Chicago Booth Magazine
The Conversation: The Power of Ideas
Snyder: The gift allows me the flexibility to get things moving, or to push further on things that are going really well. You mentioned Gary Becker, who was one of the three founding members of the Initiative on Chicago Price Theory with Steve Levitt and Kevin Murphy. It became the Becker Center, it has an endowment, and they’re doing great things. Sometimes you want to take something like the Becker Center and give it some more ammo.
Booth: The rough criterion is that I don’t want to fund normal business activity. That’s well handled by tuition. It’s the extraordinary items that I’d like to help with. And I agree with you that we want to continue to be the best business school in the world—but I’ve felt that way for 35 years. Chicago is unique. It’s hard to describe, but for people that get Chicago, they know what you’re talking about. My goal is to help Chicago keep that uniqueness and stay ahead of our closest competitors.
There are two avenues in business education. It used to be that nearly all schools used the Harvard approach, using the case study, where you learn by studying what other people have done. It’s a fine institution, but along comes Chicago with a different approach—one that will always have fewer acolytes. By sheer numbers, the Harvard approach will be the basic paradigm for most business schools, because it’s easier to implement. The Chicago approach has more theory and modeling, and rigorous analysis is not for everybody. Chicago has cut out a unique brand name in that area and for people who understand it and love it, there’s no place like it. I don’t look at the ranking systems much because I know Chicago is the best. It’s the best for what I want and comparing it to Harvard is apples and oranges. With the proper funding, Chicago will not only continue to be the best business school indefinitely, but do more of what makes it so distinctive.
Snyder: When you consider gifts that have named business schools, this is in a completely different category. In some cases there were founding names, Wharton and Tuck. There was Darden, which was a recognition name to say thank you to someone who helped the school and university. The naming of Kellogg was a “let’s change direction” event for what was then Northwestern’s business school.
But your gift is totally different. It’s fundamentally an affirmation. When you talk about this already being the best business school—that you’ve known that for 35 years—it’s not a change in direction at all. You are someone who decided—as a fundamental piece of his career development and business strategy—to stay close to the faculty, to position himself at the cutting edge. You said, I’m going to continue to learn and to be the marketer, the finance thinker, and the entrepreneur leveraging Chicago ideas.
Leveraging Chicago Ideas
Snyder: Could you talk about Dimensional’s core strategy and how it has leveraged Chicago ideas?
Booth: We view ourselves as evolving in a process, a feedback loop. There are models that are cause and effect, and then there’s a feedback loop system, where you can start in any number of places. Let’s begin with academic research. That leads to ideas about how to invest money. If you have ideas, then you acquire clients for the strategies you develop based on those ideas.
Next is implementation, which is our strength. After you implement, you review your results, which leads to a dialogue, which leads to questions, which requires more research, which leads to more strategies, clients, implementation, evaluation, and attribution analysis, more dialogue—and then more research.
That’s the feedback loop. One of the key components is research. It’s a luxury to build a business knowing that when you need serious research, you have access to the highest quality. That’s something as a firm we couldn’t hope to monopolize. But all the finance professors in the world work for us, they just don’t know it.
Snyder: You’re reading the research?
Booth: Fama, Ken French, and our other board members are reading it. They pass along the research they think is relevant so I don’t have to read it all. That way, we can focus on the parts where we have direct control, which is the implementation.
Ideas are great, but somebody has to engineer them, package and present them to clients, and execute them. We have access to the great minds, and hope we provide a great service for our clients in terms of value added. From the academic viewpoint, the firm can apply these ideas and make things come alive. It’s a good partnership.
It’s intriguing because we build a firm around the view of the efficient markets, as Fama calls it, or equilibrium markets, but taken to an extreme, it can’t really be right. This idea of efficient markets breaks down at some level, but that depends on your vantage point. From the vantage point of our clients and firm, we accept the idea that markets are efficient, because on a costbenefit basis, it doesn’t pay to behave any other way.
That’s a pretty subtle argument to say we build a firm around this set of ideas, and this is how we choose to behave, what we choose to believe—when in reality we know that there’s got to be somebody out there who can pick stocks. But the cost of identifying and giving them the money is one difficulty. Secondly, all economists must agree that if there is anything in scarce supply, it’s that ability to outguess the market. If there are people out there that have it, why would they share it with anybody else? The academics are really focused on the question, are markets efficient. As a businessman, that’s only part of the question. We ask, are markets efficient and will our clients get any of it?
Snyder: The extras.
Booth: Right. We believe totally in this notion of market efficiency, but you can have a have a career talking about this issue in a way where reasonable people can have differences of opinion about the answer. One thing we’ve been able to document clearly is you don’t have to believe that you can outguess the market in order to have a good investment experience. And our message to clients is that there’s a fair return that everybody is entitled to over the long haul.
Snyder: In marketing the firm, you operate in a very competitive space. Obviously, Dimensional has done amazing things for people who’ve invested over the long term. Your track record of outperforming the relevant indices is phenomenal, but in terms of the marketing message it seems like you’re trying to get people to understand the approach. Is the marketing of Dimensional about wanting your clients to understand performance?
Booth: Yes. I’ve told Fama that the difference between teaching at the business school and selling this set of ideas is that, in essence, all of our “students” have to get As. If they don’t understand well enough to get an A, we don’t get the business.
One of the things that’s shocked us is how important these ideas are, how valuable they are in the marketplace. When I was in business school there was a term, the “ivory tower.” I don’t hear that much anymore, but everything you teach is theory and analysis. Some people think they want to study something more practical, but what we’ve been able to demonstrate is that you can take a set of ideas and make it relevant for people and devise something that provides a very good investment experience.
Chicago is a bit like our firm in that you also have competitors who imitate parts of what you do. Our first investment strategy was a small cap fund. I won’t go into detail, but research started to become available beginning with Michael Jensen’s PhD dissertation. He examined a mutual fund’s performance on data from 1946 through 1965. He set in motion an industry of analyzing professional money management returns in public markets. They’d been doing these studies with increasing sophistication over the years, but they always show the same thing—trying to outguess the market is not a cost-benefit effective thing to do. When people started reading that research, the conclusion was: if we can’t outguess the market, then you can buy the market through an index fund. Sure enough, the three decades in existence—the ’70s, the ’80s, and the ’90s—have the simple S&P 500 Index Fund as ranked in the top quartile when compared to professional money managers in each of those decades.
I counter that here’s where behavioral finance might be of some use. When you talk to MBA students at Chicago Booth, you know they see that data, but they interpret it slightly differently. But it’s true that when you compare professional money managers to a similar number of hypothetical orangutans throwing hypothetical darts at the stock listings in the Wall Street Journal, the distribution outcomes look pretty much the same. And you know that one orangutan in a thousand will outperform the market every year ten years in a row. It’s actually not quite that much for the professional money managers.