Ben Powell

Meet the strategist: Ben Powell

BlackRock’s Chief Investment Strategist for APAC Ben Powell shares how childhood curiosity led him to a career in finance, what he has learned from jiu-jitsu and more.

Q: What led you to a career in finance?

A: I was never a kid who was happy to take things as they were. I had a natural curiosity, and I’m still kind of that annoying kid at school who’s always asking “why?” In the town in England where I grew up, some shops went out of business and some didn’t. I wanted to understand why that was the case. That led me in school into economics.

I didn’t come from a banking background. In university, I made a mistake, thinking the harder something is, the better it must be. I had been told corporate finance was the hardest and most unpleasant role at a bank that one can get. So, I managed to get a corporate finance internship at a European bank. I don’t think that was the best analysis I’ve ever conducted.

During my internship, I received permission to go down to the trading floor. This was in the olden days when trading floors were different than they are today. People who didn’t understand what was going either thought “this is horrendous” in terms of the noise and the seeming chaos and hullabaloo, or they loved it. I was category two. I then fairly quickly left turned into a markets role and joined UBS’ equities business in London.

Q: What was the biggest challenge of your career?

A: The 2008 global financial crisis (GFC). I was working at a bank [UBS in London] in the equities business, and there was a sense of not knowing which banks were going to be around next week or even tomorrow. The visceral nature of the experience, the uncertainty, was a challenge, and there were stressful and frightening moments.

It was unnerving but also extremely interesting intellectually and, dare I say, enlightening. It was probably the greatest learning experience in an accelerated manner that anyone could wish for.  The things we didn’t think were possible started to happen with increasing frequency. I received a crash course in funding markets.

Q: What is your approach as BlackRock’s Chief Investment Strategist for APAC, a role you took on earlier this year after many years working on the sell side across assets and geographies?

A: It’s still early days, but it can best be described as collaborative. Asia is a large, diverse and complicated place. This means I rely on the various competent people at BlackRock in order to be on top of what is going on in the different Asia markets. I also represent the views of my esteemed BlackRock Investment Institute colleagues in Asia. Finally, with the cross-asset nature of my role, I’m fortunate enough to be able to think about how markets interlink, and that can be helpful in driving insights for the firm in Asia and beyond.

Q: Where do you see opportunities for global investors in Asia?

A: China’s multi-trillion-dollar equity and bond markets opening up is very exciting and unprecedented. Over the longer term, China is going to be an ever-important part of the global opportunity set.

Q: What is the toughest part of your job?

A: Time, or the lack thereof. First, with relation to Asia’s complexity — staying on top of the very nonhomogeneous region. Second is the simple reality that most BlackRock employees are in New York and London.  It’s very normal for us in Asia to have calls at midnight.

Q: Any tips you’ve learned for managing working across different time zones?

A: It requires prioritizing — saying “yes” to things you should say “yes” to and saying “no” to things you should say “no” to. But step one is that you have to like the job. Thankfully I really like the markets. I’m the type who comes home and reads a book about markets after having been at work all day.

Q: What is your favorite part of your job?

A: There’s a book by physicist Richard Feynman called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. The thrust of it is that just finding things out is satisfying in a deep way. Financial markets allow you, in at times a harsh manner, to test your views. You’re either correct or incorrect. There is an incredible simplicity around that. From the personal, professional side, there’s the joy of working with people you like and admire.

Q: What achievement are you most proud of?

A: My four children: a 4 year old, 2-year-old twins and a 1 year old. So, time management is a pretty significant matter for me. From a professional perspective, it’s the decision to move to Asia ten years ago. Things were going well in London, and I had an attractive, straightforward path. My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, and I decided to take a risk. I’m pleased, maybe even a little proud, that we were bold enough to move away toward a less certain path because we were interested in a new adventure.

Q: What advice would you give to young people just starting their careers?

A: This is a bit geeky, but I think in life, you have a holistic volatility budget. You can tolerate a certain amount of volatility across all facets of your life. For example, when you have a child, another child adds to the amount of your volatility budget that is taken up by the chaos of young children, and you have to derisk other parts of your life. Younger people should embrace opportunities to take on risk and take advantage of the relative freedom they have. Also, don’t have a 10-year plan. You can have a vague plan, but a 10-year plan is not how life works. The unexpected always happens, and if it presents an opportunity, a fork in the road, you should take it.

Q: What else are you interested in or involved with outside of work?

A: I began doing jiu-jitsu about two years ago. I wish I had found it sooner. I’ve always been a team sport guy — rugby, football, cricket, English games. A few athletes I admired started mentioning the Brazilian martial art, so I decided to do a free a trial. From minute one, I was fascinated. I don’t have as much time as I would like to learn and get better, but I practice when I can. I managed to get my first belt recently.

Q: Anything from jiu-jitsu you take into your work life?

A: You have to have a plan — to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then try to play to your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. But you can be certain that as soon as you start, your plan will be severely challenged. You just need to accept that and react to the incoming data in real time the best you can.