Impact Investing: A New Investing Paradigm

A large group of CFA charterholders and other interested investment professionals gathered at the Palmer House Hotel to hear the latest thoughts and techniques in Impact Investing from a distinguished panel on June 5. The moderator, Priya Parrish, is a leading proponent of impact investing in the Chicago community of investment managers and managing partner at Impact Engine, a venture capital and private equity manager with a focus on investments that generate positive outcomes in education, health, economic empowerment, and environmental sustainability. Prior to the event Parrish joined us for a quick podcast which can be found on the CFA Society Chicago website and SoundCloud. Her panelists at the event included:

  • Susan Chung CFA, Managing Director of Investment Management at Wespath Institutional Investments, the investment arm serving the United Methodist Church, and other faith-based investors.
  • Andrew Lee, Managing Director and Head of Sustainable and Impact Investing for UBS Global Wealth Management
  • Charles Coustain, Portfolio Manager of Impact Investments at the MacArthur Foundation

Parrish kicked-off the program with an introduction describing the development of impact investing across nearly fifty years of history. The first generation was Socially-Responsible Investing (SRI) dating as far back as the 1970s. Its primary objective was aligning investments with the owner organization’s mission or values. Popular originally with religious organizations, this version relied primarily on negative or positive screening to either exclude companies involved in businesses that were objectionable to the investor (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, or gambling) or to include firms pursuing something the investor sought to encourage. Investment returns often took a back seat to mission alignment. SRI evolved to incorporate consideration of environmental, sustainability, and governance (ESG) factors in an attempt to improve risk-adjusted performance. The reasoning being that companies that excelled on ESG factors were more likely to out-perform lower scoring peers. Impact investing is the latest generation of the model.  It seeks investments that not only generate strong financial returns, but also contribute to positive changes on social matters. Parrish provided a list of seventeen such social matters with education, health care, economic empowerment, and the environment, being the most important ones to Impact Engine.

Parrish noted that, while many people are aware of the social ills often blamed on corporations, the profit motive also gives corporations the power to change society for the better. They only need to recognize this and make it their intention to improve society while pursuing their profit-generating goal.  The element of intentionality is what defines impact investing. The challenge for the impact investor is to identify, select, and manage those firms that intend to make a positive social impact in their businesses, and do so successfully. The audience heard the panelists refer to this element of intentionality repeatedly throughout the event.

Before bringing the panel on stage, Parrish presented a graphic depiction of the spectrum of impact investments. Its vertical axis showed modest return expectations with market return at the top and declining down through return of capital to complete loss. Across the horizontal access ran the approach to impact, beginning with None, and including stages such as Passive, Intentional, and Evidence-based.  The body of the matrix listed the investment products and strategies used to apply the approach toward achieving the return goal.

Parrish then invited the panelists up on stage and asked each to make a brief statement about the involvement of their firms with impact investing. Susan Chung pointed out that Wespath is part of a religious organization and invests for both the church as well as for pension plans for church employees.  The former is primarily done in an SRI style (meaning exclusionary) because they are less concerned with the returns than avoiding investments that conflict with the organization’s values. The qualified funds are more return-seeking so they have adopted impact investing. Engagement with corporate management is their primary tool for effecting change. They sometimes partner with other investors with a like mind to increase their leverage.

Andrew Lee of UBS Wealth Management said the firm sees impact investing as a major trend with a lasting impact so they have embraced it very broadly.  This is driven both internally, by the Wealth Management CIO who is committed to the style, and externally by clients.

The MacArthur Foundation, being a philanthropic organization, takes a different approach. Its primary purpose is effecting positive social change to begin with, and it pursues that objective with direct grants to institutions working in its areas of choice. These aren’t intended to generate a financial return, however as far back as 1983, the foundation began investing in public banks that address special social needs (such as affordable housing) that were underserved by the market. Their involvement was trailblazing in that it encouraged regular, for-profit, banks to invest in the same manner to the point that they now provide more funding than philanthropic organizations. MacArthur’s impact investing has grown to encompass a separate carve out of the foundation’s endowment that seeks return-generating impact investments that further the goals of its grant program.

As to how to select managers who best align with the investor’s goals, both Chung and Lee stressed the need for vigorous research to understand a manager’s process and determine how committed they are to impact investing. Wespath uses a detailed assessment survey to help with this.

Chung outlined how Wespath found a way to incorporate impact investing into passive strategies. By partnering with Blackrock, they were able to access data to score companies on ESG factors. Searching for indicators of either positive or negative correlation to performance, they identified factors used to make slight adjustments to the index components and thereby, drive alpha. As an example, Chung said they discovered that the rate of decline in carbon emissions was a better performance indicator than the gross amount of emissions. So, firms demonstrating the greatest decline, even if from a high base amount, out-performed firms showing lesser declines (or increases) even if from a very low base. The resulting strategy is very neutral on sector and industry metrics, while benefiting from relatively small mis-weights in the individual stock positions. Indexing purists would consider this to be enhanced indexing (if not a quantitative active strategy) rather than true indexing.

All three panelists stressed the importance of collaboration with other firms interested in impact investing to stretch their resources and increase their leverage with managements. This is especially important in the governance area where engagement with company management has proven to be an especially effective way to effect change. Wespath joins with other investors (or asset managers) when they engage with firms to discuss corporate governance. 

Lee added that UBS has determined that engagement with management is the best way to bring about change—far more so than simply voting proxies against management recommendations. This is especially true in the public equity markets. The firm sets an engagement goal at the outset when making a new investment.  

MacArthur collaborated with the Chicago Community Trust (CCT) and Calvert Research and Management to increase the scale and focus of its impact investing. The CCT brought a local focus to the investing to assure that funds were invested where the investors intended them to be.  MacArthur brought its institutional funds and Calvert added funds raised from their individual investors interested in the strategy. 

The Q&A session that followed the discussion lasted for half an hour, indicating the high level of interest from the audience. The first question asked the panelists to identify some impact investments that had not worked out as expected. Chung listed emerging market infrastructure, solar power following the removal of government subsidies, and wind farms in the North Sea. Coustan added for-profit education as an example. Lee noted that sometimes an underperforming investment needs to be reassessed to see if the investor can help the organization improve. The panel was in agreement that impact investing was more difficult to apply to fixed income. Chung advised that fixed income managers should borrow the scoring methodologies used on the equity side.  Lee added that UBS has substituted bonds from supranational financial companies such as the World Bank and UN-sponsored development banks in place of sovereign debt in the high-quality portion of fixed income portfolios. Coustan said MacArthur primarily utilizes private debt vehicles for impact investing because of the flexibility in structure and use of the funds. In these cases, however, their return objective is only to preserve capital.

Big Data, Machine Learning & AI

Cathy O’Neil: Founder of ORCAA and
Author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Big Data, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are becoming some of the hottest topics in finance. A packed room of CFA charterholders gathered to hear a presentation by Weapons of Math Destruction author Cathy O’Neil and a panel discussion on that topic in early May.

O’Neil began her discussion with Google’s autocomplete predictive search that can occasionally feature unreliable or conspiracy-laden results. She said that Google shouldn’t be able to have it both ways, making money off users’ trust yet saying that bogus search results aren’t their fault.

According to O’Neil, AI is not a model for truth. Artificial intelligence technology could be characterized as a series of opinions fed into an algorithm. The authors behind the algorithm will tell you to “trust the math”, but should we be that trusting when companies are incentivized not by truth but by profit?

AI amounts to making a prediction. There are two parts to an artificial intelligence prediction: the historical data, which contains a possible pattern, and the algorithm’s definition of success (such as a quant generating profit at a certain volatility level). Even mundane things such as determining what to cook for dinner could be characterized as an algorithm.

Our lives are increasingly touched by algorithms, in areas such as banking and credit, policing, jobs and even matchmaking. Sometimes the algorithms are incredibly helpful, but sometimes they can cause a great deal of harm. When a company runs an algorithm on you, you should trust that it will optimize the result to the company’s definition of success, not necessarily what is best for you. O’Neil said that many of today’s algorithms can be characterized as WMDs (Widespread, Mysterious and Destructive). And algorithms do make mistakes, but those mistakes aren’t typically publicized because the algorithms are usually secret intellectual property.

O’Neil told a story about a teacher who was fired because her students received poor test scores. This happened even though the administration didn’t have access to the actual score which was generated in a black box that no one outside of the firm had access to. Finally, access to the scores was provided. Upon reviewing them, the teacher scores looked essentially like completely random numbers with little predictive power from year to year. Some teachers have sued for wrongful termination and have won their cases.

Another example O’Neil gave of an algorithm causing harm was the case of Kyle Beam, who didn’t get a Kroger job because of a personality test result. The test resulted in a “red light” outcome where Kyle was not offered an interview. He complained to his father about the process, who is an attorney, and his father determined that the test violated the Americans With Disabilities act, as it is unlawful for a company to require a health exam as part of a job screening.

One of the main problems with algorithms today is that they tend to look for an initial condition that led to success in the past. Amazon developed a hiring algorithm (that wasn’t ultimately used) that aimed to determine which characteristics of certain hires led to success in the job. The algorithm proxied job success with metrics such as salary raises, promotions and workers who stayed more than four years. Upon scanning the data, the algorithm found that initial conditions such as being named “Jared” and using the word “execute” more frequently on resumes tended to lead to success. Unfortunately, it was also determined that male candidates tended to use the word “execute” more frequently than women, so some of the characteristics the algorithm was searching for were proxies for gender.

Couldn’t there be a market-based solution to all the defects inherent in algorithmic decision-making? According to O’Neil, expecting companies to self-police their own algorithms might be somewhat unlikely. This is because algorithms that maximize profits without any constraint on fairness are more profitable than algorithms with fairness constraints. This dilemma can be seen with Facebook. Facebook has a higher level of engagement and a more lucrative advertising business when its users are arguing about fake news and conspiracies.  Most companies facing demanding shareholders would be reluctant to agree to lower profitability in order to ensure fair algorithms. Because of this issue and others outlined above, O’Neil believes that regulation is needed.

Currently the legality and ethics around employers sourcing alternative data such as health information in order to make hiring decisions is murky. “What’s stopping Walmart from buying data to see who is sick or healthy [in order to make decisions on employment],” O’Neil asked.

O’Neil laid out three principles for responsible algorithm usage:

1) First do no harm

2) Give users the ability to understand scores and decisions

3) Create an FDA-like organization that is tasked with assessing and approving algorithms with a high level of importance

L to R:
Metin Akyol, Ph.D., CFA (Zacks Investment Management) Kevin Franklin (BlackRock),
Sam Shapiro (Goldman Sachs Asset Management), Cathy O’Neil (ORCAA)

During the panel discussion, speakers talked about how machine learning and AI are used in their portfolio management process, particularly parsing through large data sets. They talked about how it is more challenging to hold risk models to the same standard as trading models because risk cannot be directly measured, and the success of a trading model can easily be evaluated by the P&L generated. Are machine learning and Big Data a flash in the pan, or are they here to stay? The CFA Institute believes that it’s the latter, and have added the topics to the 2019 CFA curriculum.

Wine Tasting: Emerging Market Wines

The marvelous thing about tasting wine is that two people can split a bottle and experience something completely different, yet both opinions, shaped by each individual’s personal experiences, can still be valid.

On April 30th, CFA Society Chicago took in an educational wine tasting class presented by 40-under-40 Tastemaker Derrick Westbrook. After a stint as beverage director at Michelin-starred Elizabeth, Westbrook took his knowledge to Madison Vine Wines (now 1340 Beer Wine Spirits), a shop near the near West Side, where he recently became a partner.

Westbrook aimed to do a few things during his talk: make wine approachable and fun, introduce charterholders to some lesser-known wine regions, and equip tasters with a few tools that would increase overall enjoyment. We started our session by each naming a varietal. As we rattled off terms such as Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio, Westbrook explained that sommeliers such as himself tend to think of wines in terms of region, not grapes, as to limit the massive universe of wine types down to a manageable set. The regions will inform you of the types of grapes used and the varietals. For example, Burgundy in France features wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes as well as lesser known varieties such as Gamay.

According to Westbrook, “Is it yummy?” is the first question one should always ask after tasting wine. Drinking tasty wine that you like is the point and everything else is secondary. But before tasting a wine, it’s a good idea to both smell and look at the wine. The taste and color will inform how you expect a wine to taste. You should begin by raising your glass (holding it by the stem as not to raise the temperature) and looking at the color. Is it light, dark or medium? Darker wines will tend to be made from grapes with thicker skins. Then you ought to sniff it, with the goal of seeing if the wine smells ripe or tart. Warmer regions will tend to correlate to riper grapes, and colder growing regions will often see their grapes a bit more tart in flavor. Wines that are sweeter or less acidic are usually made with riper grapes in warmer growing regions.

We tasted some wines that are a little less known than California or French wines, and Westbrook said that savvy consumers can often get a good deal by buying from these lesser known areas. One wine we tasted was from Armenia. Westbook asked us to smell the wine in a glass and determine if it was more ripe or more tart. We thought it had a bit more of a tart odor, but when we drank it, we found that the alcohol feel (the burning sensation when it goes down your throat) indicated that the alcohol content was on the high side. This was a bit of a surprise given that the tart smell would typically be associated with less alcohol than a riper grape. Westbrook explained that the grapes were grown in Armenia in a mountainous region, so the terroir (the geographical characteristics where the grapes were grown, generally everything that the wine grower can’t control) includes very cold periods as well as a very warm summer, which can lead to higher alcohol content, yet with more tart flavor profile. Our crash course was a hit and well-attended, and those who couldn’t make it can sign up for classes on the 1340 Beer Wine Spirits’ website at https://www.1340bws.com/wine-class.

Storytelling: A Critical Brand Building Skill for Leaders

CFA Society Chicago hosted a storytelling event on May 14th at the Global Conference Center. The purpose of this program was to help society members claim their value using stories as a tool to highlight leadership and communication skills. Storytelling is a big part of personal branding. So, how can it help us and how do we tell a good story while remaining authentic? Daniella Levitt, president of Ovation Global Strategies and Executive Director of Leading Women Executives, engaged our right side of the brain and helped us become more comfortable talking about ourselves and the unique value proposition we bring to the table.

Storytelling shapes how others see us and embodies what we have learned about ourselves as leaders, but telling your own story can be uncomfortable. However, learning and practicing this does reap benefits because stories are 22x more effective than just rattling off a list of accomplishments. A story is a tool of authentic leadership. We started by creating the framework for our leadership stories and exploring the idea of leaders as teachers with a unique teachable point of view (TPOV). 

A TPOV includes the following attributes:

  1. In context of your role as a leader in your organization
  2. In context of your leadership identity.
  3. A direct tie-in with your leadership story and your persona brand.

Elements of this also include ideas, values, emotional energy and edge.  It should reflect how we take risks and make decisions. 

To create our TPOVs, we can create a chart mapping our leadership story placing events on the Y-axis and time on the X-axis. Organizing high events in our lives and careers above a horizontal dotted line and low events below will help uncover insights from our leadership stories. We will be able to answer questions such as: Am I a risk taker? Did my low points bring clarity and help facilitate change? These discoveries will become our TPOV.   

Levitt emphasized that developing this is an iterative process requiring reflection and feedback.  We should also develop a plan that encompasses the most important milestones we can think of and identify a small group of people who can help us move forward with the most critical aspects of our plans. 

We worked in groups at our tables on illustrating our own TPOV and the stories that would bring them to life. Levitt recommended we meet our fellow attendees again for coffee to practice and communicate our next iteration.

Levitt closed the event by providing a checklist for a good story:

  1. Know your theme and punchline.
  2. Draw from what you know.
  3. Simplicity works best.
  4. Adjust chronology as required.
  5. Make your audience care.
  6. Be passionate and value a dash of mystery, unpredictability and drama.

Hopefully with a TPOV and personal story, we will all feel better prepared the next time someone says “Tell me a little bit about yourself”. 

Karyl Innis: Building a Distinguished Career through Personal Branding

The CFA Society Chicago Women’s Network hosted the third event of its four-part Alan Meder Empowerment Series on March 15th at The University Club. The series is intended to support career development and the advancement of women in the investment management profession. This event also attracted a number of men who were interested in the universal topic of Personal Branding.

In today’s workplace how you articulate your value proposition to the organization can make or break your career possibilities. Advocating for yourself, articulating your value and utilizing your branding statement as a part of your personal development strategy are all crucial to long term career success.  Your future at work is tied to who you think you are, as well as who your customers, clients, partners and prospects think you are.

This interactive session was led by Karyl Innis who knows why successful people succeed and, when they don’t, how to help them. She is a career expert, CEO and founder of The Innis Company, a global career management firm, and one of the most successful woman-owned businesses in the country.

Innis took the podium and quickly asked the audience “What do you think of me?” Write down one word that answers that question.  She then asked us to contemplate “what does that word mean to you?” and “what about me made you think that?” She then noted that we’d return to this topic later.

Innis went on to share that how you talk about yourself and how you let others talk about you is a career accelerator or killer! She next asked “how many of you have a brand?” By show of hands, about half the room indicated they have a brand and the other half felt that they didn’t.

Lesson #1: Everyone has a personal brand!  You may or may not know what it is; you may think you know, or you may think it is one thing while others think it’s something else.  You may like the brand people bandy about when they speak of you, or you may want to change it.  Why does personal brand matter?  Because people make decisions based on what they think they know about you. The more you/others hear what your “brand” is, the more it becomes truth and reality. Your brand is other people’s perception of you – rightly or wrongly.  That’s why it’s so important for you to be in charge of your narrative!

Take Oprah for example, she has a personal brand.  She has a lot of other stuff too – television networks, property, copyrights, licenses, and that very valuable personal brand of hers.  Some say the value of that personal brand is worth a tidy 2.4 billion dollars. So what do you get for that $2.4 billion?  Nothing – her brand belongs to her and your brand belongs to you. Oprah’s brand solidifies her reputation, transmits what matters to her, and creates future opportunities for her. Her brand does that for her and your brand can do that for you!

Lesson #2: Brand messaging and brand are different. Brand messaging = Look, Act, Sound, Say. Your brand is how people think and feel about you – it’s a combination of a thought and a feeling. Brand is the place YOU occupy in the decision maker’s mind relative to all others. It’s similar to the place a product occupies in your mind. 

Consider three pairs of leopard shoes: one from Target; one from Nine West; one from Jimmy Choo.  You have a different perception of each shoe based on various factors such as durability, price, styling, etc. Based on these factors you position and differentiate the shoes in your mind and have reasoning for why you would choose one over the other. There is a premium brand, a middle of the road brand, and a low-end brand.   This same positioning and differentiating translates to human capital hiring – are you worth the money? You want to be the premium brand!

Lesson #3: We tend to position ourselves as average. We talk about ourselves with average words, yet we want more pay and more responsibility! We should be using premium words to describe ourselves and our capabilities.  There are A, B, and C levels of words to describe your brand. People frequently use “competent” to describe themselves, when in fact this is a C-level adjective with broad interpretation (having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully – capable, able, adept, qualified). The elevated or “A” version of this adjective is expert or executive.  Use A-level words to describe yourself and your competencies. How valuable is your personal brand? The more premium you are, the more you can command!

Start creating your brand by selecting three premium words which convey what you want your leader, hiring manager, or others to think of you. 

“A” Words                                                           “C” Words

Expert                                                                   Competent

Authority                                                             Skilled

Strategist                                                             Doer

Master                                                                 Reliable

Visionary                                                             Action-Oriented

Talent Scout

Champion

Guru

Futurist

Leader

Brand makes a difference – you will be hired for what you know and how you’ve applied it:

  • Oil and gas banker – an executive that fixes broken businesses
  • Client service advocate (voice of the client) – leader for everyone
  • Hard worker – powerful leader of people and teams

Lesson #4: Have what it takes to create an initial impression. Brand also has to do with how you look and how you deliver your message.  Initial impressions are key and based on the following: 55% visual; 38% vocal; 7% verbal (this goes up to 22% if you’re talking on a continuum). Everything from the tilt of your head, shoulder positioning, hand and leg placement, clothing, and smile factor in to how you are perceived by others. 

This takes us back to the start of Innis’ presentation when she asked the audience to write down one word describing her, before she had even delved into her presentation. This word was our first impression of her. Since she had barely spoken people’s perceptions of her were largely visual, as findings show.

Creating Your Personal Brand

Like those of us in the audience, you may be wondering how get an accurate assessment of your current brand. Innis suggests gathering performance reviews, email compliments, bio’s, casual notes, etc.  Additionally, interview at least five people, asking them all the same questions, clarifying with them what you thought they were telling you and recording their answers. The takeaways from these various sources will help you gain insight into others’ perceptions of your brand.

In the world of work, you will be talked about. People will describe you as they introduce, evaluate and sponsor you by using a succinct description attached to your name. It’s important that you control the brand attached to you and that it be one that accelerates your career and not one that stalls it. It takes about 18 months for a rebrand to take root, so write yours today!  If you desire Karyl’s help in crafting your brand, she can be reached at info@inniscompany.com

To learn more about career development and advancement, read about the previous events of the series – “Taking Control of Your Career” and “Tips and Tricks for Negotiating for Yourself” on the CFA Society Chicago blog.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Sheila Penrose, Jones Lang LaSalle

On April 9th, CFA Society Chicago’s Distinguished Speaker Series Advisory Group welcomed Sheila Penrose at The Metropolitan. Penrose is Non-Executive Lead Independent Chairman of the Board at Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services company, and also serves on the Board of Directors for McDonald’s. Penrose retired from Northern Trust in 2000. In her 23 years at Northern Trust, she served as President of Corporate and Institutional Services and as a member of the Management Committee, where she was the first woman to serve. Subsequently, she served as an Executive Advisor to The Boston Consulting Group from 2001 to 2007. She has been on the boards of Entrust Datacard Group, eFunds Corporation, and Nalco Chemical Corp. She has also served on the advisory board of the Gender Parity initiative of the World Economic Forum, the board of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and as a founding member of the US 30% Club, a group whose initiative is to achieve female representation of at least 30% on corporate boards.

After detailing some of her credentials and experience, Penrose highlighted three topics she wanted to explore:

  1. What issues are boards of directors discussing the most?
  2. How are boards of directors handling the evolution of the business environment?
  3. How do a group of highly ambitious, competitive and capable people, all of whom are used to leading others, form a functioning team that can effectively oversee a company?

She emphasized that in each topic, boards are fiduciaries for both shareholders and stakeholders, and need to understand how to balance the needs of both groups. She also emphasized that individual board members should be listening and learning all the time, while contributing and remaining objective.

Penrose expounded upon the recent transformation of the business environment as it relates to the board of directors.  Recently, boards have become less dominated by the executive. The CEO/Chairman dual role that was so common in previous years is now no longer as accepted as it once was. This was spurred by Sarbanes-Oxley, but also investors and employees who now have more of a voice shareholder activism has increased. Digital disruption has also been a major category for boards to tackle, and relatedly, managing corporate reputation in an age of social media, where all voices have access to the public. Diversity on boards, and not just different kinds of people, but different viewpoints, has also been an important topic. Boards have been seeking to find people who have different types of experience and different types of expertise, as opposed to finding a group of CEOs for the board. Boards need to develop consensus, not groupthink. She brought up the dilemma of cybersecurity. Boards must wrestle with the questions of how much cybersecurity is enough and how quickly the company can react in the event of a breach. Boards must also consider the impact of global events, as almost all large corporations are now global in reach. Lastly, and importantly, she discussed the issue of talent and corporate culture. Boards must grapple with the future of work and the changes in expectations of their employees. Companies assume they will be able to find the skills they need in the labor market, but they are not doing much to develop those skills in employees and not moving quickly enough to develop people whose jobs might be redundant in the future.

Boards also have to understand how best to find directors. With the changing business environment, new skills are often necessary, and boards have begun looking for people who have those skills, such as digital experience, to help them stay current.

The composition of the board, its dynamic, and its leadership are all critically important. The board should be “collegial but not clubby”, and board decisions should be made in the room, not in private meetings.  Board members should maintain a healthy balance of both listening and contributing.

Individual board members should have what Penrose called “The Four Cs.”

  • Curiosity
  • Conviction
  • Courage
  • Compassion

During the Q&A portion of the event, Penrose described how she believes someone can become a member of a board of directors. She said the individual must have a good reason for why they want to join a board, should be strongly curious and constantly learning, should have experience trying to manage a business on some level, and should be wary of joining a board too quickly. Joining a board too quickly usually means that board is likely of lower quality, and the first board you join dictates one’s future opportunities.

The Equity Risk Premium: Applications for Investment Decision-Making

Professor Aswath Damodaran’s opening remarks at CFA Society Chicago’s Equity Risk Premium event on April 2, 2019 at the W Chicago City Center.

Aswath Damodaran, Kerschner Family Chair in Finance Education and a Professor of Finance at New York University Stern School of Business, is well known for his books and articles in the fields of valuation, corporate finance, and investment management, philosophies, and strategies. On April 2, he treated the CFA Society Chicago to a tour de force through the foundations of risk premia, the macroeconomic determinants of equity risk, and how the risk premium can me misused.

Damodaran’s talk was followed by a panel which included himself, Michele Gambera, co-head of Strategic Asset Allocation Modeling at UBS Asset Management, and Bryant Matthews, global director research at HOLT. The panel discussion was moderated by Patricia Halper, CFA, co-chief investment officer at Chicago Equity Partners.

Damodaran pointed out that while the risk-premium is referred to as one number, it contains several various risk factors, such as political and economic risks, information opacity, and liquidity risks. Despite the underlying complexity, a common way to derive the risk premium is from the average volatility of some historical period. This, Damodaran warns, is a dangerous approach. By using historical data you can derive any risk premium you want by using the time horizon of your choosing. When you look at historical averages, you are also searching for a number that nobody has ever experienced. And even if they did, you should not believe that history will simply repeat itself. And even if history did repeat itself, you are still estimating a number with large error margins. In the end, the exercise is just not useful.

Damodaran has done a lot of work determining equity risk premia for different countries and makes his data available on his homepage. His approach is to derive an implied risk premium based on consensus forecasts of earnings and adding country risk premia for different countries. He cautions that there is no pure national premium thanks to our integrated world. Much of S&P earnings, for instance, are derived from abroad, and this must be taken into account.

For a person who has devoted so much time to estimating risk premia, it may come as a surprise that Damodaran thinks people should spend less time on it. His approach is that once you observe the market-implied risk premium, you should use this in your valuation model and devote your attention to estimating cash-flows. Right now, too many people are wasting too much time on valuing companies through finding the perfect risk-premia when cash-flows are ultimately going to determine whether they will get valuations right. Academic finance is another culprit here, which spends too much research time on discount rates.

Ask yourself this, are you working on your model’s risk premia because that is where you have superior knowledge, or because it is your comfort zone?

Damodaran is also critical of the use of the price-to-earnings ratio to assess valuation, since it looks at earnings only for the current period. In the US market the ratio may look high, but the pictures very different for current implied risk premia. Since 2008, risk-free rates have come down while expected stock returns have remained roughly the same. This actually implies a higher risk premium.

 Michele Gambera shares Damodaran’s criticism of historically derived risk premia. He also pointed out that while the risk premium fluctuates a lot, we pretend in our models that it is constant. In effect, Gambera stressed, we are estimating a random-walk variable. A better approach for your valuations is to use a forward-looking covariance matrix with various factor loadings.

Should we therefore throw the historical data out the window? When asked the question, Bryant Matthews of HOLT pointed out that historical data are not all useless in a world where variables tend to mean-revert. But you may need to wait a long time for it to happen.

Is there a small-cap premium? Damodaran pointed out that if you estimate the historical premium since 1981, it is negative, which is clearly fictional. However, Matthews estimated a small cap premium of 0.6%, albeit with a standard error that makes it statistically zero. By slicing the equity market in other ways, he estimates that value stocks tend to have a 3.5% equity premium over growth stocks, while Fama and French’s quality stocks-factor enjoys a 2.1% premium over non-quality stocks.

Matthews has also calculated market implied risk premia for over 70 countries, and found it rising in the US from 0% in 2000 to 4% today. Such estimates, he pointed out, are often counterintuitive for clients. Surely, equities were riskier in 2000 when valuations were high. But precisely because valuations were so high, the implied risk premium, which was part of the discount rate, was low.

Can we make money by investing in high-risk premium stocks? After all, theory tells us returns are the reward for taking risk. Yet as Gambera pointed out, high-volatility stocks tend to be favored by investors in part as a way to leverage up according to the CAPM-models, as is done for instance in risk-parity models. At the same time, pointed out Matthews, low-volatility stocks are generally also high-quality stocks and therefore tend to have high return, despite their historically low risk.

Matthews argued that while profits are high for the US market as a whole, this really applies to only 100 companies. This concentration, he suggested, is due to lax regulations. Damodaran, however, suggested that antitrust measures cannot be relied on to change this fact. They may have been politically attractive in the time of Standard Oil, when that company’s dominated position allowed it to raise prices. The dominant firms of today are offering consumers very low prices. Break them apart and any politician will be met with discontent from voters.

Let us end with some historical perspective from Michele Gambera. Much of the early work on risk premia was made at a time of a very different market structure of industrialized countries. Steel and railroads ruled the day and many of today’s giants were not listed. The likes of Alphabet and Facebook pose new challenges in estimating risk premia. This suggests that now more than ever historical data will be misleading in estimating the risk premium, a modest number that means so much.

Present Like a Pro

In the third installment of a continuing series on communication, Scott Wentworth addressed members of CFA Society Chicago on how to make good business presentations on April 4th.  The capacity crowd of 90 in the Vault at 33 North LaSalle Street spoke to the popularity of the topic as well as the value of Wentworth’s previous two appearances before our society.  Wentworth founded Wentworth Financial Communications in 2015 to help financial businesses (especially investment managers) demonstrate their expertise through various forms of marketing content, including white papers, blogs, and newsletters. Prior to founding the company, he served as the head marketing writer at William Blair & Company. In his previous appearances with CFA Society Chicago (2017 and 2018), Wentworth addressed business writing, the primary focus of his company. This time, he spoke on oral communication, specifically how to make effective presentations.

Wentworth began by demonstrating (without announcing) several common presentation mistakes such as reading from a script, employing busy or confusing graphics, and relying on undependable technology. His point made, he quickly moved on to a very effective presentation embedding his recommendations within it. He pointed out that presenting is not the same as public speaking. A good presenter does not need to have a commanding presence or an abundance of charisma. Of greater importance is identifying and concentrating on one main idea, and then making a compelling case supporting it to the audience. Successful presenting requires skills that can be learned such as clarity, persuasion, concision, and good preparation.

Wentworth then went on to describe in detail his five tactics for a good presentation. First is identifying the goal of a presentation. He gave as examples motivating the audience to action, changing minds, correcting a misconception, or simply gathering information back from the audience. 

With the goal set, the second tactic is to analyze the audience. Is it hostile or supportive?  Uninterested or engaged? Uninformed or well-informed? This may be a difficult step if the presenter has limited information, but may be inferred from factors such as the type, purpose or setting of the presentation. It is important because it will direct the tone of the presentation.  To address a hostile audience, the presenter should emphasize areas of agreement first and seek out areas the audience would view as “win-win”. Whereas, with a supportive audience the presenter should reinforce their enthusiasm and provide an action plan or tools that lead to tangible benefits.

Wentworth described his third tactic as crafting your story arc. He admitted this is the most difficult aspect of a presentation because it is an art, not a science. It begins with identifying the one main idea he mentioned at the outset. This idea should be boiled down to as few words as possible and repeated throughout the presentation to drive it home.  In must be articulated early in the presentation to allow for this repetition, and also to protect against the risk of running out of time. Other features of the story arc include:

  • Using empathy to demonstrate that the presenter understands the audience’s situation and can help.
  • Focusing on the benefits offered rather than features (a common trap for investment managers who often focus on a product’s defining characteristics or performance).
  • Highlighting differentiating factors
  • Making things tangible.  Avoid abstract ideas, or if they’re necessary, convert them to a more tangible concept via examples or anecdotes.

The fourth tactic is creating effective visual aids. This can lead to another common error of presenters: considering the slide deck to be the presentation. Wentworth says it is not.  Rather, slides are a visual aid, just part of the presentation along with the equally-important delivery, the message or theme, and the interaction with the audience. He followed-up with a list of Do’s and Don’ts for slides.

Slides should

  • Reinforce the main idea,
  • Illustrate statistics or relationships,
  • Explain complex ideas, and
  • Keep the audience engaged. 

Slides should not

  • Outline the full presentation (they are just an aid),
  • Serve as a teleprompter, nor
  • Be distractive (too busy). 

As an aside, Wentworth recommended that the slides a presenter uses be pared down as much as possible with the bulk of the information conveyed by the presenter directly.  He recommended to having a more detailed deck as a “leave behind” for the audience.

The final recommended tactic is to practice with purpose for which Wentworth had several helpful hints:

  1. Do a dry run alone to learn the material and time the presentation
  2. Repeat with a reviewer (e.g., a co-presenter, team member, or even a spouse)
  3. Prepare for a failure of technology and have a plan B in case of a breakdown
  4. Don’t memorize lines. You’re likely to forget them which increases tension and nervousness.

Wentworth concluded his presentation, not by asking for questions, but rather asking the audience to provide examples of roadblocks or challenges they had faced in making presentations. Many offered up cases which proved to be good illustrations of how to apply the five tactics he had outlined. The discussion naturally led into a robust series of questions that extended for over half an hour. The level of audience engagement proved that Wentworth had both talked the talk, and walked the walk in demonstrating how to make a good presentation.

Past Wentworth Financial Communications Events:

CFA Society Chicago Book Club:

GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History by Diane Coyle

Don’t confuse familiarity with understanding. That’s perhaps the biggest takeaway from Diane Coyle’s short and highly readable GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. The official guidance for calculating GDP, the System of National Accounts (SNA), published by the United Nations runs 722 pages. That combined with the difficulties of executing the actual calculation makes one wonder how many people, even ostensible experts, really understand the quarterly numbers. In addition to the intricacies of defining and calculating GDP, Ms. Coyle takes the reader through the short yet turbulent history of the metric, its uses and mis-uses, and several possible improvements and alternatives. The CFA Society Chicago Book Club members who met to discuss the book at their March 2019 meeting agreed that the book left the reader with more questions than answers, which is perhaps one of the marks of a good book.

As for GDP’s short yet turbulent history, Ms. Coyle traces the origins of the modern metric to Colin Clark and his pioneering work at the United Kingdom’s National Economic Advisory Council, an organization based on the then-novel concept of providing economic advice to governments to combat problems, the most notable problem at that time being the Great Depression. On the other side of the pond, the famed U.S. economist Simon Kuznets applied Clark’s concepts to the U.S. economy at the National Bureau of Economic Research, work for which he was later awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. From the very beginning, Kuznets grappled with using the metric to read into welfare, well-being, or happiness, a theme that’s repeated throughout the book and a problem that persists to this day. 

Spawned in depression, the concept of national accounting gained maturity in war. The Allies’ efforts to defeat the Axis powers required a complete mobilization of their nations’ resources, so it’s no surprise that understanding what those nations’ resources were was vital to that effort.  During that time economists started meaningfully incorporating government spending into GDP calculations for the first time. The reasons for neglecting it previously were numerous.  For one, as is easy to forget with our current bloated governments, government spending prior to the war was miniscule in comparison to aggregate economic output. A second reason for incorporating government spending was a matter of mathematical necessity. Without taking into account government spending, national income would fall short of the market value of goods and services produced. Kuznets again warned that incorporating government spending into GDP “’tautologically ensured that fiscal spending would increase measured economic growth regardless of whether it actually benefited individuals’ economic welfare.’”

Fast forward nearly a century later, and that recurring theme of reading too deeply into GDP notions of happiness or welfare is no less tractable. Efforts to combat that shortcoming include the Human Development Index (HDI), the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), the Measure of Economic Welfare (HEW), and several others. Those indices try to account for, among other things, leisure time, environmental degradation, crime, the negative impacts of defense spending, and several others. The most compelling response to attempts to read welfare and happiness into GDP might come from Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life.  In that classic book he discusses “motivators” and “hygiene factors” in the context of one’s personal life. Motivators are, like the name suggests, factors that compel people to go above and beyond the call of duty and can include the sense of duty or purpose that comes from curing disease, educating people, or defending the innocent in the military or as first responders. Hygiene factors, like salary, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for happiness. Below a certain level, people are unable to meet basic human needs and their happiness is adversely affected.  After a certain level income level ($75,000, according to a study by Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman), there’s little relationship between income and happiness.  Perhaps the same can be said of GDP. Below a certain level of economic output, a country likely will be unable to meet the basic needs of its people, such as nutrition, sanitation, and vaccinations. After a certain point, GDP and happiness likely has a more tenuous relationship. It might even be a negative relationship. Anecdotally, demand for mental health counselling seems to rise with income.

Perhaps people wish too much of one metric. Not only can GDP not explain human happiness and prosperity, but it’s very hard to make it account for economic output. How should GDP account for nominally free services like search engines, Wikipedia, or open-source software? How should GDP account for unpaid labor such as the cleaning and child care services performed by stay-at-home spouses (mostly women), a perennial bugbear among feminists?  Perhaps most consequentially, how should GDP account for the changing variety and quality of goods over time? To account for the change in quality, Ms. Coyle discusses hedonic price measures.  Instead of just looking at the price of a good over time, hedonic price measures regress the price of a good on measures of quality, such as screen size and screen resolution in the case of televisions and computer monitors. The consequences of hedonic price measures for health care and education, two of the goods with the highest inflation rates, could be striking.  The cost of health care has increased markedly in this author’s lifetime, but so have the availability and efficacy of several treatments. Education, unfortunately, has probably suffered the opposite fate. Despite the rising cost of higher education, there’s little evidence that the average graduate has gotten smarter based on measures of verbal and quantitative competency.

Those are just a few of the questions raised in a remarkably short book, only 145 pages. Although those questions deserve careful thought, one should only undertake such contemplation with Ms. Coyle’s warning about GDP: “the ‘object’ being measured is only an idea, not something with an independent existence waiting to be discovered and counted.” With all the variation in definition and measurement, one is unlikely to come to stable and satisfactory conclusions about GDP, but knowing that before contemplating GDP is perhaps the greatest lesson from an excellent book with several such lessons.

Curling at Kaiser Tiger

On a frosty evening where temperatures hovered just above ten degrees, CFA Society Chicago hosted an evening of curling and drinks at Kaiser Tiger, a bar with a large beer garden on Randolph Street. Curling, with origins dating back to 16th century Scotland, involves sliding a smooth stone across a sheet of ice, with the goal of centering the stone in the middle of a target (typically 146-150 feet away, the rink at Kaiser was a bit smaller though). It was added to the Olympics in 1924 as a “demonstration sport”, and was officially added in 1998. Curling is most popular in Canada, but many countries across the globe field teams in the world championships and Olympics, including Finland and Scandinavian nations, the UK and Japan.

This was our first curling occasion as a Society, and it was a packed event, with networking taking place in Kaiser Tiger’s large West Room and participants bearing the cold and taking turns hurling stones outdoors in the ice curling rinks in the beer garden. If you missed the event, you can get a group of friends together rent a lane for $40 per half hour here – Kaiser Tiger Curling. Aside from the networking, attendees were treated to a fantastic menu of craft beers, wine and appetizers. Despite the chilly temperatures, fun was had by all, and curling very well may turn into an annual CFA Society Chicago winter tradition!