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. 

This was written for CFA Institute and first published on the Enterprising Investor.