From the Global Financial Crisis to hurricanes, Ashbel “Ash” Williams is a man who seems to be able to head into the storm- iest of investment markets and steer his ship to positive returns.
After the crash of 2008, Williams could have weathered fairer
seas at his job as a managing director of the hedge fund Fir Tree
Partners, but left it in October to return to his native Florida and the
SBA at one of its most critical times in the state’s financial history.
Following the devastating stock market crash, Florida’s SBA
had just witnessed the Florida Retirement System’s assets go from
the previous high of $141.3 billion in October 2007 to $83.7 billion
on March 9, 2009. Florida’s local government investment pool,
operated by the SBA, also saw a classic ‘run on the bank’ when
participants were made aware that a small percentage of asset-backed investments were downgraded, with outflows approaching
$14 billion, cutting the fund’s balance in half before the trustees
froze the account. This was all following a torrent of eight hurricanes that had hit Florida in 2004 and 2005 that fully utilized the
resources of The Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, also administered by the SBA. Williams was taking the helm arguably during
one of the worst years in SBA’s history.
But Williams had taken risks before. Early in his career,
Williams gained his political sea legs by working as an executive assistant to two House speakers—J. Hyatt Brown and Ralph
Haben—in the Florida House of Representatives. From 1991
through 1996, he worked as executive director of the Florida SBA,
and then left the state where his fore fathers resided for more than
100 years for chilly New York and the private sector.
“Leaving a comfortable life at Florida SBA in 1996 for the
private sector and New York City was risky, but it proved to be a
positive, life-changing event for our entire family,” he said. From
1996 to 1999, he was president of Schroder Capital Management,
the US asset management arm of Schroders, before becoming a
managing director at Fir Tree Partners.
Upon returning to Florida’s SBA, Williams knew the tasks
ahead were as much about rebuilding confidence after the shock of
the financial crash as they were about improving its funded status.
“I returned to the SBA to rebuild the organization and its repu-
tation after a crisis of confidence and reputational damage arising
from credit-related liquidity problems and redemptions from an
SBA-managed local government cash pool,” he told CIO. “Occur-
ring at the onset of the great financial crisis, the cash pool problems
led into a protracted period of painfully public SBA criticism and
doubt that worsened with the GFC.”
Luckily, the SBA has always been inclined to take a calculated
political risk to capture needed investment authority or resources,
he said, and has since reaped the benefits. When the FRS was
created in the early 1970s, the only allowable investments were trea-
suries and investment-grade bonds.
“Over the years, we have worked with the legislature and earned
the trust to expand investment authority to include almost everything
from treasuries to frontier equities, including real estate, private equity,
venture capital, distressed debt, infrastructure,” Williams said.
THE CIO INDUSTRY
Chief Investment Officer, Florida State Board of Administration
Art by Chris Buzelli / chrisbuzelli.com