Academic (Ir)relevance

Meet the professor putting research back at the heart of investing—and the asset manager who’s helping him.

CIO-February-2015-Scene-And-Heard-Story-2-Victo-NgaiArt by Victo Ngai“Saying something is ‘academic’ means it is irrelevant in almost every language…” says Sir Andrew Likierman, the dean of London Business School (LBS). “Apart from in Serbo-Croat.” (In the Slavic language, it is taken literally and viewed as a positive.)

We are sipping university cafeteria coffee and looking out over the Regent’s Park boating lake on a chilly January morning.

Sir Andrew is right. The term almost universally means immaterial or inconsequential. “If the Tea Party wins the next US presidential election…”; “If CIO hosted an event after which there wasn’t a great party…” These could be dismissed as academic: They are not going to happen.

Most discussions and research never leave the corridors of academia, but LBS and its new partners don’t accept it is all irrelevant.

“It’s important to take research and implement it in the real world—there’s a lot to be done,” says Likierman.

LBS’ partner in creating the Institute of Asset Management, which—according to the blurb—is “aimed at advancing research and best practices in the global asset management community,” is AQR. The initiative is to last 10 years.

A man in a blue suit and round, black-rimmed glasses appears, popping his head around the door. He could be an economics lecturer, but he is actually AQR Co-Founder David Kabiller. He settles in to a plastic chair.

“Apparently academia is an irrelevance…” I start, with a wry smile to Sir Andrew.

“Except in Serbo-Croat,” he juts in. I nod him the point.

“And that is what we are trying to change,” begins Kabiller.

There are to be conferences, courses, and “reach-out” opportunities to LBS students, but also to the asset management sector. Prizes for research and the best, new applicable ideas are to be distributed too.

“It’s a collaboration between accounting, finance, and economics,” says Sir Andrew. “We want to create something and delve into matters of interest to all these sectors.”

“We want the partnership to have made a difference in 10 years,” adds Kabiller.

“It’s not about profit and loss,” says Sir Andrew. “And we have no ax to grind.”

“It’s about encouraging best practice and discovering new things,” says Kabiller—who, it must be said, has helped his firm to great profits.

And if they discover AQR has had it wrong all this time?

“I’m confident we won’t,” he says with a grin, “but we are always looking for ways to improve.”

The interview is bluntly interrupted when a hairy guy (who probably has a PhD in electronics) comes to fiddle with a machine in the corner of the room.

I bid them goodbye and wish them srečno for the project. In Serbo-Croat, it means “good luck.”