CFA Society Chicago Book Club:

The Only Game in Town by Mohamed El-Erian

the-only-game-in-townExtraordinary central bank interventions during economic crises aren’t new.  In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lords of Finance, Liaquat Ahamed mentions Emperor Tiberius injecting one million gold pieces into the Roman economy to keep it from collapsing in 33 AD.  Extraordinary central bank policy coordination similarly isn’t new, as Mr. Ahamed notes with the frequent meetings between the heads of British, French, US, and German Central Banks and the resulting coordinated policy actions during the First World War and the Great Depression.  What is new is the extent and duration of those interventions and the absence of any corresponding fiscal or structural reforms. After Tiberius’s intervention, Rome soon returned its focus to commerce, conquest, and imperial assassination.  Roman merchants and farmers didn’t sit idly waiting for the next round of monetary stimulus and then dispose of their wares and crops in panicked fire sales when cheap money didn’t materialize.  Contrast that with our times.  Six years into an economic expansion, interest rates remain at historic lows—even negative in several major economies—with little hope of fiscal or structural reform.  A small uptick in volatility can elicit calls for further quantitative easing (college campuses apparently aren’t the only places where people are clamoring for safe spaces).  Central banks have become The Only Game in Town, the title of Dr. El-Erian’s book and the subject of the CFA Society Chicago’s July 19, 2016, Book Club meeting.

Dr. El-Erian brings uniquely diverse cultural, educational, and professional perspectives to the financial crisis and the ensuing central bank interventions.  His mother is French and his Father is Egyptian, and he spent time growing up in Egypt, in France, where his father was the Egyptian Ambassador to that country, and in New York City, where his father worked at the United Nations.  His enrichment continued in the United Kingdom where he attended boarding school, Cambridge, and finally Oxford, where he earned a doctorate in economics.  His professional resume is equally diverse and impressive.  It includes the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Harvard University’s endowment, and PIMCO, one of the world’s largest bond investors with approximately $2 trillion under management.  It’s there where Dr. El-Erian served as co-CIO along with PIMCO-founder Bill Gross.  That’s in addition to his numerous publications, boards and committees, and his previous book, When Markets Collide, which won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award as well as The Economist’s Book of the Year Award in 2008.

In addition to his qualifications to write on the subject, Mr. El-Erian served as CFA Society Chicago’s keynote speaker at its 2015 Annual Dinner, which further piqued Book Club members’ interest.  In his exposition of the issues facing global markets and central banks’ responses to them, Dr El-Erian didn’t disappoint the assembled Book Club Members.  In the plain-spoken fashion that made When Markets Collide a classic, he explained complex, interdisciplinary phenomenon in simple terms with the assistance of helpful metaphors.

For example, he explained the collapse in confidence and liquidity during the crisis in terms of a drive through: Customers pay at the first window and receive their food at the second.  When customers aren’t confident that they’ll receive their food at the second window, they’ll demand it at the first window.  When restaurants don’t relent, both parties that otherwise wish to transact will walk away – market failure.  As another example, he explained that trying to push certain products and activities out of the banking system was like pushing on a waterbed.  Rather than remove the activity, pushing simply displaces the activity to elsewhere in the bank and non-bank financial sectors.

Dr. El-Erian also noted the increase in the size and power of the end-users of capital, the buy-side, relative to financial intermediaries, the sell-side.  The phenomenon has been noted, among others, by John Rogers, the former CEO and President of the CFA Institute, in A New Era of Fiduciary Capitalism? Let’s Hope So, which appeared in the May/June 2014 edition of the Financial Analysts Journal.  Dr. El-Erian explained the consequence of that transformation, namely that the growing end-users are trying to force more transactions through the shrinking pipes of the financial intermediaries.  The result in the financial world is as calamitous as the result in the plumbing world.

In all, Dr. El-Erian noted nine challenging trends in global economies related to extraordinary extended central bank interventions, the subject of Part Three of his book: inadequate growth models, high unemployment, increased inequality, decreased institutional credibility, political gridlock, increased trade imbalances and tensions between the core and the periphery of the global economy, the rise of shadow banking, decreased liquidity (the pipes mentioned above), and finally the increased complacency among market participants due to a perceived central bank put.  In that exposition Dr. El-Erian touched on several insightful points.  For example, he noted the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) meetings allowing for back-channel discussions and problem solving between the monetary authorities of different economies.  A similar mechanism for averting armed conflicts through international organizations such as the United Nations has been noted in Bruce Russett and John O’Neal’s Triangulating Peace.  Perhaps a longer book would have allowed those points to be developed further.  The Only Game in Town is only 296 pages, including appendix.

That largely concluded the exposition of the problem, where Book Club Members gave Dr. El-Erian high marks.  The remainder of the book was a meandering attempt to solve the problems noted in the first part of the book, which left members disappointed.  The desultory journey covered bi-modal distributions, behavioral finance, several other topics, and even a section on diversity in the workplace.  One member quipped that the last chapter of the book was probably a last-gasp effort to fulfill a contractual minimum page requirement with the publisher.  Dr. El-Erian had a similar chapter on organizational leadership at the end of When Markets Collide.  In that book he also noted the failure of macro-prudential regulators such as the IMF, his former employer, to balance their academic training with technical knowledge gleaned from actual market participants.  Perhaps better institutional leadership and reforms, including more diversity, could foster economic stability and growth, but Dr. El-Erian failed to argue the point persuasively, at least in the judgement of the participating Book Club members.

The Only Game in Town is a worthwhile addition to the discussion about the continued role of central banks in the current economy and the potential pitfalls of continuing down the current path.  Even though Dr. El-Erian ultimately failed to solve the problems he elucidated, he’s hardly alone in that regard.

CFA Society Chicago Chairman’s Letter to Membership

img_1799Dear Fellow Charterholders and CFA Society Chicago Members:

Based on feedback we have received, we are initiating this quarterly Chairman of the Board Message to all our members. The intent is to keep the membership informed of the activities and priorities of the Board of Directors.

This Board for the 2016 – 2017 fiscal year met for the first time on July 27, 2016. We began the session by reviewing the previous year and are happy to report CFA Society Chicago finished the 2015 – 2016 fiscal year on June 30, 2016 with strong with reserves of nearly $1.89 million on revenues of $1.4 million. Membership grew to a record 4,563 members, a 2.7% increase from a year ago. We finished the year with an operating loss of $86,600 versus a projected loss of $185,000. The unrealized loss was $18,400 for a total Net Loss of $105,000. During the year, over 140 events were held ranging from 25 to 1,200 participants.

Two primary areas of focus for the 2016 – 2017 period will be to promote Employer Engagement and Society Volunteerism. The Society has developed tools and reports to track the levels of each, and we will utilize the information to target growth areas during the year. The success of our programming depends on our volunteers and their employers support.  We aspire to develop a community of inclusion, diversity and respect, which is one of our five organizational pillars. Please get involved!

We also discussed and continue to evaluate opportunities in the areas of Advocacy and Financial Literacy which will continue to be developed over the coming year by a new Advocacy Task Force and the Membership Engagement group, respectively.

The CFA Institute has begun to elicit feedback from the Societies on the Continuing Education (CE) program. As part of this process, David Larrabee, CFA, Director, Member and Corporate Products with CFA Institute, attended the board meeting and presented an overview of the current CE program. CFA Institute is examining the voluntary status of the program and assessing the effects of making it mandatory. There are no near term plans to make CE mandatory but the Institute is seeking input globally on the matter, as well as the broader topic of how it might strengthen the current CE program.

The Board discussed in detail many of the issues that would need to be addressed before mandatory CE would be considered such as: encompassing current employer training and educational programs, incorporating other professional designation CE programs and events, and developing a robust, accessible and affordable programming.

The Board offered suggestions on incentives to encourage members to take continuing education which included an online assessment when renewing membership, a recognition program for members that take continuing education, and a communication presenting the value proposition on why continuing education is important.

We would like to thank Mr. Larrabee and the Institute for providing us the opportunity to discuss continuing education.  We are anticipating additional information regarding important issue in the future and we will keep you apprised of any developments.

During the next few weeks CFA Society Chicago will be holding events including the Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon programs featuring Jeff Ubben, Chief Executive Officer of Value-Act Capital, on September 21st and Jimmy Levin, Managing Director of Och-Ziff Capital Management, on Oct 4th. The Education Advisory Group will be presenting “Investing in Innovation” on September 28th. Please visit www.cfachicago.org for additional information and registration details.

The end of summer also means CFA Society Chicago’s Annual Dinner is around the corner, with this year’s event being held at Navy Pier on November 2, 2016. Registration for the 30th Annual Dinner is now open and features Cliff Asness, Managing Principal and CIO of AQR Capital, as this year’s keynote speaker. The Hortense-Friedman Award for Excellence will be presented to Richard Ennis, CFA, and posthumously to George Norton. If you are interested in sponsoring this year’s dinner please contact Kim Augustyn, Director of Programming and Sponsorship at kaugustyn@cfachicago.org or (312) 251-1301.

The strength of CFA Society Chicago benefits from the efforts of all our volunteers and the support of our local firms. We hope to continue to be a leading voice and a resource for our members and your firms. Thank you to all the current volunteers and the support of your firms. If you would like to learn more about how you or your firm can participate in our programming opportunities, please reach out to CFA Society Chicago at (312) 251-1301 or info@cfachicago.org.

 

Sincerely,

Douglas Jackman, CFA
Chairman, CFA Society Chicago

 

Distinguished Speaker Series: Charlie Dreifus, CFA, The Royce Funds

DSC_2907“The proliferation of non-Gaap (financial measures) has added to the proliferation of growth,” said Charlie Dreifus, CFA.

Dreifus is a managing director and portfolio manager with The Royce Funds which focuses on providing small-cap, value mutual funds.  Dreifus is the portfolio manager for the Royce Special Equity Fund and the Royce Special Equity Multi-Cap Fund, with over 18 and 5 years on the funds, respectively.

Dreifus’ focus, for many years, has been on the value approach to portfolio management.   A key aspect of his approach is the utilization of accounting skepticism.  Dreifus shared his thoughts on the increased usage of non-GAAP measures and the resulting side effects.

He started with a story.  He had a conversation with a particular company to seek GAAP guidance.  Although the company already provided non-GAAP guidance, Dreifus was informed that “GAAP guidance is unavailable without unreasonable effort.”  Dreifus responded, “…but you need GAAP to get non-GAAP.”  And the attendees broke out laughing.

DSC_2918Dreifus reported that the number of S&P companies reporting non-GAAP measures has increased to 88%.  The consequences of the increased focus on non-GAAP include decreased clarity in reporting results and in increase in wiggle room to achieve desired results.  The desired results have, of course, have a direct linkage to executive and incentive compensation.  Executive compensation is being geared more towards non-GAAP and with the ability to front load expenses with non-GAAP measures, financial windfalls can be significant.  Audit committees have been strengthened by Sarbanes-Oxley.  Dreifus would like to see the committees act to disallow the gaming of earnings to beat analysts’ expectations.  They should take more responsibility for the reported economic stats.  Ideally, we would see “full, fair & balanced reportable numbers.”

Dreifus finds the number of times audit committees meet informative.  If the number is low or high, it raises a red flag.  He would like to believe that changes to our non-GAAP reliant system would develop within the audit committee; however, the challenge is sparking any involved person/party to take ownership of the responsibility.

On the other hand, Dreifus does grant that GAAP is not perfect either.  Nevertheless, his goal is to raise the level of consciousness within the industry and its participants.  Especially in the context of recent record-setting equity market levels, the talk has motivated deeper reflections on valuations.

CFA Society Chicago’s 2016 Annual Business Meeting

DSC_2952Beginning with a cocktail and appetizer hour, CFA Society Chicago’s annual business meeting was held at the Virgin Hotel on June 20th. Chief Executive Officer, Shannon Curley, CFA, led off with a summary of this past year which he labeled under the major theme of “Building the Base”.

The four major activities of focus were:

  1. Redesigning the website
  2. Working with CFA Institute to rebuild the CRM database
  3. Improving outreach to local universities and employers
  4. Preparing the office move to 33 N. LaSalle Street, Suite 910, Chicago, IL 60602

Following Curley’s remarks, Chicago Chairman Kerry Jordan, CFA, highlighted some of the accomplishments of this special 90th anniversary year:

  • The Society hosted over 130 events (with 9 sellouts!)
  • Record attendance at the 2015 Annual Dinner
  • Membership is up to 4,524 total members

Jordan complimented the invaluable contributions of the Advisory Group Co-chairs, and made special mention of the increased program offering of the Professional Development Advisory Group.

Examples of new or expanded initiatives include:

  • Creation of a new task force to determine how the CFA Society Chicago can be more helpful toward advocacy:
  • Launching of the CFA Women’s Network
  • The financial literacy program
  • Education of pension trustees
  • Branding campaign
  • Community service

Jordan then spoke about a few global initiatives involving the CFA Institute. Paul Smith, CEO of CFA Institute, has scheduled visits at over 140 local societies across the globe and was in Chicago to attend the regional and global finals of the CFA Institute Research Challenge.  Over the past year the CFA Institute has redesigned how local societies can receive funding for building brand awareness.

Jordan participated in the global brand campaign as part of a committee including six other charterholders to discuss the charter, what it means and how it can be made more prominent in the future.

Jordan then concluded by thanking the CFA Society Chicago staff and Shannon Curley, CFA, for his effort to grow the Chicago Society.

Marie Winters, CFA, Treasurer of CFA Society Chicago, was introduced next. Her remarks were brief, but included the society’s current financial standing including reserves sufficient enough to cover 14 months of operating expense. Recently we have used reserves strategically to upgrade technology and quality of programming.

After the 2015-2016 executive committee was thanked, Doug Jackman, CFA, was introduced as the incoming Chairman.

In the business portion of the meeting, the by-laws were approved, as well as the new slate of directors and officers for CFA Society Chicago.

Awards for amazing service were given to Justin Shepard, CFA, and Chris Vincent, CFA, and a special thanks was given to Larry Cook, CFA, who is departing as the Education Advisory Group co-chair.

Finally, Jackman was introduced as the next Chairman of the Board of Directors. Jackman spoke about not having a personal agenda, just his privilege to oversee the overarching agenda to build a strong Society which thrives on its volunteer system. Toward this goal CFA society Chicago plans to invest in upgrading systems and generating more active participation by members and member firms.

CFA Society Chicago is open to any ideas on how the Chicago society can further strengthen its brand and reputation.

The evening concluded with a reception that was a great opportunity to reconnect as well as meet new and interesting members.