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.

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!

The New Networking

How should one define networking? It could be described as simply an exchange of information and services. But, according to Sameer Somal, a better definition that could lead to a very successful career could be “finding ways to give to others”.

 “You have one of the very best societies,” Sameer said, mentioning the many high quality events put on by CFA Society Chicago. He couldn’t resist a gentle dig on the Chicago Bears, fans of which had recently witnessed a double doink missed field goal that led to a playoff loss against his favorite team the Eagles.

His Blue Ocean Global Technology provides digital reputation management, which Somal described as building, maintaining and repairing reputations. He’s an expert who has testified on internet defamation cases in court and says that the digital identity we all have will be one of the most valuable commodities of the future, which makes reputation management important not just for companies but for individuals as well.

His message has much in common with How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, which Somal said was “the bible of the subject”. According to the Carnegie Institute, as much as 85% of an individual’s success can come from ability to communicate, with only a small fraction determined by analytical skill.

One thing that Somal hears a lot from investment managers is “our business comes from word of mouth”. He said that might be true a decade ago, but now young generations (children of a client, etc.) will immediately look up a firm on the internet, and you need to manage your presence online.

His highly interactive presentation was sprinkled with giveaways to encourage participation, with Somal handing out a tin of Butterfields Peach Buds (“This is the finest candy that I send out all over the world”) to Austin Galm for being the first to answer a question.

Networking is really just the beginning step, as relationships are built over a period of time, and according to Somal, “the fortune is in the follow up”. Somal said that following up after meeting is the biggest part of networking that is often overlooked, and he asked the audience “Why would you even go to a networking event if you’re not going to follow up with the people you meet there?” And while the internet is an indispensable part of networking, Somal said that it is best to “use the internet to get off the internet”, and connect with people in person.

Somal confronted some myths he frequently hears about networking, such as it is only for salespeople and it isn’t as effective as people think. He told a story about how he was able to connect with a number of influential people using respectful and thoughtful language, often in handwritten notes. It’s also important to decide what kind of networker you want to be, Somal said. For some, it means making one important connection at an event. Somal described himself as a “speed networker”, and he tries to have memorable interactions and make as many connections as possible while at an event.

He also has a process that he follows for staying in touch with someone new, which he does within the first 6 months of meeting. When interacting with someone for the first time, it’s best to avoid the question “What do you do?”, because the answer can define a person. Better questions are open-ended, and could be something like “Tell me about your role at your firm”.

Not everyone is as altruistic as Somal when it comes to seeing networking as a way to enrich others. He is always on the lookout for what he terms “givers and takers”, and will quickly determine which side a new contact is on.

He covered topics such as body language, ways to introduce yourself and ideas for some interesting questions to ask. Things like eye contact, positivity, keeping your phone in your pocket and being confident will go a long way when meeting new people. Good questions come from preparation, and it is helpful to research who will be attending a conference in order to think about what might be good things to ask him or her. One of Somal’s favorite questions to ask is “What is giving you positive energy lately?” This question tends to get a smile on people’s faces and get them to remember you in a good way.

When reaching out to execs with mentoring and networking requests, Somal said that it’s best not to ask for anything right away, but to simply say that you’d like to build a relationship with them over time and earn their trust. After you connect with someone you met at a conference, wait about a month and then send another quick note telling them a little more about yourself. Here are three tips Somal recommended to prepare for meeting people at an event:

  1. Prepare a memorable 30 second elevator pitch about yourself
  2. Create relevant and thoughtful questions
  3. Focus on quality, not quantity

If you read an article by someone you liked, send them a note that says “I loved your article and would be delighted to invest in this friendship over time”. Going along with his digital reputation mindset, Somal will often encourage prospects and networking targets to Google him on voicemails he leaves.

In terms of methods of following up, you can use social media, email, text, phone or a handwritten note. Somal said that it’s important to use all of them. Many people he speaks with, particularly younger people, hate using the phone, yet it’s still important to have good phone skills despite all of us being better at in-person interaction.

Somal finished his speech with a quote that summed up his philosophy on networking: “Give without remembering and receive without forgetting”.

Reading List

  1. The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey
  2. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
  3. How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  4. Give and Take by Adam Grant

Vault Series: Cambridge Associates

Gender equality in the investment profession has been a hot topic in the industry lately, and it was addressed in detail during a January 10, 2019 Vault Series talk from Dierdre Nectow. Her firm Cambridge Associates, a large institutional investment consultant, is an outlier in the profession with half of its executives being women. Nectow discussed why her firm has much higher female representation than average, and what the state of women in finance is today.

To start, some good news: the number of women in finance is growing, yet as a percent of the workforce, women are still underrepresented. The United States is also a laggard when it comes to gender equality in the workplace, coming in at a dismal 51st place globally. One of the worst places for gender equality in finance can be seen in venture capital, where just 9 of the top 100 VCs are female. In contrast, the hedge fund industry has the best female ownership numbers, with 2% of AUM managed by women-owned firms.

Cambridge has been a bit different than its peers in hiring and promoting far more women than average in large part due to the philosophy of its co-founder Jim Bailey. His mother was a strong woman that had inspired him, and he saw women as an untapped resource. Hiring them could lead to outperformance in the industry. The firm has also spent time training workers on unconscious bias and has sought to make it safe to have those kinds of conversations while fostering more thoughtful attitudes around encouraging women and minorities in the workplace. Additionally, Cambridge has a mentorship program, a CFA women’s group and a new initiative called Prevail, which is designed to bring women at asset management firms as well as Cambridge clients and prospects together to talk about investing and issues.

Gender equality is becoming increasingly important for financial firms because pensions are using women and minority representation as a means to hire managers (or not hire ones with inadequate representation). Many companies have been hiring diversity officers to address this trend.  Cambridge is also scouring the landscape to find female and minority-owned managers due to demand.

Following the introduction, David Baeckelandt, senior investment director at Cambridge Associates, took the stage to give us a brief history of women in financial markets, beginning with ancient firms. While by day Baeckelandt is a salesman at Cambridge, in his free time he is a history buff and has done extensive reading on the subject of women in finance.

Beginning in ancient Egypt, Baeckelandt said that Cleopatra was the first women to coin her own currency and put her image on it, which was an important step in modern finance. Another famous woman in finance milestone came with Queen Isabella funding Columbus’s voyage to the new world. Baeckelandt said that you could argue that Isabella led the most successful venture investment of all time, as the exploration of the Americas led to vast wealth for Spain. Another milestone took place in the coming years, with the Dutch East India Company being perhaps the world’s first IPO, and it had a number of women investors involved.

An interesting story of women in finance came from Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams. She made a small fortune trading bonds, which she turned into a small farm that she used to convince her husband to return to from Europe. Victoria Woodhull was another luminary who spotted an arbitrage opportunity between gold bullion and US dollars and used it to make a substantial profit. She then ran a financial firm with her sister, and her story is the subject of an upcoming TV series. Baeckelandt mentioned Hortense Friedman, a story familiar to many charterholders (there is an award given out annually in her name). A number of other women firsts took place in the late 1800’s, with the first women CPA’s and the first women investment bankers in the US.

There are a number of positive signs with respect to women in finance, yet there is much work to be done, particularly with respect to compensation. Public pensions and other large investors will continue to put pressure on firms to ensure adequate female and minority representation, and the march towards gender equality will likely continue to grow in the investment industry.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Rick Waddell, Chairman of Northern Trust

Who better to teach management during a crisis than a former bank CEO who began his job in the midst of the 2008 recession? Rick Waddell has one of the most extensive resumes you’ll find in banking and dedicated his career to growing Northern Trust from a sleepy custody and wealth management firm into the technology-driven asset management and banking leader it is today. Waddell was CFA Society Chicago’s guest speaker on October 10th for its Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon.

He noted proudly that he saw many former and current Northern Trust employees in the audience. “The CFA Society is really important to us at Northern Trust,” he said. Waddell said that he was told not to make his speech a commercial for his bank, and joked that “this eliminates about 95% of my content” and made him ponder what would be a good topic for him to address, ultimately deciding on “5 Things I Learned From the Global Financial Crisis of 2008”.

In Waddell’s mind, the following five key features made the difference between success and failure during the financial crisis.

Capital matters. For any organization with a balance sheet, both the quantity and quality of its capital during ’08 were incredibly important. He noted that capital ratios had been too low in Europe, but generally were roughly OK in the US. He still sees problems with bank capital transparency in Europe today.

Liquidity matters. Again, both the quality and the amount of liquidity are important. Waddell said that he believed that the fall of Lehman Brothers was not due to lack of capital, but to lack of liquidity. The Fed was much more focused on capital during the global financial crisis than liquidity, but the latter was just as important. One of the earliest warning signs Waddell saw that all was not right in the financial world was when HSBC wrote down $11 billion worth of subprime mortgages in March of 2007. Waddell wanted to know if any part of Northern Trust had exposure to subprime lending and found that, while they didn’t make the loans themselves, they still had subprime-related instruments in some of their investment pools. Another warning sign came in August 2007 when Waddell learned that a securities lending collateral pool was facing losses when a number of banks withdrew from the niche Auction Rate Securities (ARS) market and banks holding the formerly liquid instruments suddenly faced losses.

Leadership and management during a crisis matter. Waddell said that during a tumultuous period, “the good and the not so good in all of us comes out.” With his background focused on commercial banking, he had to learn a lot of things quickly during the crisis as a new CEO leading a diversified financial firm. At the same time, Waddell had consultants and executives coming to him asking who he was going to fire in order to shed costs. Firing people immediately after the bank’s best year on record (2007) didn’t make sense to Waddell. He didn’t want to go down that route, and it turned out that staying the course and not making widespread headcount reductions was the right decision.

Culture matters. “At Northern Trust, our values are service, expertise and integrity,” said Waddell. Having that culture in place before a crisis hit was extraordinarily important. While Waddell admitted that Northern Trust has its share of problems like any firm, and its culture needs to evolve while holding employees more accountable, having a set of values that the team buys into was one of the main reasons the firm navigated the crisis so well. “Culture is more important than strategy,” Waddell said, echoing management consulting pioneer Peter Drucker. Despite the bank’s commitment to its partners and Waddell’s desire to avoid mass layoffs, its ROE fell to 8.2% in 2011, below its cost of capital, so the bank went on a mission to cut costs while still avoiding large layoffs that could have demoralized staff.

Strategy matters. Waddell said that having skin in the game was important during the recession. He found that the trend of banks securitizing assets and immediately getting them off their balance sheet led to a lack of skin in the game with financial institutions, and this made the crisis even worse.

Waddell continued on at length about his experience during the financial crisis. In 2009, large US banks were forced to accept a capital injection as part of TARP. Northern Trust was well-capitalized and didn’t need the money, but regulators hinted that they needed to comply or there could be consequences. Waddell said that the TARP program was in theory a good idea that could act as a stimulus, but the problem was that there weren’t enough borrowers demanding capital for it to have much of an impact. What was originally termed the “healthy bank program” soon became “the bailout” in the public’s eyes, which led to protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street, some of which were held immediately outside Northern Trust’s headquarters at LaSalle and Monroe. This populist take on the government bailing out fat cat bankers hurt the perception of Northern Trust, despite the firm’s insistence that it didn’t need capital and its desire to quickly repay the money. Waddell said that the terms of the loan Northern Trust was forced to take netted taxpayers a 15.5% return, and TARP overall was one of the most successful investments for taxpayers in recent history and very profitable for the government.

Blame for the crisis is difficult to assess, but Waddell said that the Fed was responsible for missing some of the warning signs, banks were also responsible to an extent for lax standards, and consumers were also responsible by borrowing far more money than they were able to repay. Waddell said that eventually there will be a recession in the US but the banking system will be in a much better position to not only withstand it, but even be a positive force for stability. One thing that remains unresolved is the issue of “too big to fail”, but bank capital and credit quality have greatly improved overall. While he noticed some clues that markets were starting to crack back in 2007, Waddell sees few red flags on the horizon today. He said that usually problems will manifest early on in the mortgage market, but that the industry appears to be functioning fairly normally now. There could be some issues with Brexit next year, and Northern Trust continues to monitor that situation closely, as well as the Chinese economy and issues around cybersecurity. In his Q&A, Waddell said that young professionals considering a career in banking will still find opportunities in the future, as the practice of safeguarding assets and allocating capital will be around for a long time. He was slightly less upbeat about the prospects for the asset management industry in light of the disruptions faced by robo advisers, low (and sometimes free, in the case of Fidelity) account fees, and the trend towards passive investing.

True to Northern Trust’s values, Waddell finished his speech by encouraging the audience to get involved in a philanthropic endeavor that aligns with their interest, saying “to much is given, much is expected”. Lastly, he noted the firm’s long history of collaborating with United Way and said that there’s still much work to be done.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Ari Paul, CFA, BlockTower Capital

It was an inauspicious day for a cryptocurrency discussion. With many cryptocurrencies down by over 10% on August 8th, Ari Paul, CFA, CIO of BlockTower Capital, gave CFA charterholders a crash course in blockchain technology and the various cryptocurrencies available for investors.

Paul said that surprisingly, many risk management professionals such as himself were among the biggest proponents of cryptocurrencies. Risk skills are definitely helpful for evaluating and investing in digital assets such as Bitcoin, and Paul believes that the space sits at the intersection of game theory, cryptography, computer science, economics, venture capital and public markets. He said that very few individuals have all of these skills, and that there is a big opportunity for people with just a small amount of cryptocurrency knowledge to generate large returns because most people don’t know much about the space yet. He compared investing in cryptocurrencies today to investing in stocks pre-Benjamin Graham. Although the idea of the blockchain is not exactly new (Paul pointed to patents received by IBM back in the 1970s for distributed databases), the current digital coin offerings such as Bitcoin, Litecoin and Ethereum are all under a decade old.

The big question when considering how to approach cryptocurrencies is “What are these helping and why do we need this?”

Paul said that a big part of the need stems from banking and capital markets technology being incredibly obsolete. He cited the examples of ACH bank transfers taking 4 days to process and $35 fees for international Western Union transfers being an opportunity for cryptocurrency disruption. While the internet has greatly increased the speed of messaging and email, payment transfers have not seen the same amount of development.

There are 3 main enhancements to the original ideas of distributed databases that have greatly increased the interest in digital currencies and blockchain lately:

  • Proof of work mining, which ensure skin in the game
  • Public key cryptography
  • Permissionless blockchain

A simple definition of blockchain could be a type of database that has its transaction entries linked with cryptography, the art of solving codes. Cryptocurrencies are the intrinsic, tradeable tokens of blockchain and the most commonly known version is Bitcoin, which had over $100 billion in market cap on the day of this presentation. Intrinsic tokens can be spent on monetary transmissions (Bitcoin) or on decentralized computing power (Ethereum). There are also asset backed tokens that can be created by a third party.

There are over a thousand digital coins tracked by coinmarketcap.com, but Paul said that the use cases and value propositions of most of them can be described in terms of three distinct categories:

  • A censorship-resistant store of value – “digital gold” or a “Swiss bank on a phone”
  • Utility tokens – amusement park tickets or paid API codes
  • Tokenized securities – crypto versions of traditional asset ownership interest

Paul said that the Initial Coin Offering market, or ICOs, has exploded in the past year, becoming larger than the overall seed stage VC market. “Many people, including myself, are skeptical of the ICO business model,” Paul said, saying that ICOs are like “hot potatoes” that speculators will often try to offload on unsuspecting get-rich-quick hopeful investors, saying that they can be seen as analogs to Chuck E. Cheese tokens.

In terms of how investors are accessing cryptocurrencies, Paul said that “we’re transitioning from crypto being un-investible [by most] to far easier,” mentioning Coinbase and other exchanges that have greatly risen in stature over the past couple years. While individuals have an easier time of buying digital coins such as Bitcoin, it is still difficult for institutional investors to access them because there aren’t many good custody options. Paul thinks that major custody bank State Street may be as far as three years away from launching a viable cryptocurrency custody product. There is also a high degree of risk of theft with the coins, and even a sophisticated investor such as Paul believes that his firm will ultimately lose money from a collapsed exchange, such as the hack of Mt Gox in 2014. Other factors limiting institutional participation in crypto include operational risk in handling the assets, the lack of credible managers with 2+ year track records and the absence of well-constructed, low fee passive indexes.

Despite the 2018 meltdown in cryptocurrency prices, Paul appeared sanguine about their long term prospects, noting that every 2 years or so there has been a large boom-bust cycle in the space, and that the potential for growth is still enormous. While Bitcoin is “already obsolete from a technology perspective” according to Paul, it still commands a widely-known brand name in the space and there’s still a huge amount of investment by institutions such as CBOE and Square. It’s difficult to know which cryptocurrency will win out in the future, but Paul believes that an allocation could make sense for some investors that can be patient riding the frequent ups and downs of the digital coin landscape.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Jane Buchan, PAAMCO

Jane Buchan

The hedge fund industry has been assailed by the media as a costly, underperforming asset class, yet according to PAAMCO CEO Jane Buchan, that rhetoric simply isn’t true. On April 18th, the founder of the Irvine, CA-based hedge fund-of-funds presented to CFA Society Chicago to share her views on the hedge fund landscape.

Buchan is tired of hedge funds getting beat up in the press, and her talk both defended the industry and talked about new opportunities currently being developed. She said that the environment lately has been difficult for active equity managers and interest rates and volatility continue to remain stubbornly low. Some results of this backdrop include:

  1. Investors are focused on beta
  2. Perceived differentiation is low, causing allocators to emphasize fees
  3. Simplicity is key

The market climate has affected the hedge fund industry by giving rise to Alternative Risk Premia (ARP) strategies, which focus on fees and simplicity, and deals and co-investments, which can offer investors lower fees. PAAMCO has been active in developing risk premia solutions, which can be described as a means to access a hedge fund-like return at a lower cost with enhanced liquidity than typical hedge funds. Buchan cited Albourne’s research on ARP that shows $216 billion is invested in these types of strategies today. Somewhat surprisingly, 80% is managed by sell side broker / dealers and only 20% is managed by asset managers.

Despite the media’s negative coverage of the hedge fund industry, there is still a lot of capital in hedge funds at around $3.2 trillion, which has been growing at a fast pace. “It seems like hedge funds are the dog you want to kick,” said Buchan of the media’s view on them, saying she “suppose[s] somebody has to be the villain.” Buchan mentioned news such as the wager between Buffet and Tarrant on hedge funds outperforming the S&P 500. Given the lower market exposure of hedge funds, it is a tough bet for them to win, she said.

Considering the market environment we’re in, what’s an investor to do? “The only free lunch is diversification,” opined Buchan. One example of that is volatility strategies. Buchan said that they often look horrible on a standalone risk-adjusted basis, but on the portfolio level, adding volatility can offer significant benefits. “It’s hard when [investors] add hedge funds for downside protection and there’s no downside,” she said.

“Now let’s have some fun with data,” said the former Dartmouth professor. Buchan showed the audience a number of return histograms and asked them to figure out which asset class they were. One surprise was how concentrated the hedge fund returns were compared to high yield, which had larger tails. Private equity, also a top performing asset class, also had a much fatter tailed distribution of returns than hedge funds. One of the benefits of lower volatility is higher compound returns over time, Buchan said. This is something that current hedge fund investors are well aware of, she said, pointing to the previously referenced $3.2 trillion invested in the industry.

Another positive trend for the hedge fund industry can be found in corporate 10k filings. Buchan said that PAAMCO has been tracking them and has found that corporate defined benefit pensions are moving cash from private equity into more liquid, alpha strategies such as hedge funds. Like all asset classes, there will be periods where hedge funds underperform and outperform, but there is still a lot to like given their high return to risk ratios compared to other asset classes.

Lastly, Buchan encouraged attendees to support women in finance with the organizations Women Who Invest and 100 Women in Finance. Despite a number of studies showing that women can often make superior investors than men, Buchan said that some research indicates that a female hedge fund manager must outperform a male counterpart by 150-200 bps in order to achieve the same level of AUM.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Jeremy Grantham, GMO

Few encapsulate the time-honored principles of value investing as Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief investment strategist of Grantham, Mayo, & van Otterloo (GMO). On January 23, close to 400 attendees gathered at the Standard Club for CFA Society Chicago’s January Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon where Grantham gave CFA charterholders and guests alike the tools needed to spot bubbles before they burst, as well as some food for thought on the environment and renewable energy. Several hundred others watched the presentation via webcast.

“I put this talk together on Halloween which is very suitable for this topic,” Grantham said before going through some ways to determine if the market has reached a stage of irrational exuberance. He thinks that the market is racing towards a near term melt up. But first, Grantham wanted to talk about cryptocurrencies.

In a talk in 2017, he said that he expected Bitcoin to crash before the real crash of equities prices. Since then, Bitcoin has retreated from a high of nearly $20,000 down to just over $10,000, giving the first part of Grantham’s prediction some credibility. “I know nothing about Bitcoin, I just look at it as a historian would look at it,” admitted Grantham.

The question “Are we near a melt up?” kicked off Grantham’s presentation. The expression “melt up” is becoming a frequently searched term on Google, which is another sign Grantham identified as a possible sign of a bubble. The term refers to a sudden flow of cash that drives stock prices higher, often related more closely to momentum and sentiment than underlying market fundamentals. Melt ups tend to lead to their dreaded cousin, the meltdown, and are a key concern for allocators such as Grantham’s firm GMO.

Some other classic bubbles from history include the South Sea Stock bubble, the 1929 S&P 500 bubble and the Dotcom bubble of the late 90s. The 2007 housing bubble was “the best looking bubble I’ve seen,” said Grantham, admiring the chart’s perfect conical shape.

Comparing today’s price chart with prior bubbles gives Grantham some relief. Right now, the S&P 500 doesn’t resemble a classic bubble. Prices would need to accelerate by 60% in the final bull phase over 21 months for it to rank in the same league as some of history’s more noteworthy bubbles.

While markets appear to be frothy yet not quite a true bubble, it’s important to watch out for clues that can help identify a bubbly market. First we can look at the advance/decline ratio. As the ratio declines, that can be seen as anearly warning sign for the broader market, with fewer stocks carrying the market higher.

Valuation is another clue investors often look at to determine if we’re in a bubble. Grantham agrees that markets are very expensive. Looking at a modified Shiller CAPE ratio, there was only one time in history where equities were this pricey. That year was 1929, and it led to a precipitous fall and the largest stock market decline in history. While expensive, looking at price-to-earnings ratios tells you very little about the likelihood and timing of a bubble bursting, opined Grantham. He gave the example of exploding PE ratios in 1990s Japan as one example where a very high ratio led to an even higher ratio.

So if looking at valuation doesn’t work for spotting bubbles, what does? Grantham said that using indicators of market participants’ euphoria is a much better route. Margin buying of equities and outperformance of quality stocks vs high beta stocks are a couple items to explore. The US housing market also is showing some signs of bubbliness. Nobody is talking about housing looking like a bubble right now but there are definitely some signs, according to Grantham.

One absolute requirement for a bursting bubble is a Republican Presidency, Grantham said, pointing to Hoover, Nixon and G.W. Bush as some Republicans who’ve presided over bursting bubbles. Grantham said that he believes that there is a greater than 50% chance of a melt up that would bring the S&P 500 to 3200 – 3800. If so, then he thinks that there will be a 90% probability of a meltdown from there.

Climate change and renewable energy was Grantham’s second topic. “The good news is that technology is accelerating along with the damage [being done to the environment],” said Grantham. Wind and solar power are quickly becoming cheaper than coal and nuclear power. Those developments are forcing investors to consider how they are positioning their portfolios in light of climate change. Alternative energy represents “the biggest transformation since the introduction of oil”.

Oil consumption is set to peak in 2020. With many shale companies remaining unprofitable, Grantham thinks that capital will flow towards renewable energy. His firm GMO has a climate change fund that offers opportunities in this space as do a number of other investment managers. “We live in a world where chemical poisons are deeply penetrating everything, “Grantham said, highlighting reduced sperm count among men, deep declines in flying insect populations and reduced grain production as some of the many troubling signs he sees with the environment today.

Right now GMO favors Emerging Markets and EAFE stocks over US stocks and has positioned its portfolio for foreign outperformance over the next few years. Capitalism has produced its benefits, but fails to account for the tragedy of the commons, with pollution, rampant use of fossil fuels and marketing of opioids still taking place despite the harm caused to human life.

Grantham’s talk was indeed as spooky as advertised, and gave attendees plenty to mull over while considering how to position their portfolios against the backdrop of high asset prices and troubling environmental issues.

 

Distinguished Speaker Series Webcast – Jeremy Grantham, GMO

Recorded January 23, 2018

 

Four Tips to Launch a Successful Finance Career

If you’re just beginning your career in finance, you might feel your career path is defined; head down, work hard, and eventually the real career choices will present themselves down the road. This is of course true to an extent – the finance industry certainly demands earning your stripes – but that doesn’t mean you can’t begin opening up doors during those early years.

You may already be studying for the CFA exams, which is an important milestone in the career of most investment professional’s careers. As you navigate the roughly four years that it takes to complete the three levels of the CFA Program, it’s important to do whatever you can to make these as meaningful as possible.

These tips should help you do just that:

Read, and read ravenously.

Read everything in our field that you can get your hands on (including and beyond the CFA curriculum). Try to read broadly across topics and disciplines; for example, if you’re in equities, take time to learn about credit or commodities to make yourself more well-rounded. Ask people you meet what they read and what they enjoyed learning.

An incredible array of opportunities exist in finance, and the more areas and disciplines you know the more opportunities you’ll have. The most successful people spend a good portion of their day devouring information, asking questions and listening.

Avoid networking at your own peril. (And put the phone away).

Not everyone is an extrovert, and that’s okay. Everyone, though, can benefit from the opportunities made through networking, whether for friendship, commerce or career.

You’ve been reading (you have been reading, right?), so you have strong points of view and pointed questions to ask. Put the phone away, be confident and ask smart questions. Most folks love the opportunity to explain what they do, and they will see you as someone willing to take initiative if you initiate a good conversation.

Don’t procrastinate getting an advanced credential.

I think you need at least one advanced credential (if not two) to compete in today’s job market. Both a CFA charter and MBA are highly useful for financial professionals, so avoid a long, protracted process on deciding which one to get. The earlier you begin the process, the higher the lifetime dividend.

In my case, I immediately plunged into the CFA curriculum just a year into my career, and that gave me a big boost. It helped me interview for jobs that I would never have the opportunity to land otherwise. I strongly believe having a CFA charter in your 20s or early 30s will offer more career optionality down the line.

Listen to yourself.

In those first few years, keep a keen eye out for moments where you feel in the flow, or when you are the happiest during your job. Ask yourself what were you doing during those moments and what about that project or job aspect you really liked. How can you structure your future career to include more of those types of situations?

I’d also suggest taking time to reflect on what you want out of a career. While having money and a challenging, important job is great, many folks find that they are happier with more of a work-life balance, and understanding how much of each aspect you need to make yourself happy is key.

So, hit those books! And remember to keep these tips in mind – when that door does open for you, you’ll be poised to take full advantage of the opportunity.