Women in Bondland : The Indicator from Planet Money Finance is notorious for being a boys club. Marilyn Cohen has worked in the bond market for 30 years. She talks about what it takes to succeed in her field and why there aren't more women.
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Women in Bondland

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Women in Bondland

Women in Bondland

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Finance and economics have always been kind of a boys' club - more than kind of. That is changing. About half of financial managers are women now. About a third of financial analysts are women. But a lot of the industry is still very male, especially the bond market. Fewer than 10 percent of bond fund managers are women.

Now, bonds are debt. A company if it wants to raise money will issue debt in the form of bonds. And if you are an investor, you can buy this bond and essentially lend the company money and eventually be paid back with a little bit of interest. And the number of women managing bond portfolios, in other words buying and selling these bonds, has actually dropped over the last few years. Marilyn Cohen is one of the few. She's president and owner of Envision Capital Management.

MARILYN COHEN: I regret to say it is mostly men.

VANEK SMITH: Like, how much mostly?

COHEN: Well, a lot more. You know, and this is for, you know, well in excess of 30 years' experience. But alas, I just have never met a lot of women in bond land.

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, a conversation with Marilyn Cohen about the bond market - what she likes about it, what it takes to succeed in bonds and why there are so few women in bond land.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Marilyn Cohen has been a bond manager for over 30 years. She is just the most put-together woman you will ever meet. She's very stylish, very bright. She just kind of fills up a room and radiates fitness. She brought her dog into the studio with her, who is also very put-together and was wearing, like, a little baseball hat and a little scarf and was just perfectly behaved. Marilyn also brought the whole staff cookies because apparently she stress bakes.

What time do you get to work in the morning?

COHEN: I get to work at 6. I get up at 4, and I'm at work at 6.

VANEK SMITH: Marilyn works in Los Angeles, and the bond market operates on East Coast time - early hours in bond land. And when Marilyn wakes up, this is what goes through her head.

COHEN: Every morning when I get up, I think, how can I ameliorate any type of downside? You know, I want - you want to be ahead of the curve. A company that you think technologically is way behind the curve, that means they're either going out of business or they're going to just - they're going to die, and their bonds are going to get downgraded.

VANEK SMITH: In other words, Marilyn wakes up every morning thinking about what she should be worried about. And Marilyn says this is characteristic of bond people as opposed to stock market people - the equities crowd.

COHEN: We are different because we are taught to look for things that can go wrong. We're always looking at the cup as half-empty as opposed to equity investors, however big or however small they are, they look at that cup is always half-full and, wow, it's going to get more full.

VANEK SMITH: Marilyn says stock people are all about growth, all about believing that a company is going to grow, that the economy is going to grow, that everything is going to get more and bigger, and we're all going to get richer. Bonds people, on the other hand, care about whether a company can pay back its debts. So they care about credit quality. And Marilyn says that a lot of different things can influence credit quality. So bond people just have more to worry about.

COHEN: I think we bond people may be a little bit wired differently than the equity people. You have to know so much more other than the earnings of a company. You have to look at globally how the bond market is and how our market relates. You have to look at not only fed policy but the economy. I think the variables are much more numerous and much more interesting to keep your arms around rather than, oh, they're going to beat their earnings numbers - ta-da.

VANEK SMITH: All told, the bond market is worth about $40 trillion. That's about $10 trillion more than the stock market is worth. And the bond market is a bigger, more foundational part of the economy, says Marilyn. And when something goes wrong with the bond market, it's bad. Case in point - the credit crisis. Mortgage bonds basically almost took out the U.S. economy. Marilyn says that was by far the most stressful and most traumatic time in her career. She still remembers the moment when she realized how bad it was going to get. It was 2007, and she was standing in her office in front of the television watching Jim Cramer talk about the Federal Reserve on CNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STREET SIGNS")

JIM CRAMER: And Bernanke is being an academic. It is no time to be an academic. He has no idea how bad it is out there. He has no idea. He has no idea.

ERIN BURNETT: Cramer.

CRAMER: Open the discount window. Cut the rate. Relieve the pressure.

BURNETT: OK, but if comes out next week and cuts rates...

CRAMER: Relieve the pressure.

BURNETT: ...You're going to have - that's going to cause Armageddon.

CRAMER: No, we have Armageddon.

COHEN: He was right. I called my young protege in. And I said, Alex (ph), I want you to see and feel this hysteria on TV. This is the system coming apart at the seams. There's nothing like panic. And not only are you feeling panicky but the mass panic.

VANEK SMITH: So this is the bond market - steady and safe and then punctuated by moments of Armageddon, and almost exclusively male. But here's the thing - the women who do go into the bond market do really well. A new study from Morningstar found that bond funds managed exclusively by women significantly outperformed bond funds managed by men and also outperformed funds managed by gender-mixed groups. I asked Marilyn why she thought women have a better track record in the bond market.

COHEN: I have no idea why. I know that usually women, at least from female clients, they're usually more conservative, more preservation-of-capital-oriented. So they don't take these wild-ass kind of, you know, ideas and trades that maybe a man would. So they maybe make less on the upside but preserve on the downside. That's just a guess, though.

VANEK SMITH: So women take fewer wild-ass risks, and that can help bring success in bond land. Evidently, though, in spite of their success, women are just not going into bonds.

COHEN: And I think the reasons are pretty obvious. If you're going to get a MBA and go into the old boys' - try to break into the old boys' network, you better go where the money is. And the money is on the equity side, not the bond side. We are the lowest profit margin sector around because our fees are the lowest around.

VANEK SMITH: And Marilyn says at the same time that working in the bond market is paying less, it demands more.

COHEN: All in, all the time because you can't be partially in. I mean, you have to live, eat and breathe it. You know, you wouldn't start Monday morning without reading Barron's and all the Bloombergs and listening to all the - you know, all the programs, all of the investment programs. And I think that it is all-consuming. And you know what? A lot of women want to have a balanced life. And do I have a balanced life? Absolutely not.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Just no.

COHEN: I've been married 41 years to the same man - great, great guy. But I knew at the beginning I'm not going to have children. I want a career. And I know I am going to eventually have my own firm. So I'm going to have both feet in. And, you know, women have more tradeoffs now. And, you know, I think that may be part of it.

VANEK SMITH: Looking back, are you happy with that decision?

COHEN: I have been the luckiest person in the world. Absolutely. I was in - started out the business in the right time when interest rates went up to 15, 20 percent in 1979.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, this was, like, Volcker era.

COHEN: Absolutely Volcker era - '79, '81, you know, '84. I've been through a lot of bull markets, a lot of bear markets. And it has been an exciting, just horrifically fast ride. It really has. So I have been very, very lucky. And, you know, as I go into my twilight years, I had the best of all possible worlds.

VANEK SMITH: In all of her 30 years in the bond market, Marilyn says she has never had a female protege. But she says it could still happen.

COHEN: And if you're out there, call me. I'd love to talk to you (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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