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Lauren Cohen: Harvard’s Powerlifting Finance Prof

HBS Finance Professor Lauren Cohen. Courtesy photo

‘EVERY CLASS I TEACH I THINK OF AS AN ADVENTURE’

At Harvard, Cohen teaches the core Introduction to Finance course for first-year MBAs as well as several advanced electives on investments, from Investment Strategies to Stock Pitching. For Cohen, every class is something of a escapade. “Every class I teach I think of it as an adventure we are taking together,” he muses. “Every time you go to a new intellectual place, we find new things and we learn new things.”

Judging from his work schedule, he can’t wait to get to work. On a typical day, Cohen wakes up at 4:30 a.m. From 6 to 6:30, he sweats his way through a powerlifting routine, ultimately taking the bus to Harvard Business School and getting to his office in Baker Library by 7:30 a.m. “We turn into pumpkins at 8 o’clock,” he laughs.

For teaching inspiration, he nods to Andre Perold, an emeritus HBS professor of finance and banking. “He could read a menu and it would sound profound,” Cohen says with full admiration. “I went to watch him. He goes in and poses a question: ‘What is beta?’ And then he asks the student who answers the question, ‘Is that really what it is?’ I tried the same thing and they all said, ‘Yes, it is.’ It flopped. I had to find my own way.”

‘HE LOVES FINANCE BUT WHAT MATTERS MOST TO HIM IS HIS FAMILY’

That he did. Cohen’s students rain praise on him, admiring him not only for his thoughtfully provocative classes but also for his family values. “As a professor for the Required Curriculum Finance 1 class, Lauren is tasked with the impossibly difficult job of teaching a classroom that has a mix of both former Goldman/Blackstone PE guys and former Teach for America teachers. He performs admirably,” says Daniel Siegel, a student in the Class of 2018. “Professor Cohen is what I would think the ideal professor for the ‘millennial student’ looks like. In at least one class per week, Professor Cohen would share stories about his wife, his kids, or his latest weightlifting pursuits. It was clear as a student that while he loves finance (and has a ridiculously great CV to back that up), what matters most to him is his family.”

Pasha Nahass, another HBS student who has taken Cohen’s core course, says that the professor builds an environment in class that is “truly comfortable and conducive to learning. For those of us with no finance backgrounds, our first finance course can be extremely stressful. But Professor Cohen kept the class energized and light, and this promoted a relaxed environment where we could take intellectual risks without fear of looking foolish.”

Cohen is not merely a brilliant teacher, however. He has also done a fair amount of groundbreaking research in his field. “The line between teaching and learning is porous,” he maintains. “I learn from the students in the class. I learn something new each time and there is nothing better in this world than learning something new about incentives, agency costs, or other things that interest me.”

A FLURRY OF HATE MAIL FROM HIS RESEARCH ON PATENT TROLLS

Professor Lauren Cohen on the powerlifting platform. Courtesy photo

Some of his most cited research derives from an insight he had while on a six-hour drive from Chicago to a powerlifting competition in Southern Illinois. On NPR he heard a story about truckers losing their jobs because of a drought in the Midwest. “I would never have made that connection, that there would have been a supply chain shock,” he remembers.

“I put that into practice in looking at equity markets. Firms have to report their major customers, so I could estimate the supply chain impacts across the universe. When Ford Motor reports higher sales, the maker of the hoods on Ford cars and trucks will go up. But it has enabled the creation of a customer portfolio so investors can maximize outcomes.”

To Cohen, finance is not just about the numbers. “I push on intuition,” he says. “Finance is how the world works. If you understand that incentives drive behavior, it is the pyramid upon which every good business school is built.”

Cohen’s exploration of patent trolls — a 10-year study of patent litigation with policy implications — fueled a pile of hate mail from firms, called non-practicing entities, that amass patents for the purpose of suing other firms for patent infringement. Cohen and his colleagues found that firms that are targeted by patent trolls significantly disinvest in R&D, and are more likely lose critical talent or go bankrupt due to the litigation.

A HEADSTONE INSCRIPTION FOR A ROCKSTAR PROFESSOR

His latest revelation comes from tracking changes in the 10K documents publicly filed by public companies. “We look at the full text of 10Ks and look specifically for big changes (from one year to the next),” he explains. “These changes massively predict big returns on the negative side. If you create a portfolio of these, you get these huge alphas.” He calls the phenomenon “lazy prices” because, he says, “lazy investors don’t read the 10Ks and compare them.”

For all his formidable professional accomplishments, Cohen is most proud of being married to Nicole, clinical faculty member in the special education program at BU whom he calls a “superhero,” and of being a father to four children (ages 7, 5, 3, and 1). “If I wasn’t a professor, I would be a stay-at-home dad or a nanny, because I love kids,” he says.

Asked the best way to describe himself, he says he would sum it up with a phrase he can envison on his headstone:

“Adoring Father — everything else were footnotes.”

DON’T MISS: THE FULL 2017 ROSTER OF THE WORLD’S 40 MOST OUTSTANDING BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSORS UNDER 40

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