Thursday, June 30, 2011

The courage of women

I want to cover a topic that is not discussed much in the world of finance: the courage of women. In an arena in which women have been scarce and where financial genius and wizardry are often synonymous with being male (and there are many excellent men out there), it’s interesting to note, by gender, some of the key players in financial events of recent years.

In a world where corporate interests have a big voice, it was a woman who stood up and advocated protecting the consumer, the “little guy.” It was a woman who promoted regulation of the derivatives market, an arcane market that few understood well but in which immense risk could be taken. It was a woman who blew the whistle on Enron and its overinflated evaluations. And the list goes on.

In the same time frame, we witnessed Bernie Madoff carry out an enormous Ponzi scheme that defrauded individuals of their retirement savings and institutions of their endowments. And it was a young derivatives broker who brought down Barings Bank, one of the oldest of the United Kingdom’s investment banks. This dude even had the audacity to write a book titled “How I Brought Down Barings Bank and Shook the Financial World.” Another male trader almost took down France’s second-largest bank. The former head of the International Monetary Fund, which had been dealing with the financial situation in Greece, which is threatening the very existence of the Euro, has been under house arrest. And the list goes on.

At the risk of making gross generalizations about gender and finance, the above outline makes me hope we will begin giving truly serious consideration to furthering the role of women in the financial world and start opening doors more widely to them. One useful role I could see for women is in curbing the excesses that we have witnessed in recent years and that have caused some venerable firms to go knocking at the doors of government for help. The risk-averse attitude of women (considered a fact but hardly documented in the data), often considered a weakness, may turn out to be a strength. As women rise to the top, I hope their voices will be heard.

Some progress has undoubtedly already been made. The top regulator of financial markets and head of the Security and Exchange Commission is Mary Schapiro. At the Department of Labor, Phyllis Borzi is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Employee Benefits Security Administration, whose mission is to protect the security of retirement, health, and other employee benefits for America’s workers and to support the growth of the private sector employee benefits system. We are talking about trillions of dollars here! The endowments of some of the wealthiest universities, such as Harvard, are managed by women, and many Ivy League colleges and universities (which are some of the richest institutions in the United States) are headed by women. We have yet to see any woman go down in flames from their seats at those positions of power, but, of course, history will tell. The helm of the International Monetary Fund will be given to a woman. This is another milestone, though I wish women were not brought in only when crises occur and when everyone—man or woman—will face very difficult situations and is more doomed to fail than to succeed.

I believe that one ideal job for women in finance is that of financial advisors. A critical quality in that job is the ability to care for clients and listen to their needs and concerns, and women can excel in that. And, important in wealth management is not only wise investing but also the right amount of protection, against disability, death, and other risks. Coming back to my posts of a few weeks ago, there was much wisdom in the football players’ bringing their mothers to the New York Stock Exchange to discuss financial literacy. That memory still warms my heart.

Women have used cleverness and ingenuity when caring for others, achieving important results. My favorite example is Ethel Percy Andrus. A school principal who retired in the late 1940s to take care of her ailing mother, she was shocked to discover how many retired teachers had no health insurance. As there was no national health care program for people over age 65 (Medicare wasn’t created until 1965), Ethel turned to insurance companies to offer group health insurance to retired educators. She was turned down by more than a dozen companies but she persisted until one company agreed to develop a health plan for retired teachers. The plan became so popular that non-educators also wanted to purchase it. In 1958, Ethel established AARP (then known as the American Association of Retired Persons). The rest is, well, history.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A (very special) College Fund

If you watched the NBC Nightly News on Wednesday, June 1st, you heard the story of a boy, La’Shaun Armstrong, just 10 years old, who survived a very tragic accident in which his mother drove a van carrying him and his three siblings into the Hudson river. La’Shaun was able to escape via a car window and swim for help. Tragically, his mother and siblings were dead by the time help arrived. But if you watched that broadcast, you also heard that the Ray Lewis Foundation and United Athletes Foundation (UAF) recently organized a fund-raising event to provide La’Shaun with counseling and a college scholarship and how athletes involved with the foundation have rallied to support La’Shaun.

I am going to put on my economist’s hat to talk first about college funds. Over the past decade, tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities have increased more rapidly than they did during the 1980s or 1990s, rising by an average of nearly 5 percent each year (adjusted for inflation). With this trend unlikely to abate, an average American family with children can expect to dedicate a sizable share of their resources to paying college tuition. However, according to the FINRA Financial Capability Study, well below half—41 percent—of those who have financially dependent children have set money aside for college educations. And even those who have set money aside may not have done it in the most tax-savvy way. Only 33 percent of those who have set aside money for college educations have used a tax-advantaged savings account such as a 529 Plan or a Coverdell Education Savings Account.

But with the costs of college increasing so fast, planning for children’s education is critically important and may be the deciding factor in whether children will be able to go to the college of their choice or even to attend college at all. And with wages diverging so widely for workers with and without a college degree, not having that degree may mean a lifetime of low and stagnating wages. Building a college savings fund may be not only the best investment for the children’s future but also a way to inspire children to go to college. Of course, starting early is the key to build up savings: one dollar put aside today at an interest rate of 5 percent will more than double 15 years down the road. It is great that the foundations helping La’Shaun have thought about a college fund for him.

But let me now return to this story without my economist’s hat. As Albert Camus would say, life has its way of being tragic, and those frigid waters changed La’Shaun’s life instantly and dramatically. His is a story of incredible survival and resilience. Still, a kid of that age needs more than financial support. I had the opportunity to meet La’Shaun in New York at the recent event organized by the UAF. He is a shy kid with a tenderness in his eyes, and on meeting him, you can hardly resist giving him a hug. And a big hug he got from, well, a very big guy (you can see pictures of those strong hugs along with the full NBC story here: ). Ray Lewis and the UAF have committed not just to establishing a college fund but to being the mentors, the family, of this very special kid. In the words of La’Shaun, Ray Lewis is “like an older brother to me.” Reggie Howard, the president of UAF, has made La’Shaun part of the players’ families.

When asked what they aim to do for La’Shaun, Ray Lewis stated it succinctly. His hopes are “to achieve much more than what his situation offered.” There is early indication that what they are doing is working. When asked what he wants to do when he grows up, La’Shaun responded without hesitation: “I’m not sure yet.. First, I have to finish college.”

If you want to donate to this very special college fund, see the link below.