Friday, February 14, 2014

Financial Technology: New Opportunities?

Axial is but one example of a new financial-technology firm
Not everybody with the buzz of an idea is seeking to start a company that will disrupt the world via social media.  Many are running new businesses by exploiting new technology---using technology to do old tricks, so to speak.  New businesses are using technology, for example, to assemble, analyze and interpret data or to deliver product to consumers in novel ways.

In finance for over a decade, some companies have sprouted from scratch and used technology in clever ways to provide new services, new analytics, or new ways of doing financial transactions or providing financial analysis, advice, or processing.  And we aren't necessarily talking about technology being used to ignite explosive high-frequency, black-box trading in equity markets.

Some of these financial-technology start-ups have come and gone or been acquired by large established institutions. Some have thrived.  And others were launched in the last few years and have just begun to take off with a critical mass of clients or customer activity.

In New York last month, a few new companies made presentations at a business-school networking function to explain to investors, bankers, and industry participants what hole they wish to plug in the industry and how technology does it.  Their ideas are off and running, the business model in place, and revenues trickling in and growing steadily.

Axial  is one example.  Years after getting his MBA from Stanford and working in private equity, Peter Lehrman started the company a few years ago because he thought there was a better way to help middle-market companies and entrepreneurs seek financing from banks and investors or seek M&A advice from investment banks and advisory firms.  The firm established an electronic network to connect companies with investors, advisers, banks, investment banks, and other financial institutions.

Lehrman calls his Axial network a "Linkedin" for mid-size companies and for the banks that seek to do business with them.  Members of the growing network purchase subscriptions (which explains its revenue model), get access companies in the network and exchange relevant data and information.  Companies can find the right match with a bank or private-equity investor.  Financial institutions can find the right match in seeking a company client.  They all get to become better acquainted with each other.

Today, there are about 15,000 members of the Axial network, including over 200 small companies and entrepreneurs. Axial, founded in 2010, is based in New York.

Is there a quicker, better way of taking voluminous amounts of financial data and prepare reports for investors and clients?  Is there a faster way for financial institutions to comb through hundreds (or thousands?) of pages of transactions and business data and prepare summary reports for regulators, investors or board members?

Narrative Science, a four-year-old company based in Chicago, says it has a solution. It has a patented artificial-intelligence platform (called "Quill") that digests and analyzes data and presents a summary in the form of written reports.  The platform provides many services, depending on a client's need.  Equity research analysts or financial consultants use it to prepare investment-portfolio reports or market updates. The company claims the platform doesn't just spit out verbiage, but provides insight, analysis, and trend forecasts. 

Reports can be formatted in the way clients prefer. They can also be as long, short, detailed or simple as desirable.  The company now has about 50 clients, most of whom are financial institutions.

Leigh Drogen decided to start his company, Estimize, when he saw an opportunity to aggregate vast amounts of information from equity research analysts who provide earnings forecasts for thousands of companies.  From quarter to quarter, equity analysts provide earnings estimates based on their own research.  They often update their forecasts during the quarter, right up until the company makes a formal earnings announcement.

Investors who rely on earnings forecasts and updates have had to aggregate by themselves the views, opinions and forecasts from dozens of analysts.  For example, investors with a stake in Microsoft stock will want to know how analysts assess the company and project its earnings and stock price. They might attempt to compile the numbers of many analysts. 

Estimize uses technology to do it faster and more easily.  It aggregates the projections and earnings estimates for about 900 companies, compiling information from over 3,500 analysts who send information to the firm. The firm presents a summary of the analysts' forecasts. In describing his firm, founder Drogen says it has an "orthogonal" (independent) approach to providing earnings estimates for companies and explained that the firm is "Wikipedia"-like in providing information to clients. 

Estimize also provides estimates or projections of macroeconomic factors (e.g., interest rates, economic growth), based also on aggregates from research analysts.

Hedge funds and fund investors comprise most of its client base now.  The company, three years old, has 10 employees and is based in New York and San Diego.

David Klein was once an MBA student at Wharton who borrowed money to fund his business-school education.  At some point after graduation, he decided there was a more efficient way for students to borrow.  He started his company, CommonBond, to transform the student-loan market especially after dysfunctions in this marketplace in recent years. Klein says the company is trying to "fix the broker student-loan market."

CommonBond created an electronic network to match students directly with lenders.  Klein claims this direct match-up helps lower interest costs to students.  Like an electronic stock market, the network allows market participants to link online.  The company also has a social mission by encouraging a "community" of lenders and borrowers:  Lenders follow the progress of students, and students form community networks among themselves and keep lenders informed about their school experiences. Lenders become more engaged in their investments.

In its first phase, CommonBond is only providing loans (from a current fund of about $100 million) to MBA students.  It will expand in its next phases to law and medical students.  Until now, most loans it has arranged via the network have been refinancings of other students' loans at competitive rates.

The company employs 13, but plans to expand to 22 by this summer.

Chaith Kondragunta's company AnalytixInsight is four years old.  He has an MBA from Carnegie Melon and is now CEO of the company he helped found four years ago.  The company uses technology to prepare research-analysis reports on 40,000 equity stocks around the world.  It labels its service Capital Cube and produces written analyses, based on data, statistics, and macro-trends.

For example, its technology gathers significant amount of data and financial information (including data available from company annual reports, 10-K's, etc.), assembles and analyzes the data for trends, computes relevant financial ratios, and then prepares a written financial analysis with useful conclusions and recommendations with minimal input from a human analyst.

Individual investors, brokerage firms, and some media firms have subscribed to the service. The company has offices in New York, Toronto and India. 

This group of five is just a few, a coast-to-coast sample. Many other financial-technology firms exist, covering special niches in the industry. And more will continue to be founded, as someone somewhere will determine that with technology advances there's a better, quicker, more efficient way to trade securities, research stock, raise equity, issue debt, share market information, prepare investment reports or provide strategic advice to companies.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN:  Knocking Down Doors in Venture Capital, 2012
CFN:  Venture Capital: Diversity Update, 2011
CFN:  High-frequency trading: What's next? 2012
CFN:  Dark days at Knight Capital, 2012
CFN:  Bitcoins:  Embrace or Beware? 2014

Friday, February 7, 2014

Finance: Still a Popular Destination?

Almost a third of Tuck's grads went into finance

Take a peek at the latest statistics.  At many business schools, they're out and available. MBA graduates from the Class of 2013 have launched their post-business-school careers, and they haven’t avoided financial services as much as the popular impression suggests. 

True, countless thousands who've entered and finished graduate business school since the worst days of the crisis opted not to pursue banking, trading and investment management or other financial-services paths.  The industry has endured transformation of all kinds (regulation, business restrictions, non-stop restructuring, and souring popular sentiment).  And it’s true, too, the industry had become a turn-off to some smart students who in years past would have pursued investment banking without a thought.

In current times, the rewards, comforts and predictable career paths in finance are still uncertain. Don't forget, too, the knocks on jobs and roles that had once been perceived as  prestigious and awe-inspiring on the cocktail circuit.  Many MBA students at top schools, so goes popular sentiment, will likely prefer more humane, more constructive routes in a long business career.

But the statistics are out for recent business-school classes, and they suggest MBA students continue to flock to certain areas in financial services.  Finance will still attract those who are inherently interested in finance, those who have finance in their bones, so to speak. 

Perhaps the numbers are not surging as much as they were pre-2007, but they aren't insignificant.  Or  perhaps banks, investment managers, and trading firms are doubling down to make special efforts to present themselves more fashionably to students, describing career opportunities better, and promising easier lives on the work-life-balance front.   

However, perhaps the industry is more defined, better understood after all the years of restructuring and gearing up for an environment ensconced in new regulation.  Of course, some hard-core students, fascinated by markets, deals, transactions, and cash flows, will head toward finance despite what they hear, see or are told.

Compensation helps, too.  It continues to be one attraction.  Data and anecdotal evidence suggest financial institutions still pay well, even if the industry pulled back and rationalized (and reduced) compensation after the mid-2000’s splurge.

Let’s take a look at Dartmouth-Tuck, a Consortium school. Its career-advisory unit recently shared data for the most recent graduating class after it received a sufficient number of responses from departing students. Tuck is a good example, because it has an outstanding history preparing graduates for Wall Street, has attracted large numbers interested in finance since its early days, and has a reputable finance division.  

The Tuck data indicate consulting is the hot spot these days.  MBA graduates are flocking to what is referred in campus jargon as "MBB"--McKinsey, Bain and Booz. In Tuck's Class of 2013, consulting firms hired 27% of the class (and offered the highest amounts in compensation).  In all, 33% are working in consulting roles, including those working at non-consulting firms or working in the consulting arms of the big accounting firms (Ernst and Deloitte, e.g.)

For some MBA students, consulting offers an experience, similar to what they might have received at an investment bank. They get to do extensive research and analysis.  They get to study corporate strategy and make recommendations regarding growth, expansion, and acquisition. They participate in “live transactions” and prepare exhaustive presentations for clients. They travel around the country. 

They also get to have meaningful contact with clients and sit in meetings with clients' senior managers.  Some become experts in the industries of their clients. Hence, while consulting has always been a favorite first job for MBA students, consulting might be swiping a handful of those who a decade ago would have marched right into Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley (or Lehman Brothers, back then) at the first whiff of interest on the banks' part.

Yet the numbers going into finance haven’t dwindled that much. MBA graduates at top finance business schools like Tuck (and arguably NYU-Stern, Michigan-Ross, Virginia-Darden, all Consortium schools) are finding their ways back to Wall Street, but perhaps in a variety of roles.  About 30% of the Tuck Class of ’13 headed to financial institutions, and about 35% are working in finance functions. In investment banking, 14% of the class went to work there; 11% are working in classic investment-banking functions (equity or debt underwriting, M&A, client advisory, etc.)—numbers that don’t suggest a lack of interest in  this generation of students.

Tuck’s statistics, nonetheless, show a dearth of classmates headed into private equity and venture capital (only 2%).  The small percentage stands out because many go to business school with expressed interests (and great enthusiasm) about private equity and venture capital. The numbers might reflect the scarcity of opportunity in such a fiercely competitive segment and the unorthodox ways some of these firms recruit.  (Blackstone and Carlyle may recruit at top business schools across the country, but Silicon Valley venture-capital firms may recruit informally or prefer to recruit only from across the street at Stanford).

The latest statistics may also reflect the lack of opportunities on trading desks at big banks, which have had to scale back because of new regulation.  MBA graduates interested sales and trading nowadays don’t have the chance to work in structured career pathways at a Credit Suisse or JPMorgan and will likely look for opportunities, if they exist, at hedge funds, many of which struggled last year and may not be swarming business schools this year. Some students interested in sales and trading can seek similar opportunities at investment managers (Blackrock, e.g.).

Tuck’s statistics show first-year compensation in finance hasn’t fallen into a sinkhole. But the range is as wide as ever, partly because the impressive, mind-shaking salaries and bonuses have been paid out primarily at the bulge-bracket and boutique banks in financial centers (New York, Chicago, San Francisco), and not always at the smaller, regional institutions. 

Still, in a post-crisis era, compensation doesn’t seem to always drive MBA graduates’ career decisions. Indeed these are different times. MBA graduates know the time they spend at Bank of America, Aetna, or UBS right out of school won't last decades. Furthermore, they seek flexibility and a life on weekends or seek some comfort that when the next crisis occurs, they won’t appear on a bank’s long reduction-in-force list.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN:  Who's headed into finance, 2013? June-2013

CFN:  MBA's: Eye on summer '14, Nov-2013

CFN:  Where do you want to work? Feb-2013

CFN:  Today's bulge brackets, Jan-2013

CFN:  Goldman tweaks the banking ladder, Sept-2012

Friday, January 24, 2014

Bitcoins: Embrace or Beware?

A fad or the real deal?
Let's not beat around the bush about Bitcoins, the digital currency that has stirred up the financial world the past year or so.   

Bitcoins are a virtual currency, now accepted by some merchants and commercial enterprises as a form of payment for services or products. Because Bitcoins have a fluctuating market value, many try to exploit price volatility and treat Bitcoins as an investment--similar to investors who might purchase foreign currencies with hopes that volatile swings will result in handsome profits.

However, most participants are still not sure how Bitcoins came to be, who or what oversees the marketplace, and where all this is headed.  Let's be real. Any purchase or investment in Bitcoins is a speculative investment.  Uncertainty, volatility and mysterious (or mystical?) origins offset confidence prudent investors or users for payment purposes might have in its legitimacy.  As we saw in late 2013 when the Chinese government intervened to discourage its use, Bitcoins are enveloped by the unknown, and investors run for the hills when they sense something odd or peculiar in this marketplace.

This is a marketplace where even the most active participants are not sure the founder is one person with a vision for an online payment system or a horde of computer jocks out to amuse themselves. It’s a marketplace in its infancy.  As of mid-Jan., 2014, this is a $10 billion market with less than a million Bitcoins (BTC) traded or transferred daily.

Time will tell whether they will become a reliable currency for the long term.  Time will also tell whether this is a finance fad of the early 2010's or a landmark turning point in the history of monetary systems.

Transactions, trading and investing in Bitcoins are a global phenomenon now. A curiosity for some.  Just a year or so ago, the value of a Bitcoin was around $300. During the year, prices soared to $1,000, sank quickly to $500 last fall and then surged and stumbled again like laundry tumbling and churning in a dryer. (They were valued at about $780 in mid-Jan., 2014.)

Some argue Bitcoins (or their off-shoots or similar virtual versions) are here to stay. Bitcoin activity will be propelled by transactors attracted to a system that knows no boundaries, is not directed by government bodies or political systems, and allows for trades and payments in relative anonymity.  As with most financial trends or fads, this phenomenon is bound to stray in some direction--up or down, up and down, out of existence, or perhaps eventually into a nightmarish tangle of fraud, misrepresentation and legal quagmire.

For now, let's acknowledge what seems to be happening in early 2014:

1.  The price movements and upward, secular trend in value have attracted speculative investors around the world.  

Whether they believe in the system or are proponents of a politics-free, digital market for payments, they see opportunities to make money in the short term. If the price increased from $300 to $1,000, why wouldn't it increase to $2,000 over the next year or two--especially if popularity continues the current course?

Speculative investors may not care much for the algorithms and calculations that influence a Bitcoin's value. They see trends in growing demand and popularity, not always sufficiently explained, and a grand opportunity for a windfall.

2.  There appears to be a growing acceptance by some merchants and businesses to accept payment in Bitcoins (BTC).

Growing acceptance offers legitimacy and comfort to consumers who choose to participate in the system.  VirginAtlantic, the airline, joined this group late last year.

In some ways, an increase in participating businesses helps boost liquidity in the system and encourages other participants to join.  The growing number of participants may eventually cause a cry for more transparency and oversight--which exists today, but in veiled ways.

3.  A Bitcoin market depends on a class of participants called "miners," who act somewhat like "brokers" or "market-makers." 

In financial markets, brokers or market-makers facilitate and process trades. Rewarded with commissions or marked-up profit spreads, they have incentives to keep a market alive, active, and liquid.  In the Bitcoin world, miners act in that role.  Like many financial markets, Bitcoin "miners" have sprouted everywhere in surprisingly large numbers, partly because of the lure of rewards ("commissions") and partly because mining Bitcoins could be considered less risky than in investing in them.

Before others leap to join the ranks of miners, note the odd wrinkle in miners' responsibilities. Miners secure, confirm and report Bitcoin transactions. They are compensated by being rewarded with a special new supply of Bitcoins, but only after they have successfully solved a math problem that requires enormous amounts of computer power.

Think of a financial broker being rewarded with an incremental new issue of a company's stock.  Or think of the Federal Reserve rewarding big banks who confirm and expedite money transfers with new-money credits at the Fed. However, imagine being paid for the service only after solving a math problem that--by Bitcoin rules--will become more difficult to solve in the future.

Those who have access to such computing heft have opportunities to reap substantial rewards. Like market-makers and brokers in a financial market, they facilitate transactions without taking on significant amounts of investment risk. (Their initial investments are those in computer servers or in space that houses computers.)

Because they bear a little less risk than speculative investors, a cottage industry of miners (and related businesses) has surfaced in global corners everywhere--from California to Iceland. There are miners, but there are also companies that support miners by selling or leasing access to computers for mining purposes. There are investors (including private-equity firm Andressen Horowitz) that are now comfortable investing in "mining" operations.

4.  Bitcoin "money supply" is controlled, and growth is restricted, planned and charted, based on an initial algorithm. 

BTC coin supply is based not on economic policy or economic objectives, but on the complex math calculations miners are required to do with their high-power computers. 

By design, the more successful miners are in finding solutions to the calculations, the more difficult the next series of calculations becomes.  It becomes harder and harder to solve the problems to get the same reward. Miners will, therefore, invest in greater computing power to earn similar revenues. Today, miners are racing to grab revenues that might be near impossible to generate a few years from now. And racing like mad.

Those calculations have less to do with how central bankers manage monetary supply, more to do with the calculating power of their computers. Governments and central bankers, we observe, manage monetary growth based on objectives they have regarding interest rates, inflation rates, and expected economic growth.  "Money supply" is ultimately finite in the world of Bitcoins. Until supply reaches a determined maximum, it is now  determined by activity, participants, and computer power. 

5.  While "mining" helps ensure the Bitcoin market is an orderly market, nobody yet knows what will happen in the worst of cases.  

If there is a sudden crash in price --a sudden collapse or a widespread panic, who will oversee the marketplace? If there are crises or disruptions caused by technology, systems or deceitful miners, who will act to revive trading and transacting? 

6. The  system, which eased quietly into the global financial system within the past few years, will continue to attract participants--not because libertarians enjoy that governments have no part to play, but because of money-making opportunities.

A steady increase in legitimate participants may eventually force the system throughout--not just in segments--to provide a blueprint for how the system will behave in worst-case scenarios.  Furthermore, crises, disruptions and crashes will have inevitable legal implications, which of course will require governments or courts to intervene in the end.   

For now governments and central bankers have been shunted aside. The system is self-policing. But the greater the number of participants and the greater the likelihood for system mishaps, then the greater the push for order and protocol that would boost confidence in the system.

But will all that occur before the system's first panic crash, the shocking catastrophic plunge that will cause large numbers of participants to flee en masse with no confidence in ever returning?

Or will the system, supported by a phalanx of miners around the world, find ways to keep itself honest, fair, and relevant?

Tracy Williams

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What Will 2014 Bring?

Equity markets: More of the same in 2014?
If the year 2013 ended with moods, markets and sentiments on an upswing, what's on deck for 2014?

What will happen in the upcoming year? What is the agenda for banks, investment managers, hedge funds and an assortment of institutions in financial services?

Let's first sort through equity markets. Last year, we saw blockbuster returns--over 25%, depending on the index you follow. There were the usual dips, dives and concerns, but by autumn, equity markets continued to edge upward. Anybody's diversified portfolio of stocks performed well. The upbeat markets reflected perceptions by many (traders, investors, bankers, et. al.) that we had climbed out of the financial crisis, that the economy had finally reversed course, and that we could confidently move on.

But market returns above 20%, for some portfolio managers and investment gurus are nothing to rave about. They become headaches, causes for concern.  Are we headed toward another bubble, another 1987, 1998, or 2008? A debilitating nose-dive after periods of euphoria has happened before (more than once), so it can (or must?) happen again. How should we interpret recent discouraging data about net job increases across the country? What will the Fed do (or not do)?

For many in finance, 2013's soaring returns are a warning signal that we should be cautious about an impending bubble burst or should at least dissect market trends or economic behavior that portends a market slump.  Market prognosticators who see doom on the horizon are not necessarily nay-saying pessimists. After everybody was struck by knock-out blows of the last crisis, market participants just want to be prepared for the next time.

From now until about midyear, traders and research analysts will observe every move of new Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, even if many have described her as a Bernanke disciple, someone loyal to a course of maintaining low interest rates and continuing the Fed's program of bond purchases.  Some experts say this such Fed strategy explained much of last year's upturn and any plan to deviate from this could upset stock markets.  

In 2014, in equity markets, if we don't see continuing upswings, we will see more structural changes in the way stocks are traded. Over the past decade, there have been structural overhauls in stock trading. Major stock exchanges (NYSE, Nasdaq) are no longer stoic boys' clubs that monopolize among themselves  transactional volume. They have had to change, adapt, and be aggressive to stay alive. They compete with lightning-quick electronic exchanges, "dark pools" (run by major financial institutions), high-frequency traders, and markets that have no end of day. They must offer low fees and nano-quick execution or become less relevant.  

So in 2014, the heralded New York Stock Exchange struggles to find a role in the chaotic stock-trading sphere. It is no longer independent. A few years ago, it considered diversity and expansion by acquiring European exchanges and becoming NYSE Euronext. As it struggled to adapt, appease shareholders and remain profitable, it allowed an upstart electronic-futures exchange, ICE, to take it over.  Now in the upcoming year, ICE wants to dismantle parts of NYSE, hinting that it acquired NYSE mostly to grab the futures and commodities arms. It will likely hold onto NYSE as a badge of prestige, while the NYSE goes head to head with other electronic newcomers and trail-blazers.

The overall agenda for 2014 is otherwise assorted--a range of items and issues that must addressed, tweaks here and there.   

Financial regulation continues into what might be phase three--more implementation,  a few more rules, and widespread adjustments by banks, traders, funds and regulators before we head into years of strict enforcement.  Perhaps the year will finally bring more clarity in derivatives trading--exchange trading, clearing vehicles, and over-the-counter rules.

On the legal side, last year's insider-trading scandals continue through the court system. Federal prosecutors suggest there could be more indictments, although they may not match the headlines from accusations, indictments and settlements at SAC Capital.  In this realm, Round 1 involved the hedge fund Galleon Group.  Round 2 brought us SAC Capital and settlements involving its founder Stephen Cohen.  Round 3 will unfurl in the year to come, could involve others in an intricate, tangled trading network, but may not expose familiar, big names.

Global banks performed well last year, but their investment-banking units had less reason to celebrate in 2013. IB revenues across the board sagged at most places. Banks have been mired in IB restructuring (as banks adapt to Volcker rules and capital requirements), and their clients continue to approach the economic horizon with caution. Indeed in 2013, there was a welcome spate of IPO's, big deals, and debt offerings. But clients have been hesitant about expanding too far too fast, shy about acquiring other firms or doing big mergers--all frustrating investment-bank leaders. M&A activity, which suggested a back-to-glory-days trend last summer, has slowed to an ordinary crawl. Some call it humming, normal activity. Others call it doldrums.

Nevertheless, like all years, it's easy to capture and describe current moods (renewed, cautious confidence), but hard to project a specific event that could be the domino that causes market unrest. Experienced market participants and risk managers know it takes one or two correlated events to change abruptly a bright, comfortable course, one event that could pummel 2013's optimism from its pedestal.

Let's hope in 2014 no Russian debt crisis, no Bear Stearns mortgage wipe-out, no unsettling, triple-witching-hour trading day, no Long Term Capital portfolio implosion or no Drexel-like junk-bond circus looms to erode the era of good feeling 2013 brought.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN:  Looking Back at 2013
CFN:  Cliffs, Recoveries, Outlook for 2013
CFN:  Where Do You Want to Work in 2013?
CFN:  Opportunities in 2012
CFN:  Approaching 2012

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Yale SOM Gets a New Look

Yale SOM's Evans Hall opens up in January (NH Register photo)
Yale School of Management, one of the Consortium's 18 schools, is opening up a new campus facility, Evans Hall, in New Haven in mid-Jan., 2014.  The school will launch the new state-of-the-art building with receptions, lectures, presentations and celebrations of what has made Yale SOM special and unique among the panoply of business schools. The week's theme is "Leadership in an Increasingly Complex World."

The new campus will feature the marvels of business-school technology and covers 242,000 square feet, at a cost of $240 million, much of which was made possible by benefactor Edward Evans, who was an undergraduate student at Yale and later CEO of Macmillan, Inc., the publishing house. Besides interview rooms and three libraries, it will even have a student gym and entertainment space.

Yale's dean, Edward Snyder, migrated to Connecticut in 2011 from Chicago's Booth School of Business. In the midst of Chicago's Gothic maze, Booth is a modern, self-contained business school campus, the kind of campus Yale SOM students and faculty might have envied.  Once Snyder arrived in New Haven, he spearheaded the completion of a new campus, a new facility featuring the latest business-school bells and whistles. And his experience in helping to open Chicago's new doors no doubt got many SOM faculty, alumni and students excited about a new campus for Yale.

Building modern facilities is a frequent occurrence at top business schools.  They know that to attract top students, schools must pay attention to their physical being. Facilities, campus and amenities sometimes rank as high as innovative course offerings, curriculum, career placement and notable faculty when students decide whether or not to attend.  While Yale SOM attracted top students over the past decades, many alumni and school leaders felt that an impressive, separate campus was necessary to lure the student that might otherwise be more interested in attending Wharton or Harvard.

Yale and Chicago are certainly not the only schools with new campuses.  Stanford now has its new Knight Management Center, home to its business school since 2011, featuring courtyards, magical classroom technology, chic ambience and sunlit, outdoor cafe settings.  Wharton and Consortium school Michigan have also opened new campus facilities.

Yale SOM has had a colorful history. When it was launched in the mid-1970s, it wanted to be different from other schools. It offered a management-education mixture of the public and private sector.  The degree it certified upon its graduates then was the "MPPM"--a master's in public and private management, arguably a combination of the MPA and MBA degree. Graduates would be steered toward Morgan Stanley, the World Bank or Capitol Hill. At one point, the "O" in "SOM" stood for "Organization."

At times, alumni, recruiters, employers and other constituents interpreted the degree in many ways. And at times, new deans pushed the emphasis one way or the other. Eventually SOM settled on the MBA degree, and it has tweaked the definition of what that means from time to time. In its first three decades, Yale SOM didn't have a separate facility, but existed in a pleasant, neighborly network of "houses" on Yale's Hillhouse Ave.

The new Evans Hall reinforces the notion that Yale SOM has become a top business school in a classical way, although the school, more than many others, tends to walk and run to its own drumbeat by remaining small and enjoying experiments with new ways of instruction or new approaches to the MBA experience. Its integrated curriculum is its latest novel approach.

Yale joined the Consortium in 2008 and has graduated dozens of Consortium MBA's since then. 

Yale being Yale, the school and new facility will seek to fit in well with the rest of the Yale campus.  Evans Hall, with blue hues, courtyards and exquisitely selected artwork, wants to be identifiably Yale, circa 2014.

Tracy Williams

Friday, December 20, 2013

Looking Back at 2013

An informal glance of the year just past
Years from now, a finance historian or a research analyst looking back at 2013 won't have a clever moniker for the notable financial events of the year.  The year was eventful, but may not even deserve a whole chapter in finance history.

And perhaps that's a good thing. It wasn't like 1987, 1994, 1998, 2008, years that conjure memories of crises, crashes, volatility, and uncertainty.

The year 2013 was not one of turmoil.  Markets behaved well. We saw equity upswings of the likes of the mid-2000's and mid-1990's, even while old hands suggested a bubble is near and we shouldn't get accustomed to double-digit percentage stock-market increases.

The fury and hoopla over BitCoins, that arcane, macabre digital currency, didn't rise to the surface until late 2013.  That, in fact, could be the bubble that bursts in 2014, and let's hope that damage won't cause debilitating financial ripples around the world.

The year 2013 featured big deals, badgering shareholder activists, headline court cases, and a few notable IPO's. One common theme prevailed, nonetheless:  financial regulation.  Regulators, politicians, and lawyers bickered about what to do, how harsh they should be, and when they plan to roll out new rules promised from Dodd-Frank legislation, now going back several years ago.

New regulation, they argued, must be at least a little painful to make up for late-2000s financial sins. But the unveiling of a new era of restraint and a new playing field has taken a long time. Basel III, Volcker rules and new rules governing derivatives and equity trading have trickled out slowly, to the pleasure of many banks still squeezing out profits from privileges about to go away.

Dodd-Frank, Volcker and Basel III are not favorite topics among bankers, but they are inevitable.  Banks paid lobbyists and waged campaigns to push back, but they know they aren't winning this tug-of-war and have begun to adapt. Compliance officers, lawyers, and business managers are combing through hundreds, thousands of pages of rules, guidelines, and capital and liquidity requirements, as they prepare for a wave of requirements set for 2014-15. Not fun, fancy tasks, but this is the new normal for the late 2010's.

Civil suits, criminal charges and legal indictments were abundant all year long, as federal prosecutors followed a determined agenda to punish those involved in insider trading.  A legal blitz on insider trading kept the mystical, aloof hedge fund SAC Capital on the front pages for much of the year--right until now, as prosecutors one by one investigate and/or indict various members of Stephen Cohen's trading circle. 

Shareholder activists charged out front and waged fierce campaigns, taking some of their battles to the front lines of the media. They pushed to get Apple to pay dividends, pushed to reshape and remake JCPenney, and battled over the legitimacy of Herbalife products--anything to boost corporate values, oust disagreeable management, wrest some value from out-dated business models, or cause fuss in equity markets. Names like Icahn, Ackerman, Einhorn and others--stubborn and persistent and sometimes irate--kept themselves busy chasing after corporate boards.

The public got used to JPMorgan Chase's billions--not quarterly profits, but a series of regulatory or legal settlements, pay-outs, charge-offs, and reserves.  A billion here, a billion there, until we saw a climatic $13 billion mortgage-related settlement that caused the public to gasp until it learned that the bank will still report handsome profits in 2013, still wields a heavy hand in banking, and its CEO  Jamie Dimon's job is not at all in jeopardy. (Recall the past springtime when a shareholder petition requested Dimon give up his chairmanship. Dimon and team, breathlessly but with confidence, waited out what was supposed to have been a close vote.)

Apple, Inc. continued to muddle over what to do with its billions in cash--billions on its balance sheet with a reluctance to reward shareholders. Investor activist Carl Icahn applied pressure, and others proposed innovative financial devices to pay shareholders. During the year, Apple relented, deciding to share the wealth via dividends with shareholders and then testing debt markets by borrowing $17 billion in a deal done mostly to show markets it could manage a debt transaction and debt payments.  Meanwhile, the company continues to amass billions more in cash from normal operations.

Twitter's IPO, in many financial circles, will be cast as the year's deal of the year. Nothing fancy about the transaction. And nothing unusual about it, even if Twitter has yet to show meaningful operating profits and long-term growth rates are uncertain (Will the fad run its course?).  Yet the deal was widely discussed and eagerly bought, if only because it signaled a comeback of sorts in the new-issue market or it proved that an IPO with high expectations can burst through starting gates without market turmoil or mechanical difficulty (like the Facebook IPO).

Other deals made headlines, too, contributing to a summer surge that flirted with bankers, who might have thought the M&A glory days had returned.  In one deal, Verizon borrowed a whopping $49 billion to make an even-more-whopping $130 billion acquisition of the portion of Verizon Wireless it didn't own. But as the fall quarter approached, banks realized corporate CEO's and strategists still harbor economic anxiety and are hesitant about making too many acquisitions too quickly.

During the year, we began to observe the slow death watch of Blackberry.  Losses continue, employees have been let go, and management--those who remain--has run out of ideas and imagination about products.  A Canadian private-equity firm had a long-running bet that things would turn around. During the year, it contemplated stepping up the bet to acquire the portions of the company it didn't own. Near the end of the year, it, too, had begun to change its mind about Blackberry.  The company stumbles, gets on its feet every few months when it announces what it perceives as a novel product offering or a strategy geared to corporates, but then it trips again.

Michael Dell had grand dreams of taking his computer company Dell private, where he could seize control of the company's strategy without the withering distractions of shareholders, research analysts, and whimsical stock prices.  Dell, however, didn't realize he had to ward off shareholder activists and prolong the process by addressing apparent conflicts of interest (with him leading both the public company and the private buy-out).

Goldman Sachs didn't make it through the year without headlines, no matter how much it preferred. It had a sideline seat in the civil trial of one of its employees (Fabrice Tourre), the one singled out as instrumental in structuring the large mortgage securities/derivative transaction that permitted hedge-fund investor John Paulson to earn billions. Goldman wasn't an accused party, but for Goldman, the trial caused headaches and reputation blemishes.

Outside courtrooms, Goldman made news when former employee Greg Smith's published his long-awaited book about why he left Goldman.  The book was widely awaited and carefully reviewed and read, although the author didn't stir up as much trouble as some might have hoped. Nor did he offer more than an insider's account of his decade working and watching Goldman drift slightly away from its firm principle of treating clients as kings and queens.

Banks, once every five or ten years, try to do something revolutionary to change the pressure-cooker culture of banking. In the past, they allowed for permissive dress codes (business casual, as it came to be) and tried to be tender-hearted about late nights and all-nighters in the workplace.  Goldman took a big step in 2013 when it announced it would forbid junior bankers (analysts) from working Saturdays t to instill a more civil, comfortable work environment.  The move was praised and appreciated, although skeptics know how little this might be enforced or how the new standard might be forgotten in the months to come. But Goldman is praised for daring to show empathy.

Cheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO, published her  book Lean In and presented pages of advice of how women can aspire to senior roles in business and how women can confront difficult business settings with a more aggressive stance or posture. No book in business in 2013 was more talked about, tossed about, and debated than Sandberg's tome. Women on both sides of the argument of the effectiveness of leaning in weighed in. But was her book applicable to all groups under-represented in business?

An eventful year, but one that didn't leave the blood boiling or cause business and finance leaders to sink into an abyss of anxiety. With bits of the recession and crisis still haunting and reminding all how bad things can be, companies and capital markets proceed into 2014 with degrees of confidence. But they cling to appropriate amounts of worry, wondering if a devastating market blow looms over the horizon.

Tracy Williams