullie, CFA, shared their thoughts and where their studies differed.  Dobrusin, Trust Associate and Financial Analyst at Charles E. Dobrusin & Associates, focused on the end of chapter problems in addition to the, now Kaplan Schweser, study materials and used the Kaplan QBank as supplement.  Bullie, Associate Director at Fitch Ratings, added that relying on Kaplan alone is debilitating, especially in regards to new material.  Kaplan tends to avoid adding CFA’s new material because it is not consistently tested. Bullie experienced these new questions and had to “suck it up and move on.”  Russell Rhoads, CFA, had the most unique route to becoming a charterholder.  He gained the designation 13 years after taking Level I because the hedge fund he worked for discouraged taking the exams.  Also, as the Director of Program Development, Options Institute at the CBOE, he is one of the few at the exchange with the designation.

After the panel discussion, attendees were fortunate to ask additional questions at level specific tables.

Suggestions:

  • DSC_2765Repetition is key to success. You are able to gain familiarity with the structure, format, and level of difficulty.
  • Utilize the learning outcome statements to direct your focus (i.e. do you need to know the formula or just the concepts).
  • Examples in the text are very helpful.
  • Optimize your remaining study time so you can cover all the material, master the challenging topics, and keep the mastered topics fresh.
  • Scale back the final week and if you are not done reading then focus on questions.
  • Relax the day before the exam and ensure you gain plenty of rest.
  • Take as many practice exams as you can. Replicating the test environment for at least one is helpful.

Level II

  • Mark up the vignettes to easily reference the facts.
  • Repetition and practice will make you more efficient.

Level III

  • The questions and answers rely heavily on the curriculum.
  • About 700 graders look for key items to give credit. After 7 hours of looking at an answer, graders appreciate your efforts to make it easy to give out points (bullet points, underlining).
  • You can get partial credit even if your formula is not 100%.
  • There is no extra credit. If the question asks for three points, anything beyond will be ignored.

Future Exams

  • CFA Chicago gives out scholarships for all levels including the Level I exam in December.
  • The Study Group Kick-off Party and Open House for the December 2016 CFA Level 1 exam will be held on July 12th at Norther Trust.

“I’d far rather be happy than right any day,” except on exam day (adapted from Douglas Adams).

CFA Society Chicago Book Club:

While America Aged: How Pension Debts Ruined General Motors, Stopped the NYC Subways, Bankrupted San Diego, and Looms as the Next Financial Crisis by Roger Lowenstein

While America AgedThe specter of unfunded pension liabilities haunts many of our major cities and a large number of public companies. This is especially true in the city of Chicago as public unions continue to threaten to strike over benefits and unfunded pension liabilities. We discussed Roger Lowenstein’s book about this topic at a well-attended CFA Society Chicago Book Club meeting held in April. The book attempts to answer why the private pension system as conceived in the United States has failed.

Mr. Lowenstein divides his book into three parts. Each part addresses the pension crisis from the perspective of; a public company (General Motors), public service workers in New York, and the public service worker pension plan for the city of San Diego.

Part One: Who Owns General Motors?

The question asks whether it is the shareholders or workers who own a publicly traded company.  GM was one of the most successful companies in the world, however due to labor union gains at the bargaining table, its future cash flow would not accrue to its shareholders, but rather to its pension obligations.

This part of the book revolves around Walter Reuther and the UAW. Mr. Reuther became the visionary leader of the UAW in the 1930’s. In 1950 Mr. Reuther crafted what Fortune Magazine dubbed the “Treaty of Detroit”. It was a 5-year agreement which committed GM to guarantee a pension, wage increases with a cost of living formula and hospital and medical insurance at half cost. It was the inability to fund these ever-growing commitments which eventually led to the downfall of GM.

Part Two: The Public Freight

Pension plans for city workers help to guarantee a stable work force; a highly desirable trait for teachers, firemen and transportation workers. Reliable bus and train service is critical for the economy of a city. The second part of the book examines the history of wages and pensions for the public workers of New York City.

The most effective union leader was Michael Quill, an Irish immigrant who was a member of the IRA and fought in the rebellion against the British. In the 1930’s, the Transit Workers Union (“TWU”) was led by a coalition of Communists and former IRA activists. In 1937, Mr. Quill became President of the TWU. A 13-day strike in 1965 permanently changed the dynamic between the unions and the city. New Yorkers endured the worst traffic-jams in its history during this strike. The state government reacted by passing stricter laws prohibiting strikes by public workers. These laws were ignored as union leaders happily went to jail. The citizens of any municipality are captive customers and are unable to shop elsewhere for subway service or police protection.

Part Three: Debacle in San Diego

The risk that the government will put the expense of a pension plan onto future generations is illustrated by the city of San Diego. By the summer of 2005, the municipal pension fund in San Diego, the San Diego City Employees Retirement System (“SDCERS”) was underfunded by $1.7 billion. How it got that way is addressed in the third part of this book.

In 2005 the national press referred to San Diego as “Enron-by-the-Sea”. The cause of the underfunding was the extreme reluctance of local politicians to raise money by increasing taxes. The political climate in the city was very conservative with a mistrust of any tax. The city covered its cash shortfalls by continuing to avoid making the required pension contributions.

Labor unions in the city began to contribute heavily to political campaigns; this was more effective in San Diego which had a weak form of city government where a relatively small amount of votes could sway elections. In the end, public employee unions had political clout on par with business interests. City managers became more adept at structuring solutions which circumvented state laws regarding the required funding of SDCERS.

Conclusion: The Way Out?

The author has a few suggestions as to how to mitigate some of the risks endemic to these pension and health care schemes. However, most participants at the Book Club thought they were rather weak. The author is of the opinion that the 401K is not an adequate substitution for a pension and advocates a “national” 401K offering matching credits to lower wage earners. He also suggests that 401K providers be required to offer an annuity as a default option. The author ends the book with a plea to strengthen social security by raising taxes, an unpopular but perhaps necessary measure.

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Distinguished Speaker Series: Tom Ricketts, CFA

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Chairman of the Chicago Cubs and Incapital LLC, Tom Ricketts, CFA, speaks to local financial and investment professionals at the Standard Club on April 12, 2016.

After his family acquired the Cubs in 2009, Tom Ricketts, CFA, found the storied franchise in disarray. Despite not winning a World Series championship in over a hundred years, the team continued to pack fans into historic Wrigley Field. But with the 3rd highest payroll and the 2nd worst record in the National League in 2011, success didn’t seem to be just around the corner. In a presentation to CFA Society Chicago, Ricketts offered his playbook for turning the perennial “Lovable Loser” Cubs into a championship-caliber squad in just five years.

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“Every single day I wake up and think about winning the World Series” – Tom Ricketts, CFA

As the team’s new owner, Ricketts put forth three goals for the organization:

  1. Win the World Series
  2. Preserve historic Wrigley Field
  3. Act as a contributor to the community

“Every single day I wake up and think about winning the World Series,” said Ricketts. He shared an interaction he often has with older Cubs aficionados: a fan approaches and tells him “Mr. Ricketts, I’m 70 years old and a huge Cubs fan, can you please win the World Series before I die?” To which, Mr. Ricketts typically responds, “Well, how’s your health? Are you exercising and eating healthy?”

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Tom Ricketts, CFA, and Distinguished Speaker Series Advisory Group member, Jim Stirling, CFA, meet with attendees before the presentation.

When Theo Epstein was hired as General Manager, the Cubs had a poorly ranked farm system and a very old, overpaid team. The Tribune organization, which Ricketts reckoned wanted to win as much as any owner, seemed to focus on short term success and viewed each season as a “discrete event”, hardly the way to build a championship team in his opinion. The Cubs executives began their quest for a championship by looking extensively at data. One thing they found was that the correlation between regular season winning percentage and playoff winning percentage is often somewhat low. In fact, many Wild Card teams haveended up winning the World Series in the past decade. Ricketts interpreted this as regular season records not mattering as much as simply reaching the playoffs for a chance to win.

Another insight that came out of their research involved the relationship between payroll and winning. A commonly held view by the media is that if you spend a lot of money on talented players, you will win a lot of games. Sports writers often consider payroll expenditure a good proxy for a franchise’s commitment to winning. After analyzing the data, the Cubs management realized that this simply wasn’t true.

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Tom Ricketts, CFA, with CFA Society Chicago’s Executive Committee. (L to R: Doug Jackman, CFA; Marie Winters, CFA, CAIA; Tom Ricketts, CFA; Kerry Jordan, CFA; Shannon, Curley, CFA

“Correlation between payroll size and winning percentage is much lower than you’d expect. You can’t just go out and buy wins,” Ricketts said, proving his point with a graph of the two variables’ low R-squared (a measure of goodness of fit of a model). The correlation between high payroll and winning percentage has subsequently declined even further in the past few years. Ricketts sought to understand why that might be. He found his answer in Major League Baseball’s contract system, which divides a player’s lifecycle into three phases:

  1. MLB debut
  2. Arbitration
  3. Free Agency

During the MLB debut phase, players often earn far less than their fair value. For instance, last year’s NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant will earn just $652,000 in 2016, despite batting more home runs than all but 13 players in the National League in 2015. Meanwhile, 35 year-old Curtis Granderson was less productive than Bryant, finishing with 29 fewer RBIs in 2015, yet is paid over 20 times the amount Bryant receives. This shows the asymmetry between production and cost that Ricketts says can hamper teams’ efforts to win.

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The Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon featuring Tom Ricketts, CFA, was one of the largest with more than 350 attendees.

The arbitration phase was characterized by Ricketts as a presentation by a player’s agent saying effectively that the represented player “was probably the best player on the team, and should receive an appropriately massive salary”, while the team’s presentation would sound more like “This individual shouldn’t even be in baseball and is fortunate to receive anything at all.” Following both presentations to a neutral arbitration panel, teams and agents will often meet somewhere in the middle on salary.

After six years following the debut and arbitration phase, salaries finally become lucrative as Major League Baseball players enter free agency. The problem for a team is that by the time a player reaches this stage, their Wins Above Replacement value (Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is an overall measure of a player’s production and value) has typically peaked, and teams end up overpaying heavily for aging, declining talent. This was the case with the Cubs team that the Ricketts family inherited from the Tribune Corporation.

A slide charting the average players pay alongside WAR was shown, depicting a huge mismatch between value and pay early and late in a player’s career. The left portion of the chart (early on in a player’s career when their value to their team exceeds their pay) indicated an economic surplus for the organization, while the right portion of the chart (when a player’s pay exceeds value-added) showed an economic surplus for aging players. Puzzlingly, free agents sign the most lucrative contracts of their careers almost exactly when their production begins to slow down.

Another factor exacerbating the effect of low WAR relative to salary in players’ later years (i.e. free agency) is the growing practice of teams giving young, highly talented players longer contract extensions. Buster Posey’s 8 year, $167 million deal at age 26 was used as a good example of this. The net effect of longer contracts for star players is that quality players are entering free agency at an older age, when their WAR has typically peaked and their talents are in decline. Given these developments, it has become harder and harder to “buy a winner” and simply acquire high-priced free agent talent in order to win the World Series.

In light of that information, what were the Cubs to do in order to build a winner?

Their solution: focus on building a core of young, homegrown talent.

A number of other problems plagued the Cubs in 2011. According to Ricketts, the team had perhaps the worst facilities in Major League Baseball and didn’t have a clear philosophy on how to play the game. The Cubs developed the following plan:

  1. Upgrade all facilities
  2. Improve and expand scouting capabilities
  3. Focus on player development – create a “Cubs way” including a how-to manual for players detailing how to play the game
  4. Talent Acquisition
  5. Contract Extensions

The Cubs made a series of trades focused on length of control and getting younger, often moving older, more established players for prospects. The average age of their traded players was 31, compared to an average age of 23 for players received in trades. Ricketts reviewed several recent Cubs moves. According to the Cubs Chairman, the trade for Jake Arrieta was “the best trade in the history of mankind”, which was met with laughter and smiles by the audience.

After shedding older players and their costly contracts, developing prospects was the next key part of the Cubs strategy for sustained success. Ricketts noted that 24 out of 50 players playing in the 2015 World Series between the Mets and Royals were homegrown talent – players who had come up through each team’s farm system. The Cubs aggressive moves to cut older players and focus on improving their pipeline paid off in a big way. By 2015, ESPN reported that the Cubs had the #1 farm system in the MLB. In just five years after beginning a rebuilding effort in 2011, the Cubs entered the 2016 season with the most talented squad in the Major Leagues.

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CFA Society Chicago Vice Chair, Doug Jackman, CFA, welcomes Tom Ricketts, CFA.

On rooftops, Ricketts opined that it’s a difficult business situation when people across the street have access to your product for free. The practice of watching games at Wrigley on Waveland and Sheffield avenue rooftops began organically, with residents bringing up a cooler of beer and occasionally inviting a friend over to watch the game. Then some enterprising individuals began charging fans to go up on their rooftops and take in the Cubs, forever changing the rooftops into a commercial endeavor. The Tribune Corporation viewed rooftops as a threat and moved to block their view of the field. Rooftop owners responded by petitioning the City of Chicago to assign landmark status to three distinct elements: the marquee, the scoreboard, and most critically for them, the “natural slope of the bleachers”. The last item effectively prohibited the Cubs organization from blocking the rooftops’ view. Now, Ricketts said, the Cubs have made peace with the rooftop owners, their presence being one of the most distinct aspects of watching a baseball game at Wrigley Field.