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Woman Around Town: Muriel Siebert–Belle Among Bulls

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The photos and framed newspaper articles hanging on the walls of Muriel, “Mickie” Siebert’s office in New York’s Lipstick Building are evidence of the great success she has achieved in the male-dominated world of financial services. But while the pictures and words tell her story, it was numbers and Siebert’s ability to analyze them that’s formed the foundation of her achievements and made her a standout on Wall Street. “I look at a page of numbers and they tell me a story.”

Growing up in Cleveland as a dentist’s daughter, Mickie as her friends called her, attended Western University (now Case Western University) before dropping out because of her father’s illness and death from cancer. His illness took both an emotional and financial toll on the family: “It was pathetic to watch my father deteriorate. We moved from a house to a one-bedroom apartment.” Following her father’s death, Siebert came to New York in the mid-50′s to live with her divorced sister “sleeping on the couch” while she sought her first job in a city that she would soon come to call home. “When you come to New York, you can’t go home again.”

muriel-b1Early Career

Muriel initially applied for a job at the United Nations but was turned away because employees were required to speak at least two languages. What may have been a disappointment at the time turned out to be a blessing. Shortly afterwards, she landed an entry-level research analyst position at Bache and Company, making $65 a week.

As the lone “girl” she was assigned to research the industries that the guys weren’t interested in or didn’t view as great career builders. The radio/motion pictures/television industry and the aviation industry at the dawn of the jet age turned out to be the launching pads for Mickie’s reputation as an astute analyst. She saw that movie industry accountants were immediately depreciating movies and wrote her first report, critical of that practice, because she had the vision to see the long-term value movies had for the then new medium of television. The story left a favorable impression with her superiors, but after two years at Bache, she found herself trailing the guys—her salary was half of theirs.

“Numbers were important in the way the airline industry depreciates its assets,” she explains, and her ability to look at an earnings report and see in it the story of a company, in this case Eastern Airlines, again served her well. Eddie Rickenbacker, the long-time head of Eastern, was so impressed by Siebert’s reports that he asked her, “Young lady are you permanently employed? If not, there’s a job for you at Eastern Airlines.” Siebert didn’t join Eastern but she did become the first woman member of the Wings Club (the global society of aviation professionals).

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She moved on to Shields and Company where more success soon followed as Mickie began to bring in institutional clients based on her stellar research and analysis. She also learned how to handle stock orders. She began to do major business, earning $20,000 in one day. At this point she asked a colleague, Gerald Tsai Jr., what large firm she could go to and get credit for the business she was doing. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “There’s nowhere you can go. Buy a seat on the Stock Exchange and work for yourself,” something unheard of for a woman at the time. When she wondered if it were possible, he responded, “I don’t think there’s a law against it.” Wondering herself, Mickie took the New York Stock Exchange Constitution home one evening to see if women were precluded from owning seats on the Exchange. There wasn’t anything overt but, like so many other things women didn’t do at that time, it just wasn’t done—until Mickie decided to do it.

Mickie’s path to securing a seat was long and arduous: She was first required to secure sponsorship from two NYSE members or allied members (partners of a firm but not individual members of the Exchange). She was rejected by the first nine men she asked before finding two members willing to sponsor her. Then, the Exchange required a letter from the bank confirming the bank’s willingness to provide $300,000 of the $445,000 purchase price as a loan secured by stock Mickie owned. She got the letter and the loan from Chase Manhattan Bank. Mickie can recite the date by heart when she got her seat and made the Exchange coed: “December 28, 1967.” There were 1,365 men and me.” Newspaper headlines feted her as the “Belle Among the Bulls and Bears.” But Muriel didn’t take her accomplishment and this “first” lightly, “When I got the seat, I knew I had to prove myself.” And prove herself she did. Two years after gaining her seat, she founded the brokerage firm that bears her name today: Muriel Siebert & Co., Inc.

muriel1New York State Superintendent of Banks

Firsts are something Mickie excels at: She took a five-year break from her company to become the first woman Superintendent of Banks in New York. A Republican, Siebert was appointed by Democratic governor, Hugh Carey. This appointment as bank superintendent by a Democrat brings Muriel to two topics near and dear to her heart: the importance of financial stewardship and the need for bi-partisanship. Under her watch, not a single bank failed. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have more than a few sleepless nights as she became superintendent during a time of double-digits in both inflation and interest rates. Looking at the capital of a number of the banks in New York, Mickie was concerned about their solvency. Governor Carey asked her to go to Washington to speak with key members of the Senate Banking Committee. Working with Republican Howard Baker and Democrat William Proxmire, Siebert got bi-partisan cooperation that led to the passage of a bill that would help banks secure needed capital and avoid insolvency, some by merger.

The Recent Financial Crisis

When asked about the recent financial crisis, she asks, “Where were the regulators? How did sub-primes get to that level? It was close. We could have had a major collapse.” In hindsight, she feels Treasury Secretary Henry Paulsen and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke did what they thought was best. “Thank God they did what they did. They didn’t have the time to analyze.” When asked her opinion about the cause of the crisis, she points to the recklessness of the mortgage brokers. “No one regulated the mortgage brokers and they [the brokers] were out for blood.” She believes the country had “good intentions” in making home ownership available to the masses but failed to explain the terms of the mortgages, granting easy credit to vulnerable homeowners.

Financial Literacy

Financial literacy has become a mission for Mickie. Ten years ago, she approached the Superintendent of the New York public schools, advocating that public school children be taught the importance of financial responsibility. The idea is now a curriculum entitled, The Siebert Personal Finance Program: Taking Control of Your Financial Future. It is being taught in 109 New York public schools as part of the required economics curriculum for high school seniors. They are learning the importance of balancing a checkbook, the dangers of credit card debt, and a range of tax, insurance and investment issues that “kids can’t ask their parents” because the parents often don’t have the financial skills themselves. A version has also been developed for younger students (eighth graders). The Archdiocese of New York is considering using it in its parochial schools. It is being tested in Palm Beach County and New Jersey plans to launch it in the fall. Mickie would like to see the program launched nationally. Her contributions to the cause have been recognized by the Center for Educational Innovation – Public Education Association. The New Jersey Coalition for Financial Education recently awarded her their first Lifetime Achievement Award for Promoting Financial Literacy.

muriel-in-redLooking Ahead

Talking to Mickie Siebert, one can’t help but ask her for financial/investment advice. She reels off the following: 1) Start as early as you can, investing $50-$100/month in no-load, no-transfer fee mutual funds; 2) Take advantage of all retirement fund vehicles that accumulate money on a tax-deferred or tax-free basis; and, 3) Consider buying companies where a portion of revenues and earnings are coming from abroad. ” That provides diversity. We are part of the global economy.”

Despite the current economic crisis, Mickie remains optimistic. “There will be another Bill Gates. We will be a nation of innovation and prosperity again.” And to that end, there is a framed letter on Mickie’s wall from a young man named Jeffrey. He writes her about her recent induction into Junior Achievement’s United States Hall of Fame, “Congratulations on your induction as a Laureate. I hope I can run a business and be famous like you someday!” We hope so too.

Thanks to Mickie, young people are getting the opportunity to acquire financial acumen, which will help them lead productive, satisfying lives. As Mickie advises, “New York is filled with opportunity. Dig in and do something you enjoy.”

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Eat: Swifty’s (1007 Lexington Avenue); 21 Club (21 W. 52nd Street), Four Seasons (99 E. 52nd Street), Neary’s Pub (358 E. 57th Street)
Favorite Place to Shop: Bergdorf’s, Saks
Favorite New York Sight: Any street corner. New York is a toy.
Favorite New York Moment: The Jazz Center. I love jazz.
What You Love About New York: It’s unique. Every day is different.
What You Hate About New York: When it snows.

One Response to Woman Around Town: Muriel Siebert–Belle Among Bulls

  1. Merry Sheils says:

    Hi Robin: this is a great story on a somewhat controversial figure. A friend of mine ghost wrote Mickie’s autobiography, so it’s nice to have two different points of view!

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