What they Used to Teach You at Stanford Business School

By Felix Salmon
March 29, 2009

Chris Wyser-Pratte, who got his MBA from Stanford in 1972 and then spent the next 23 years as an investment banker, sent me the following note last night. I’m reprinting it here with his permission:

I learned exactly seven things at Stanford Graduate School of Business getting an MBA degree in 1972. I always used them and never wavered. They were principles that enabled me to put the cookbook formulas that everyone revered in context and in perspective. I think they served my clients (and perhaps me) rather well. Here are those seven principles, and who taught them to me:

  1. Don’t use many financial ratios or formulas, and when you’ve picked the few that will actually tell you what you want to know, don’t believe them very much (Prof. James T.S. Porterfield);
  2. Remember that any damn fool can compute an IRR or DCF. The trick is to find a business that can return 20% after tax, understand its critical indigenous and exogenous variables, and then run it so it meets its return target. (Prof. Alexander Robichek.)
  3. Always ask what can go wrong (Porterfield);
  4. Never extrapolate beyond the observed points of a distribution, you have absolutely no information outside the observed range (Prof. J. Michael Harrison);
  5. Remember that you can always break the bank at Monte Carlo by doubling your bet on red at the roulette table every time you lose. The problem is it will break you first; It’s called "the takeout." Therefore, always manage your financial structure so that takeout is not an issue. (Porterfield.)
  6. Big M (today Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan) is never a part of the optimal solution. If it shows up in the answer with any coefficient greater than zero, you have the wrong answer and have to continue to do program iterations. (Harrison.)
  7. There is never any excuse for looking through the substance of an economic transaction, whatever the accounting, and if the accounting permits you to do so, it’s wrong (Prof. Charles T. Horngren.)

Conspicuously absent from this list are Prof. Jack McDonald and his Efficient Market Theory and Random Walk, Prof. William Sharpe, Nobel Prize winning author of the Capital Asset Pricing Model (which he later acknowledged didn’t work because his data were wrong, but it’s still used everywhere and they didn’t take away his prize) and Prof. James Van Horne, who believed that the Fed actually controlled the economy through its monetary policy actions. Gene Webb — who at least tried to improve my people skills — and Ezra Solomon in International Finance deserve honorable mention.

The conclusion I derive from your interesting article is that the reason the economy was destroyed by Wall Street, which died in the fire it created, was that they violated, ignored and were probably ignorant of all seven principles listed above. They not only couldn’t do the math, they were mesmerized by its precision because they used a black box and believed in its oracular power even though they didn’t understand how it worked, believed what occurred before could be expected to occur again, hadn’t a clue about what risks were indigenous and exogenous to their own business (or which were which), how probable those risks were and what the consequences were of ignoring the takeout risk, in particular. They also thought financial sleight of hand had meaning. In short, they had their head stuck where the sun don’t shine and deserved what they got. We, the world, didn’t.

What Wyser-Pratt doesn’t mention is that in 1972, business school students largely expected to go into business, as opposed to finance. And insofar as banks hired MBAs, it was because they wanted employees who understood business. Over the following decades, MBAs, and the bankers they turned into, became increasingly expert in finance, while knowing less and less about business. Eventually we ended up living in a world where a major retail operation like Sears could be owned and run by a financial engineer who thought that the answer to any question was simply to spend yet more of the company’s precious cashflow on stock buybacks.

Essentially, we moved from a world where banks were run by businessmen, to a world where businesses were run by financiers. Let’s hope that the pendulum will now swing back (only with more women in charge this time around), and that business schools will start de-emphasizing finance in their curricula. But that might be too much to hope for. Even in 1972 students were being taught CAPM. And the vast majority of them failed to ignore it.

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