POWER Breakfast: Mellody Hobson, Ariel Investments

On February 6th Mellody Hobson was the featured guest at CFA Society Chicago’s Power Breakfast series held at The Standard Club hosted by the CFA Women’s Network. Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, is responsible for managing Ariel’s business operations, development, and strategic initiatives. 

This event was a conversational interview and moderated by Linda Ruegsegger, CFA. Ruegsegger started by asking Hobson what she sees as current risks and challenges in the investment industry. Hobson answered by stating that most risks should be considered as opportunities to be exploited whether they are new/emerging or persistent risks. The proper frame of reference is key to this here. Hobson used a hot topic as an example; the movement from active to passive management, or the growth of the ETF market. The growth of the ETF/passive market has come primarily at the expense of active management. With wide availability, it can be an easy choice to go the passive route. While ETFs are not inherently bad or wrong to own, they will only provide an average return – beta. Since the average market return is the best one can earn, eventually investors will realize that obtaining alpha is a valued outcome, and they will understand that it is worthwhile to pay for an active return. Since an ETF portfolio can only offer the market return, reversion to the mean should favor the active manager.

Hobson brought up a related topic – fee compression and how different ages of investors evaluate the cost of investing. The latest generation of investors have been able to invest their entire (short) life with investments that are effectively free. There are any number of Vanguard, Fidelity, and Schwab products that are no cost or near zero cost options. There is no turning back from these products – they are becoming the default option for the market investor. How then does an active manager compete against these companies/products? These companies have scale, which cannot be easily duplicated, thus midsized companies could be squeezed out of the market leaving a barbell-type investment manager landscape with large, mega cap providers on one side, and smaller niche-oriented managers on the other. However, it is the smaller provider that can use their size to be nimble and capitalize on customization and client service.

Hobson noted another result of the increased use of passive investments. It is getting more difficult for a 401K plan to provide a combined suite of active and passive investment options. Active portfolios are being squeezed out due to their perceived expensiveness. She told the audience of a conversation she had with a trustee of a 401K plan noting the trustee would no longer consider including active strategies because of the price difference from passive strategies.

Ruegsegger brought up the great recession and asked how Ariel Investments made it through 2008-2009. Ariel underperformed in a material way during this period. According to Hobson this was the first time this happened. AUM fell due to market declines and significant client defections. Hobson developed a mentality of ‘just getting through’ to the next week, next the month, next the quarter and urged her staff to do the same. There was no payoff at the end of these periods in terms of gift cards, cake, or parties. The payoff was the opportunity to come back to the job of managing money for clients and hope that the next period would be better than the last. With this mindset came more focus from the staff, brutal self-evaluation, and admitting mistakes that were made. Hobson also developed what she called a depression baby mentality – scrutinizing all expenses, making due with what you have, a needs-only mentality. This mentality served Ariel well during that period. It is important to be able to hold this mentality not just in stressful times, but also in better times as good times will ebb and flow.

During the downturn Hobson also met with all Ariel investors – these were hard discussions as many long-term clients withdrew their assets. For the clients that remained, positive performance was not promised, but she told her clients she would not bet against Ariel. Patience was the key – after 2008-09 the Ariel midcap blend was ranked number one in the Morningstar Mid-Cap Blend category out of 311 funds that were in existence over the 60-month period ended March 31, 2014.

Ruegsegger deftly segwayed by asking if patience is ok when bringing diversity to the investment industry. Hobson answered with a resounding “No!” Lack of diversity is corporate suicide, she opined. Hobson mentioned a book by Scott Page, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. The theme of the book is that diversity will always trump intellect. Hobson recommended the book and gave an example from it about how the small pox vaccine was discovered. Although there were teams of doctors researching for a cure, the idea that led to the vaccine was not found by a team of (like-minded) doctors, but buy a dairy farmer – from a person with a different (diverse) point of view than the teams of researchers.

Most companies do not formally address lack of diversity, and while it is great to aspire to having a diverse workplace, a process must be in place to build and maintain a diverse team. First, there needs to incentives in place to promote diversity. Incentivizing behavior will get the desired behavior. Second, have a process in place to source different pools of people. One must look for talent in a number of pools – the source of talent must be diverse.  Firms must realize and accept that one person of color, creed, ethnicity does not make a diverse workplace. More than one of X, Y or Z is needed. Third is having a mindset of diversity. Building a team is not a choice of taking the best person or the diverse person. This is the wrong perception. To find and build a diverse team move away from looking for a skill or credential. Instead look for intellect and be willing to train. Most people have biases, but they usually do not realize this fact. Teach yourself and your team to identify bias. Hobson believes diversity at Ariel is what makes the firm special, it is a competitive advantage.

At the conclusion of the discussion, Hobson took questions from the audience. Several of the audience members asked questions directly related to her comments on diversity –

Q – Should legislation be used to improve diversity of corporate boards?

Hobson made some observations; 25% of public companies domiciled in California do not have any women on their board, and white adult men constitute 30% of population, but 70% of corporate board seats. It is painfully obvious that corporate boards need to be more diversified. However, while mandates for diversity forces us to look at the facts, the U.S. as a country does not handle these mandates well.

Q – When looking to fill a position should one find the right intellect or the person that adds to a more diverse workplace?

Hobson stated that when given the question of ‘should I hire the best person or the diverse person’ the answer should be yes. One must understand that it is not a choice of hiring one or the other. Circumstances will dictate the best person for the job provided that diversity is valued at the workplace. That someone does not have the correct skill set is not an acceptable excuse for hiring in a diverse manner. Any person can be trained to on aspects of the job that they may not have previously encountered. It is worth the investment to train in order to obtain a well-rounded, diverse workplace.

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