Ethics matter: Investment veterans share their perspectives

What does one learn after a quarter century in the investment business? According to an accomplished trio speaking at this week's Morningstar Conference in Chicago, you understand that things aren't always as bad as they seem - but you need to maintain high standards to keep afloat in a turbulent business.

Don Phillips, president of fund research with Morningstar, welcomed three seasoned but successful figures - Susan M. Byrne, founder of Westwood Management Corp., Will Danoff, portfolio manager for Fidelity Asset Management, and Brian Rogers, chairman and CIO of the T. Rowe Price Group - all of whom had some interesting perspectives on maintaining a forward-looking strategy over the years.

Byrne, who entered the business as a single mother looking for a profitable career, said she continues to work with an outlook focused on the success and survival of her clients, first and foremost. To that end, she has to work to establish and keep her clients' trust.

"Being trusted is very important and you really have to feel an empathy for those who can really take care of their customers," she said. "We have to remember that this is not our money. Do not confuse yourself with your customers' commissions ... that's a sacred trust to me. But you also have to be able to admit to yourself that you don't know everything - and that's a humbling experience. Just being smart isn't everything ... you need discipline, too."

Danoff said he entered the business at a time when it appeared to him that his coworkers in their 50s were still having fun at their investment jobs, and said he's starting to feel that way himself, though he wonders about the newest generation.

"I had an opportunity to capture the entrepreneurial spirit of the country and that was extremely rewarding to me," he said. "There are plenty of folks out there who seem to have that mercantile gene, but we've all been humbled in recent years. Hopefully we can find enthusiastic, engaged managers who are willing to think strategically."

Rogers said he now appreciates having floated through three decades of challenging times in the business, starting at a time when things were tough and seeing a second wave of financial crises hit the market.

"I was in business school back when the investment literature was full of all of the trauma of the 1970s, the Oil Crisis and such, and between 1977 and 1982, it wasn't much fun - you had a whole generation of investors who were demoralized," he said. "But the market really took off in 1982, and today really feels a lot like 1982. We have a lost decade to deal with, but I'm much more optimistic."

Rogers said he also feels that investment professionals need to remember that ethics really do matter, especially in challenging financial times.

"Back in the day, I worked for smaller firms that had a very clear sense of fiduciary obligation to their customers, and that was really instilled in all of us," he noted. "I think people haven't learned that now."

 

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