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Harry Markowitz, the renowned scholar who was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for research that helped to revolutionize investing and who went on to become one of UC San Diego’s most revered faculty members, has died. He was 95.
Markowitz died on June 22 of pneumonia and sepsis at a San Diego hospital, Mary McDonald, a longtime assistant to Markowitz told The New York Times.
He was best known as the father of modern portfolio theory, which revolutionized the management of financial portfolios. Markowitz made it clear through empirical research why investors should diversify investments in the stock market using combinations of assets instead of individual securities.
The framework he helped pioneer showed the correlation between low-risk investments and low returns, and high-risk investments and higher returns. This innovative theory earned him the 1990 Nobel Prize in economics alongside William Sharpe and Merton Miller.
He moved to San Diego in 1993 and never left.
“I was trained at the University of Chicago; I taught full-time, part-time and lectured all over the world; but the Rady School and UC San Diego are my home,” Markowitz said in 2017 when he made a $4 million donation to the school.
Until Markowitz came along, the investment world assumed that the best stock market strategy was simply to choose the shares of a group of companies that were thought to have the best prospects.
But in 1952, he published his dissertation, “Portfolio Selection,” which overturned this traditional approach with what became known as modern portfolio theory.
Sharpe, 89, who shared the 1990 Nobel Prize with Markowitz, said the origins of today’s financial management and investing sector can be traced back to Markowitz. Sharpe, who is a professor of finance, emeritus at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, recalls seeing Markowitz a few times a year at investing conferences and sitting in the back rows chatting about finance.
“The whole field of finance that’s taught in business school it all has some of Harry’s ideas and some of my ideas and some of the ideas of a zillion people who built on those ideas,” Sharpe said in a phone interview. “So he was a giant.”
Beyond his revolutionary contributions to the fields of finance and business, Markowitz was known in the San Diego community for his generosity and kind nature.
John Freeman, a retired San Diego investment manager, said that Markowitz was “a brilliant guy in a bunch of different areas,” but above all else, he was interesting because he was interested in other people.
“For all of his brilliance, he was a wondrous soul, a true unicorn in that realm of self-interest,” said Freeman, who noted that Markowitz “was proud of his intellect” but “never employed his status.”
During Freeman’s finance career, he worked more closely with Sharpe, but he would see Markowitz a few times a year at conferences. He remarked that both men “had that magic of incredible intellect and tremendous human spirit” and were just “joyous to be around.”
He noted that the contributions of the Nobel Prize-winning research continue to touch the lives of everyday people — without it, index funds and 401(k) investing as we know it wouldn’t exist.
“On a macro-level … they helped millions through their improvement in the world of investment management and understanding diversification and the relationship between risk and return,” he said. “They’ve helped hundreds or thousands on a more personal basis by being supportive or critiquing stuff, or just being encouraging.”
Tom Anichini, chief investment strategist at San Diego-based GuidedChoice, a retirement planning firm that Markowitz co-founded, worked with him for nearly a decade. He was hired by Markowitz to work at the firm and he describes the many Thursday afternoon meetings that Markowitz joined in the office as some of the greatest memories of his career.
He described Markowitz as “a sociable guy” who despite his numerous accolades “treated everyone like a potential friend.”
“You knew when Harry had arrived at the office, because the typical client office noise would suddenly be broken up by sporadic bouts of laughter as he would make his way through the office, greeting different people,” he recalled.
Anichini said Markowitz was much more than an economist or an academic — he loved his family and making people laugh. He remembers people being surprised to learn that Markowitz answered his own phone, Anichini said, but it made sense because Markowitz “loved being talked to.”
Lynda Claassen, director of special collections and archives at UC San Diego’s Geisel Library, said his groundbreaking research will be housed on campus.
“Economics can be very difficult for people to understand and he could find that frustrating because he wanted people to understand,” Claassen said. “But what I remember more is how much he loved and engaged with life, and how charming he could be. He always seemed to have a twinkle in his eye.”
In addition to the $4 million endowment for the Harry Markowitz Fellowship, he donated his Nobel Prize medal and other awards to UC San Diego.
He taught at the Rady School of Management as an adjunct professor from 2007 until 2019, when he was in his early 90s. In a 2015 interview with the Union-Tribune, Markowitz discussed his thoughts on aging.
“I reject the words ‘old age’ as they apply to me. Except for not being able to stand too long, I am still me. Someday I will hit a wall, but I haven’t.”
He added: “Some people marginalize themselves. They’ll retire and say, ‘I will not work. I will not teach. I will find retired friends and drink coffee.’ They sit on a park bench all day. They have marginalized themselves. I won’t be doing that.”
Harry Max Markowitz was born on Aug. 24, 1927, in Chicago, the only child of Morris and Mildred Markowitz, who owned a small grocery store. In high school, he began to read the original works of Charles Darwin and such classical philosophers as René Descartes and David Hume. In financial terms, Hume’s work lay behind the maxim that past performance is not a guide to the future.
He continued on this track in a two-year bachelor’s program at the University of Chicago, where, inspired in part by Hume’s focus on the uncertainty of knowledge, he decided to pursue economics.
Markowitz learned from renowned figures such as Milton Friedman, Tjalling Koopman and Jacob Marschak and he went on to specialize in risk analysis, particularly as it applies to the stock market.
At the RAND Corporation, during stints in the 1950s and ’60s, Markowitz worked on practical problems in American industry that required the development of simulation methods.
He went on to work for IBM and General Electric, where he built models of manufacturing plants. In 1962, he co-founded the California Analysis Center Incorporated, a computer software company that would become CACI International.
Markowitz’s first two marriages, to Luella Johnson and Gloria Hardt, ended in divorce. In 1970, he married Barbara Gay. She died in 2021.
He is survived by two children from his first marriage, Susan Ulvestad and David Markowitz; two from his second, Laurie Raskin and Steven Markowitz; his wife’s son from a previous marriage, James Marks; 13 grandchildren; and more than a dozen great-grandchildren.
U-T staff writer Gary Robbins and the New York Times contributed to this report.
2:35 p.m. June 28, 2023: Additional comments added from William Sharpe who shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in economics with Harry Markowitz.
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