Practical analysis for investment professionals
05 March 2015

The Reasons We Honor Irving Kahn, CFA

About 10 days ago a young man passed away to whom CFA Institute owes a lot. He was 109. His name was Irving Kahn, CFA.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I do have the honor of starting a discussion about his legacy in this forum and talking about what his example means to me — and what it should mean to professional investors everywhere.

Why do we choose to honor this man? Perhaps it’s because as a teaching assistant to Benjamin Graham, he watched and guided the creation of this industry from the very beginning. Or perhaps it’s because he belonged to the first class of CFA charterholders, a group of people who set in motion a social movement that helped professionalize the world of investing. He was among the founders of the New York Society of Security Analysts, one of our largest societies, as well as the Financial Analysts Journal, a sister publication to the Enterprising Investor.

Or maybe it’s because, at 109 years old, he still loved the stuff that we professional investors do day in and day out. Kahn was still working when he passed away, even though he had more than earned his retirement and could have moved somewhere with a better climate than New York City and lived a life of leisure.

I Guess He Just Loved This Game.

The investment industry is considered boring by the uninitiated. We are unrepentant geeks. We print out annual reports and read them in alphabetical order. Our nicknames for things — the Swissie, crack spreads, 2s10s — make literally no sense to other people. When our contemporaries are profiled in the media, they often come off as morally bankrupt. This characterization is so common that it’s discussed as a TV Trope.

So when we, or at least, when I see a distinguished investor quietly grinding out alpha because he likes it, I find it inspiring. I like it, too.

And hearing about someone else who likes it makes me feel like a little bit less of a nerd. So in part I honor him because I hope I can retain his enthusiasm. But I also honor him because there is much to learn from his example. In particular, I think he did three things that every professional investor should emulate.

He Read Different News Sources.

One of the more intriguing stories about Irving that I’ve come across is that he was actually responsible for the expansion of the Financial Times to the United States. In the early 1950s, he would — at great expense — procure copies of the pink paper because he was fascinated with European companies. When he later traveled to London, he met with the FT to see if he could convince them to begin publishing in the United States. They laughed at him. By the time he was profiled for CFA Magazine, they had been hand delivering a weekend Financial Times to him for more than 40 years as a way of saying “thank you” and “we’re sorry.”

He Didn’t Keep His Knowledge to Himself.

When Irving got to Wall Street, “analyst” was not a job title. Analysts were called statisticians. We owe the existence of the investment management profession in large part to the work of Irving and his mentor Benjamin Graham, who would trek up from Wall Street to Columbia Business School after work to teach others how to properly analyze companies. Many people would have just turned in year after year of stellar performance and allowed their investors to believe they were magicians instead of passing on their knowledge.

He Kept Learning.

There are very few widely respected investors who don’t spend most of their time engaged in their primary job: learning new stuff. Kahn could have decided after 30 (or 40, 50, 60, or even 70) years of experience that he had all the knowledge he needed, and fallen into the trap of trying to force markets to fit his well-constructed beliefs rather than updating them. Instead, he kept reading.

I imagine that the investment career I have ahead of me will be different in many ways from the one that Kahn had. At the very least, I’ll never have the same difficulty getting a hold of the Financial Times. I hope I can mimic his example in these three important ways though. What about you? What did you learn from him or his example that we should all think about? Let me know in the comments below.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

About the Author(s)
Sloane Ortel

Sloane Ortel publishes The Sloane Zone, an email newsletter that comes when you least expect it and makes more sense than it should. She joined CFA Institute's staff as a sophomore at Fordham University, and was instrumental to the global growth of Enterprising Investor as a collaborator, curator, and commentator over the subsequent eight years.

15 thoughts on “The Reasons We Honor Irving Kahn, CFA”

  1. Gordon Wiebe says:

    Worthy tribute. Appreciated your comments.

    Interesting, the factors you cite regarding Kahn’s work (love the game, read voraciously, constantly learning, generous with knowledge & wisdom, etc.) are common themes amongst investment greats like: Phil Carret, Walter Schloss, Roy Neuberger, Ben Graham, Marty Whitman and of course, Warren Buffett & Charles Munger.

    They’re all an inspiration and lead (or have lead) lives that point the way.

    Regards.

    1. Gordon —

      Many thanks for adding your own to the mix! I agree that this is something that can be generalized to a lot of famous and fantastic investors. In part, these guys seem to have recognized that becoming known as a thoughtful, kind, and forthcoming person is just good business sense. That’s how good deals and ideas come your way. It’s kind of amazing to recognize that aspect of the profession — I thought that the most recent Berkshire letter did a great job investigating and exploring that, though (as ably explained here) the self serving elements of it are not to be ignored.

      Still, it’s difficult to go wrong by loving what you do, reading and learning all the time, and helping out others. I think if these tenets were more widely practiced, we wouldn’t have had to have a summit asking whether finance was a noble profession.

      All best, and thanks for reading!

      Will

  2. ASL jr. says:

    Your guess is right. Not just he loves the game so much, but he rather choose to stay where he is most comfortable doing it.

    1. Antonio —

      A good point! Thanks for adding your thought. Not deviating from his circle of competence (while continuing to learn new stuff) is definitely a big part of his success.

      Thanks for reading!

      Will

  3. Savio Cardozo says:

    Hello William
    That is an interesting eulogy about a man I knew little of – thank you for taking the time to put it together.
    Best wishes
    Savio
    I live in Toronto, right downtown, and have not managed to get the “pink paper” delivered to my door. But it is available in stores…fortunately. However it is the US edition, not the one available in the UK. Deep sigh.

    1. Savio —

      It was my honor. Thanks for reading it! I feel your pain on newspaper delivery. Where I live in Brooklyn, it is at best a 50/50 shot that a paper that is supposed to be delivered will actually make its way to my breakfast table. Thankfully my laptop will bring me the UK edition when I need it, as well as my own assortment of “weird” news sources.

      Cheers for a great weekend! All best —

      Will

  4. Lukas Neely says:

    Great article. He was truly an incredible investor and person. So much to learn from him — if only we had that secret to the fountain of youth. 🙂 Little off topic but there is interesting video of him by the Einstein College of Medicine (Yeshiva) when he was only 104. http://www.einstein.yu.edu/video/?startChapter=253&SCID=28&ts=features#top Enjoy!

    1. Lukas —

      Thanks for sharing the video! It seems like the secret is enjoying what you do. After all, if you’re not having a good time a long life can feel interminable. In some of the research that I did, one of his sons chalked his long life up to good genetics too, noting he didn’t eat particularly well and had smoked until he was fifty years old.

      I’d love to get away with that too!

      Cheers & all best —

      Will

  5. Darshan Gandhi says:

    A really inspirational professional. It is professionals like him who make you realise that there is no end to learning. Moreover, when you love what you do, things just become easy. I am just a beginner in this field and feel that the more you read the more inquisitive you tend to become. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Darshan —

      I totally agree. It’s not just because we have learning products that I agree with you too! Keep reading, and keep learning.

      Will

  6. Leanne Ussher says:

    I learnt that Irving was not only a loyal friend and study of Ben Graham, but also his emissary. Not only did he live out Graham’s micro policies of fundamental investing, he promoted Graham’s macro policy long after Graham had passed on in 1976. In the 1940s Graham had created a group academics and financiers (including Warren Buffett’s father and Irving Kahn) who lobbied for international monetary reform via the creation of a supplementary international commodity reserve currency – backed 100% by a basket of commodity buffer stocks. This would have stabilized a commodity index and created an international counter cyclical monetary reserve. This was similar to Lord Keynes’s original proposal for Bretton Woods. Graham submitted the proposal to the Bretton Woods conference, but of course the US and UK treasuries had already sewn that discussion up. Nevertheless, this proposal remained vibrant among certain Graham supporters, and was reinvigorated by Nicholas Kaldor and Albert Hart who took up the gauntlet in 1964. Hart, continued to hold seminars at Columbia on the topic and Irving would attend. Even when Hart passed on in 1997, Irving was still an active messenger, and continued to promote Graham’s macro ideas. In 1997 he got McGraw Hill to reprint Graham’s 2 books on the topic ‘Storage and Stability’ and ‘World Commodities and World Currency.’ He was now in his 90s, and hired me as a graduate student to create a website with a bibliography on all the writings on the commodity reserve topic (http://bufferstock.org). Together we engaged Perry Mehrling to do research and write on this relatively unknown part of Ben Graham’s theories in 2007 (https://economics.barnard.edu/sites/default/files/inline/monetary_economics_benjamin_graham_revised.pdf), which won him best article of the year in 2012. Irving also inspired the CFA to hold a conference on international monetary reform in 2008 in New York. While many mocked his doggard determination to create support for what was thought to be an outdated idea, he continued to hold onto what was fundamental: the hope that one day our global economic system would appreciate the true fundamentals required for economic growth – our planets provision of raw materials and labor. Thanks to Irving, the study of Graham’s international monetary proposals continues to this day.

  7. Sanjeet Bezalwar says:

    It was really nice to you to take it down… Some one has correctly said “the more u read, the more you learn, the more you learn the more you apply”
    Take the things in positive way and keep Learning and start applying.
    Cheers

  8. Bob Mudra says:

    Will,

    Incredible! What an amazing man. It must have been fantastic to know him. Kahn’s ability to find lower risk, higher value contrarian investments really stands out. He kept his mind fully engaged and paid attention to the details – no wonder he lived to be 109 years old!

    He’s left a great legacy to the profession and to his family.

    Great article. Thanks!

    Bob

  9. Hiren Bhanderi says:

    Bill,

    A very well written article – thank you!

    Gordon Weibe noted a great point – the themes you discuss are common amongst many famous and successful investors. However, it is so strange to see that despite these themes being simple, not many have become as successful. I feel that the other key aspects to their success is their patient and long-term approach, while continuing to learn and share their knowledge.

    Best,
    Hiren.

  10. It has been said many times, the more you love what you do the easier it gets. Thoughtful article.

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