Finance professor David Kass first looked at the New York Times’ business section at age 12. Like many boys, he was mostly interested in the sports articles.
He became invested, literally, when his grandfather gave him his first stock: Long Island Lighting. He had five shares at $20 per share of this electric utility. All of a sudden, Kass wanted to follow the market.
“If my Long Island Lighting went up an eighth of a point (smallest unit of price change at that time), I was all excited because I had made 63 cents that day,” Kass says. “A few years later, the Federal Reserve was raising interest rates, and the stock went down. That wasn’t as much fun.”
Through reading every day, he discovered how increases in profits and dividends usually resulted in higher prices of individual stocks, while increases in interest rates generally lowered the prices of all stocks.
Today, as a clinical professor of finance at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, he still begins each class with a news quiz — for himself. He’ll study The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post and CNBC before class. Students then gets a chance to stump him.
“I am a newsaholic,” Kass says. “90% of the time, I’ll be able to answer their questions. I will then briefly discuss any major finance or economics news story that the students did not mention.”
As a high school student in New York City, Kass spent one summer on Wall Street, working for a brokerage firm as an errand boy. His official title was “runner.” In the pre-internet days, when a customer of the brokerage firm sold shares, he had to take the signed paper certificate to the transfer agent (bank) for that stock.
His favorite task involved picking up research reports for the partners. They required him to get five copies of a daily report from another brokerage firm, but because they were free, he would always take a sixth for himself. Through watching the stock symbols and prices at lunch and reading the reports, 15-year-old Kass developed some insight into the stock market.
“I was convinced I was the youngest person on Wall Street that summer,” Kass says.
The next year, with his experience, he got a pay bump and became a clerk. “I’m 16 years old, and I’m moving up the ladder,” Kass says.
However, he decided to study electrical engineering for his undergraduate and graduate degrees, although his heart was in finance.
He did keep a portfolio on the side during that time, saving up to $500 each summer to invest in a personal fund he managed through college.
Before taking the leap to finance through a PhD program, Kass decided he would try teaching high school mathematics in the New York City public school system.
“I had to do some yelling at the kids. That — I did not like,” Kass says. “But when I was able to teach, I really enjoyed it.”
He pursued his PhD at Harvard University in a program where only six students were admitted. Only one other student completed the program in addition to Kass. After that, he planned to go back to New York City to teach at the City University of New York.
“But the city went bankrupt,” Kass says. “If anything, they were laying teachers off.”
Faced with an uncertain path to tenure as a professor at any university, Kass instead ventured to Washington, D.C., to become an economist. He held senior positions at the Federal Trade Commision, General Accounting Office, the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
In 2004, he remembered why he got his PhD in the first place: to teach. He joined the Maryland Smith faculty as an adjunct professor in the MBA program.
Now frequently quoted in publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Bloomberg, and appearing on CNBC and other cable channels, Kass is seen as an expert on the economy, markets and, especially, Warren Buffett.
“He has a track record of being reliable and being insightful,” says Tomas Garchitorena, Kass’s former student and teaching assistant. “It’s because of this consistency, why a lot of these writers are looking to go for him for insight that other people just don’t have.”
Kass’s Buffett blog began as a passion project in 2010 on the occasion of Buffett’s 80th birthday, but he’s now seen as a leading expert on the well-known billionaire. He became a Buffett follower before it was cool.
“In 1980, I picked up a book called ‘The Money Masters’ by John Train. I immediately turned to the back of the book, to look at the portfolios of these money managers,” Kass says. “Seven out of eight were holding the hot stocks of the previous year. And then there was one portfolio that was different: high quality stocks that were beneath the radar such as American Express, Capital Cities Broadcasting and the Washington Post. I thought, ‘Who is this?’”
And thus began Kass’s Buffett obsession. Every year for 10 years he brought students to the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, and is regularly contacted by reporters to comment on Berkshire Hathaway. On four occasions he was invited to bring 20 MBA students to Omaha for private meetings with Buffett.
“The first time Bloomberg TV invited me to appear for a 5-minute live TV interview on Warren Buffett, I was worried that if I said something that was incorrect, it would be all over the internet forever,” Kass says. “So the night before, I spent three hours reading over all of my notes. It turned out that one of Buffett’s quotes that I studied the night before provided me with an excellent response to a critical question about Buffett that was asked at the very end of the interview.
These days, Kass is frequently seen in the hallways of Van Munching Hall, sometimes late in the evening, carrying a large box of papers — teaching materials and informational handouts, Garchitorena says.
Like a Wall Street runner for his students, Kass makes sure they know what’s going on in the world and how it relates to finance.
“I jokingly tell my students that I live here,” says Kass, sitting in his office, surrounded by stacks of news articles, research and assignments. “My door is always open.”
— Kira Barrett, Communications Writer at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business