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I had the edge on them... I knew the extent of my ignorance

Neuberger Berman’s Judith Vale talks to Simona Stankovska about her path from budding mathematician to fund manager.

By Simona Stankovska | Published Aug 20, 2012 | comments

She may have been a risk-taker as a young woman, but as Judith Vale celebrates her 20th year as manager of the $11.6bn (£7.3bn) Neuberger Berman Genesis fund, she says the vehicle’s impeccable performance record has been built through caution and diversification.

The self-taught manager first dreamt of becoming a mathematician after signing up to major in mathematics at Yale University. She says that her unconventional path from there into fund management gave her the edge she needed to deliver a cumulative return of 943.1 per cent since she took over the fund in July 1992 to date (August 13).

This compares very favourably with the 472.8 per cent return from the S&P 500 index of US shares over the same time period.

“In a crazy way, I think that this very non-standard background helped me as an investor because when I got into the industry I knew that I knew nothing, whereas the people who were in my CFA class, who had their MBAs, thought they knew everything but probably knew as little as I did. I had the edge on them because I knew the extent of my ignorance,” she says.

Ms Vale’s path from budding mathematician to fund manager was by no means a straightforward one. After realising that a career in mathematics was not as exciting as she had first thought it might be, the manager later switched to majoring in Russian literature.

The led Ms Vale to Munich in the 1970s, where she critiqued Russian-language news reports for Radio Liberty, then part of Radio Free Europe. The money was good, but Ms Vale was not one to be enticed by the big bucks and, with a desire to travel the world and a penchant for painting, she then took a leap of faith and moved to the Greek island of Hydra to pursue a career as an artist.

Looking back, however, Ms Vale realises that the risk of ending up jobless and penniless was huge. She laughs: “When I look back at it, there was no kind of risk management but I wanted a challenge. I wanted change and I wanted excitement.

“I took my savings from my first job and I rented a house in Greece for two years to explore this idea of doing art. I loved drawing and painting, and I had this crazy idea that I could be an artist. Frankly I didn’t do a whole lot of art, but I had a good time and learnt some Greek,” she adds.

From lack of funds to running funds

After running out of money in Greece, Ms Vale finally accepted the inevitable – it was time to return to her native US and get a “proper” job. On her return she met with a fellow graduate who was in the investment business, an old friend who first opened her eyes to the world of finance.

“When I heard what he did it just made sense to me and I thought, I can do this. My only problem was that I had absolutely no training for it,” explains Ms Vale. She attempted to secure a job at her friend’s firm, but admits it didn’t come easily.

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