Irving Kahn, Stock Broker and Fund Manager, 1905 - 2015


Financial Times - 06/03/2015

In an age when fortunes in financial markets can be made and lost in fractions of a second, Irving Kahn held out against the algorithms. By the end of an 85-year career in finance he had built a firm with about $1bn under management, largely through the simple strategy of buying shares in good US companies that he saw as undervalued, then resisting most urges to sell.

That steady approach led to decades of better than average returns for his investors — and made him reluctant to let go of the job. Not long before his death at the age of 109, Kahn was still working a four hour shift three days a week in his corner office overlooking Madison Avenue, reviewing portfolios managed by Thomas, the youngest of his three sons.

“I’d call a company’s chief executive and find that he’d just been on the phone to my father,” Thomas Kahn recalls.

Besides photographs of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, the only clue to Kahn senior’s age was a digital clock with a 12 in display. Until his sight faded he was a voracious reader of “anything except fiction”, who would irritate his wife by flipping through annual reports — starting from the back — while at the dinner table. The night he died in his sleep at his book filled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, his grandson had been reading him extracts from The Economist.“He was interested in everything,” says Andrew Kahn, 33.

Irving Kahn was born in Manhattan on December 19 1905, the son of Russian immigrants. After school in the Bronx, Kahn enrolled at City College but dropped out after two years to support his parents, taking a job as a “runner”, or trading assistant, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

He became friends with Benjamin Graham, later the author of The Intelligent Investor, the bible of value investing. They would ride the subway together in the evenings to Columbia University where Kahn worked — often for free — as his mentor’s assistant. Hanging around campus was also a way to spend time with Ruth Perl, a psychology student, whom he married in 1931.

Kahn made his first trade in June 1929, borrowing from his brother in law to bet on a fall in the price of shares in the high flying Magma Copper. When the market crashed just months later, he doubled his money.

In 1938 he borrowed again to buy his first house, in the Belle Harbor district of Queens, after bank still piled high with foreclosures — denied him a mortgage. This time the source was uncle Harry,whose business had built the foundations for the Chrysler Building.

For the next few decades he bounced around brokerages, doing well through “time arb” strategies exploiting pricing differences between the same stocks traded in New York and London, and later trying something similar with companies undergoing mergers. In 1978 he struck out on his own, employing Thomas and his brother Alan to pursue the Graham goal of conservative, research driven stock picking. (Kahn gave Thomas the middle name Graham — just as Warren Buffett, another disciple, did for his second son.)

In the month of Kahn’s 100th birthday he rang the opening bell at the NYSE and was feted at a party at the elite Harmonie Club, attended by mayor Michael Bloomberg. A letter from the financial information mogul hangs by the door to Kahn Brothers Advisors, paying tribute to “an exemplary New Yorker”.

Longevity ran in the family. One sister died at the age of 101 in 2005; another was a month short of her 110th birthday when she followed in 2011. Their brother died last year after turning 104.

Yet Kahn was no model of clean living. He ate “badly”, says Thomas, never abandoning the meat and potatoes diet on which he grew up. He did not drink much but smoked until his fifties, stopping only when he saw his eldest son light up. This was Donald, an academic who at 79 predeceased him in January. The only exercise Kahn senior ever took was tennis, playing with neighbours on a court he had built behind his Belle Harbor house.

According to Nir Barzilai, a specialist in ageing at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, the cells of all four siblings were “very revealing”, showing genotypes that guard against cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia.

In a video accompanying a Ted talk Dr Barzilai gave last year — on “how to die young at a very old age” — Kahn shared what he considered to be the secret: “To wake up  in the morning and have something to look forward to. The important thing is to keep that brain going.”

And so, alert till the end, he did.