Yes, that Really Was Ash Williams at Milken

By Christine Giordano

If you thought you caught a glimpse of the briefly retired Ash Williams while hobnobbing at Milken, you weren’t mistaken. 

For months, eyes had been watching for where Williams would resurface after his September retirement from the $250 billion State Board of Administration of Florida (where he was considered one of the most respected CIOs in the industry, and had also been chair of the Council of Institutional Investors.) He wowed the industry recently when he signed with JP Morgan Asset Management as vice chair. Interestingly, because there is no chair position, Williams will report from Tallahassee directly to Keith Cahill, head of North American Institutional.

His unique skillset in being both a successful investor and political savant has been well-recognized. At his Florida SBA post, Williams reported to Florida’s governor, CFO and attorney general.) He also led an investment team that covered the Florida Retirement System’s defined benefit and defined contribution plans as well as the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund and Florida PRIME, a cash management fund for governmental entities.

His trailing 10-year annualized return was 9.33% for the pension fund and 29.46% for 2021. He had worked in Florida’s legislative and executive branches early in his career, and left the Sunshine State to work on Wall Street, where he held positions at investment firms such as managing director at F­­­­­ir Tree Partners and president and CEO of Schroders. He left his hedge fund position and returned to the Florida SBA after the Great Financial Crisis to ensure the plan would be in good health for the millions who rely on it.

Industry insiders say Williams will not only advise JPMAM on all things pensions, but also sit with and advise pension investment committees. Having deep knowledge of the policy process, he may also help to influence the shape of retirement plans of the future, as many states debate whether to change DB plans and the U.S. confronts a serious retirement savings crisis.

Some who are close to the SBA were holding their breath, wondering aloud if Williams would return in six months to retake the CIO helm after his retirement plan allowed him to do so. (Rules of the retirement system made it a losing situation if Williams didn’t retire when he did.)  But before leaving the Florida plan, Williams shored it up with Lamar Taylor, who is now interim executive director and CIO. Taylor’s background as both a lawyer and accountant who had worked alongside Williams for years as COO and CFO, is rumored to have an unassuming but formidable presence on the Street, and was integral to major deals and complex transactions at the board level for the past 15 years.  

“Anybody who has been holding their breath [for my return to the Florida SBA] should relax and exhale,” Williams said with a chuckle during an interview with Markets Group, (flanked by his new JP Morgan public relations team), adding “the state board under Lamar Taylor's leadership is just outstanding and is deep and it's capable. So, I would not worry about that.” He said, however, that he truly did have a tough time leaving the Florida SBA because he “thoroughly enjoyed the investment industry because it's a constantly changing landscape.” Williams, who is known to be both intellectually curious and quick-witted, could often be found in discussions about financial and geopolitical matters, whether or not he was retired. The vicissitudes and possibilities found within the markets keep him fascinated.

He said he relates markets to time at sea, where shifts in the wind can transform an experience from high-adrenaline stormy seas to tranquil sailing.

And, during the past six months while he was almost retired, change it did.

He’s come back to an entirely different investment terrain, with returns challenged by inflation, supply chain issues, reversal of accommodative central bank policy, and the remains of the pandemic. Risks of recession and stagflation over the next couple of years are now part of the discussion.

As is his style, Williams reflected, “If you had asked anybody six months ago, when we were in the middle of a pandemic: ‘Could it get any more confusing, or worse?’ They probably would have said ‘No.’ But now we have a shooting war in Europe. Well, that adds a few dimensions that weren't there a while ago,” he said.

“And inflation also seems like ‘transient’ was a rather aspirational adjective used not so long ago. So, just in that short period of time, we've had a huge change. And huge adaptation needs to take place for investors to manage that change and prosper in it and manage the consequent risks. So, I'm very happy to have come back.”

So, what does he have his eye on?

The big issues are obvious: the newly found inflation and the situation in Europe; all manner of disruptive forces, including supply chain issues, commodity prices, including wheat and the fact “12% of the world’s calories come out of Ukraine and Russia.” He’s concerned that these issues will lead to food insecurity, famine in various parts of the world, and more polarization in the form of income inequality. He is also observing the percentage of strategists and economists seeing the probability of a recession within the next year has more than doubled in the past few months.

Williams, 67, says he’ll serve as a “utility infielder” in his part-time role, to extend the reach of the firm while also helping it to think through modifications and ways it might choose to participate in new market opportunities and new strategies while avoiding risks. “It's just another set of eyes… and hopefully, we’ll all prosper together,” he said. He’ll be working with his old friends Mary Callahan Erdoes (CEO) and Bob Michele (Managing Director, CIO and Head of Global Fixed Income, Currency and Commodities (GFICC)) and Steve Lear (Managing Director, U.S. CIO within GFICC), whom he worked with when he was at Schroders in the 1990s. And he considers Jamie Dimon a “stunningly good leader” and “the most distinguished banking executive in the world.”

Williams said the industry attracts worldwide brilliance, and he chose JPMAM mainly for its culture, intelligence and diversity of his colleagues, and its ability to be “broad and deep with a global footprint.”

It’s no secret that its banks around the world give JPMAM real-time transaction and credit card data that offer a global understanding of consumers, as well as actionable insights. Although Williams’ role will be centered around North American institutional investors, he’ll be able to tap the knowledge of the bank’s hive of intelligencia with “literally 1,000 times the number of employees that Florida SBA had, including physical presence in every important market on the planet,” he said.

Perhaps his dual political and financial skillset will parlay him into a position to help offset the widening wealth and retirement funding gaps in the U.S.

“We really need, as a nation, to form some policy around incentivizing people to save for retirement early on. The best way to do this is through the workplace, making it mandatory with escalators in savings rates over time,” said Williams. “I think we’d help a lot of working people preserve lives of independence and dignity in their retirement. And we’d also save the taxpayer a ton of money because those same people won’t become wards of the state because they're elderly and impoverished. Prudent and well-aligned retirement schemes benefit workers, employers and society.”

If the old saying is true that only boring people are bored, then perhaps we knew all along Williams would never stay inactive. There should be little surprise that he is back in the center of the institutional world as the leader he has proven himself to be.