Remembering Financier and Arts Patron Roy Neuberger (1903-2010)

Roy Neuberger
Roy Neuberger: Financier and art patron extraordinaire.
When someone lives to the age of 107, that’s news in and of itself.

But when Roy R. Neuberger died at 107 on Christmas Eve Day, he was far more than just a person who had lived an extraordinarily long life. He was one of the most significant figures in 20th Century American finance, along with being an important patron of the arts.

Neuberger’s life story follows the arc of America’s modern history. Born into a family of wealth in Bridgeport, CT in 1903, he was orphaned at an early age. At first Neuberger was interested in a journalism career, but found college studies unfulfilling and dropped out of New York University before earning his degree.

Neuberger’s first job in business was with B. Altmans, a famous New York department store. He would later recall that this experience prepared him not just for a life in business, but also nurtured a lifelong appreciation for art.

Neuberger then took a sabbatical from business in his early 20s to travel to Europe, where he dabbled in painting and lived the life of a Bohemian in Paris along with other American expatriates.

After this wanderlust wore off and he was back in the United States, Neuberger stepped back into the business world by beginning his career on Wall Street – mere months before the stock market crash of 1929. Soldiering on during the years of the Depression, by 1939 he had co-founded Neuberger Berman, an investment firm that would later establish one of the first no-load mutual funds in America (the Guardian Fund – still in operation today).

But Neuberger’s love of art and painting was never far from his mind. In fact, by the early 1940s he was well on his way to becoming one of America’s most important art patrons. Neuberger was an early admirer of the paintings of Peter Hurd, promoting his works and helping to put this artist on the cultural map. It was a pattern that would be repeated over the years, as Neuberger championed the works of such luminaries as Edward Hopper, Milton Avery, Alexander Calder and Jackson Pollock.

Over the decades, not only did Neuberger amass a trove of modern art, he was to become a major benefactor of important works to institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), as well as numerous college and university museums. This culminated in the building of the Neuberger Museum of Art on the campus of the State University of New York in Purchase, to house his collection. The museum, designed by architect Philip Johnson, opened in 1974.

On the social scene, Roy Neuberger was a fixture in New York business, political and artistic circles. He was a close personal friend of Gov. and later Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. In later years, after the death of his wife, he was a regular escort of the glamorous singer, actress and fellow art patron Kitty Carlisle Hart – another member of the glitterati who lived a long and celebrated life (96 years).

Throughout his many decades of involvement in the arts scene, Neuberger never severed ties to his business or the world of finance. Indeed, he was a person who seemed genuinely comfortable operating in both realms – two worlds that sometimes do not get along so well.

Neuberger even found time to write his memoirs: So Far, So Good – the First 94 Years was published 13 years before his death … and he penned a second book on art collecting as late as 2003.

Clearly, Roy Neuberger was someone who had a real zest for life and who never stopped growing and learning … which surely makes him an inspiration to many. But if that’s not enough for you, just the fact that he lived to be 107 years old is noteworthy in itself!

Mathematicians and the Meltdown

I can’t wait for the release of The Quants, a new book by Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson about the role of so-called “quant funds” in the financial near-meltdown in September 2008, to be published on February 2. The weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal printed excerpts from the book, a powerful indictment of the mathematicians and computer whizzes who “nearly destroyed Wall Street.”

According to Patterson, “quants” was a name given to “traders and financial engineers who used brain-twisting math and super-powered computers to pluck billions in fleeting dollars out of the market.” In a major departure from traditional trading – evaluating individual companies’ management, performance and competitive positions – the quants used mathematical formulae to wager on which stocks will rise or fall.

Because of breakthroughs in the application of mathematics to financial markets – some of them so novel so as to have won their discoverers Nobel Prize awards — quant funds had quickly come to dominate Wall Street, with most of them piling up profits day after day. (To the senior brass at the investment houses, who likely knew little if anything about how these funds operated except that they made a lot of money, a hands-off policy seemed just the thing.)

And just as in so many other fields, technology elevated the “nerds” to the position of “stars” – with commensurately stratospheric compensation.

Unfortunately, in September 2008 the quant funds could not anticipate the effect of the collapse of the housing market bubble. In fact, this development turned the mathematical formulae of the quant funds on their head: What should have declined, rising … and what should be going up, dropping.

Patterson’s book promises to go into the details of just how things spun out of control, as seen through the eyes of key Wall Street managers such as the piano-playing, songwriting Peter Muller, founder of Morgan Stanley’s Process Driven Trading (PDT) quant fund, and Cliff Asness, formerly of Goldman Sachs and leader of the Applied Quantitative Research (AGR) quant fund.

In addition to presenting all the facts and all the drama, I’m hoping that Patterson will offer a few observations on how we can avoid a debacle like this from happening again in the future.

Another key question is whether any of the proposed regulations being debated in Congress will address the practices of quant funds – or is it all too complicated for anyone to figure out?

If that’s so, it’s pretty scary.

Twitter’s Law of Unintended Consequences

As I’ve outlined in a recent blog post, where Twitter has shown it has “legs” isn’t in the area most hyped by its founders.

As it turns out, “What are you doing?” hasn’t been much of a foundation for building a money-making social media platform. And in fact, the inevitable media backlash has now set in — even as the number of new Twitter users have begun to plateau and the majority of current members use the service hardly at all.

But hard on the heels of the Iranian and Moldovan unrest, in which Twitter played an important role facilitating the organizing of anti-government public demonstrations, comes another use of Twitter that few could have foreseen.

A recent article by Steven Sears in Barron’s Magazine outlines how Twitter is being used to affect the share price of stocks. According to Sears, “Before the market opens and throughout the trading day, Twitter lets you tap into market-moving news .. and link through attached URLs to more detailed analysis … You can control your information streams by deciding who to follow, and who can follow you.”

That’s hardly revolutionary behavior. But here’s the interesting part: By law, brokers must save instant messages and e-mail correspondence, but no such mandate exists for tweets on Twitter.

What this means is that some of the more sensitive information or speculation about a company makes it onto Twitter long before it’s broached elsewhere.

One example noted in the Sears article was Matrixx Initiatives, the manufacturer of Zicam nasel spray. Speculation that using Zicam might damage people’s sense of smell started to circulate on Twitter. The result? The stock price fell dramatically from $19 to $13 … and those following the news about Matrixx on Twitter were “in the know” a lot sooner than others.

So here we have yet another example of the unintended consequences of adopting new communications techniques. Twitter is effectively replacing instant messaging capabiliites — without the attendent legal paper-trail requirements.

I wonder what’s next?