Investing Savvy

For tens of thousands of investors, business executives and even one American president, Darien’s Liz Ann Sonders is more than another face on the tube: She has become a go-to person for figuring out what’s what with the American economy.

In her capacity as chief investment analyst at Charles Schwab, she is a frequent guest on popular financial programs like CNBC’s Street Signs and FoxNews’s Your World with Cavuto, spreading a gospel of eyes-open bullishness to often-queasy investors. Quick-witted, poised, able to shift in nanoseconds from a contrarian take on investor confidence indices to prospects in the oil market, she comes across like a B-school student’s fantasy, the mind of Steve Forbes channeled inside the body of Sheryl Crow.

Yet back in the 1980s, the fun-loving University of Delaware undergrad couldn’t even look at a Wall Street Journal without her eyes glazing over. Back then she was more interested in political science, her other major, than economics. Keeping up on business news was not a priority, not until she got a tip from her father.

“He told me there was this great show on PBS, Wall $treet Week with Louis Rukeyser,” she recalls. “For a half-hour, it would give you a roundup of the week’s big business stories. That became my pre-going-out Friday-night ritual.” One day Liz Ann herself would appear on the show, first as a guest, then as one of Rukeyser’s regular panelists.

That wasn’t the only surprise in Liz Ann’s future.

There was the time a couple of years ago when her daughter Hailey, now six and a flaxen-headed miniature version of Liz Ann, told Mom that a neighbor up the street had called. She knew this because the caller identified herself on the answering machine as being from “the white house.” Actually this call came from someone not in Darien, but down Washington way. George W. Bush wanted Liz Ann on one of his economic task forces. (She has served on two since 2003.)

Then there was the day somewhat earlier that she met her future husband and Hailey’s dad, Bob Meier. It was at the wedding of her younger sister, who was marrying Bob’s brother. (They later divorced.) Bob didn’t notice Liz Ann much that day, but sometime after, he found himself near her again, while visiting his brother and sister-in-law in New York.  

I can still see her sitting on the couch,” Bob remembers. “I went, ‘Wow, who is that?’ I couldn’t believe it was Liz Ann. She was so beautiful, I couldn’t believe I didn’t pay attention to her at the wedding. I fell for her like a ton of bricks.”

Most remarkable for Liz Ann have been the twin successes of being both a mother to Hailey and her older brother, Colin, nine, and her emergence as one of the most influential envoys between Wall Street and Main Street. The result, she says, is the most fun she’s had in her life.

“I just had my annual review,” she says as she sits at her kitchen table after a day spent filling out online compliance reports for the Securities and Exchange Commission. “They asked me what I wanted in terms of a next step. Do I want to be on the executive committee at Schwab? I said no. I’m fine doing what I’m doing. It’s truly a blissful experience.”

Her home in Darien, built in the mid-nineteenth century as a hunting lodge, is one of her three operational centers. There are also offices in Manhattan and Stamford, the latter conveniently close to a private television studio from which she can be beamed onto business programs around the world.

Television work is a big part of Liz Ann’s job, and she is uncommonly good at it. Neil Cavuto, the host of FoxNews’s Your World with Cavuto and a regular on-air interlocutor, says she is so thorough and well-versed in her answers that he has to be careful she doesn’t “show up the other guests.”

“I like having her on because she speaks English,” he says. “Others I have on use a lot of jargon, acronyms. I know my viewers, and they’re saying, ‘What?’ Liz Ann communicates her ideas in a clear fashion, and she leaves no doubt what her position is. That’s a rarity.”

New Canaanite Michael F. Holland, chairman of the investment firm Holland & Company and another former Rukeyser regular, notes Liz Ann was a rarity when she first arrived on the Wall $treet Week set in the late 1990s, a female analyst comfortable in the burly, highbrow back and forth of televised economic discussion Rukeyser pioneered on PBS.

“Two things about her appeal to viewers,” he says. “One is a naturalness, a sense of security, which comes across. The other thing, a killer addition, is her common sense.”

Rukeyser, now retired, sent the following e-mail from his home in Greenwich: “Liz Ann is that rare combination of brains and beauty that gives us renewed hope for the future. She goes at problems with a hard head, and helps solve them with the softest of hearts. She’s a winner!”

It was a remarkably quick accession for Liz Ann, a fund manager with Manhattan-based Avatar Associates when she was first asked to appear on a now-defunct CNBC program Taking Stock, in the summer of 1997. She and the other guests offered quick takes on stocks selected for their consideration by the television audience. “I was terrified,” she reveals. “It went well, I guess, but being on a show like that your first time on television was daunting.”

At least for her, it was a successful debut. Wall $treet Week beckoned a week later for a guest spot. After that, Rukeyser called again, asking Liz Ann to become one of his panelists.

Steep as that flight path was, it isn’t hard to understand Rukeyser’s enthusiasm: Watching Liz Ann on CBS’s Early Show or CNBC’s Kudlow & Company is to see a natural at work, ticking off figures in machine-gun bursts that leave no room for “ums” and “ahhs.” The trick to looking good on-air, she confides, is staring directly at the camera when you are speaking. Glancing off to the side while formulating an answer is an easy way to convince a viewer you aren’t sure exactly what you’re talking about. It also helps when the calls you make are on the money.

“In 2001 and 2002, when people were pretty dour about the market, she identified the very good value to be had in stocks,” Holland notes. “That was an important call, post-September 11, leaning against the pessimism of the period.”

Liz Ann admits she hasn’t always been so prescient. “I stayed optimistic about techs too long,” she says, recalling the dot-com boom of the late nineties. “It wasn’t until the summer of 2000 that I saw the potential that it could get ugly.”

She remains an unapologetic believer in capitalism’s rebounding capabilities. Much of that trickles down from her early days working for Avatar, an institutional fund, and its founder, Martin Zweig, whose contrarian philosophy recommended pulling away from stocks while others invested, and vice versa. This was notably put into action on Black Monday, October 1987, the day the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost one-fifth of its total market value, and one year after Liz Ann came aboard.

“Marty called the crash the Friday before it happened,” she recalls. “Then the week of the crash, we went from being fully invested to 60 percent cash. We were absolutely sitting pretty. By the beginning of November, we were 100 percent invested in the market again. At that point there was nowhere for it to go but up. It was a perfect year for market timing.”

With Zweig as a mentor, Liz Ann jumped through the ranks at Avatar, becoming one of its four portfolio managers by 1988. That was hardly the norm for a woman in her twenties.

“I don’t think I grasped the importance of it,” she says. “It wasn’t so structured like Goldman Sachs, where there would have been leaping across all these levels. There was no norm at Avatar. It was more of a family atmosphere.”

By 1999 Avatar was without Zweig, and Liz Ann decided it was time to leave as well. She landed at U.S. Trust, which focused on serving high net-worth investors. Not long after, U.S. Trust was picked up by Schwab, the discount brokerage giant that wanted U.S. Trust’s expertise to manage its wealthier clients.

In May 2002 Liz Ann became Schwab’s chief investment strategist, her focus suddenly on broad strategizing after spending her whole career to that point overseeing capital. It was a smooth transition.

“After seventeen years I realized I didn’t love managing money,” she says.

“I always was more intrigued thinking about the financial industry and investing in much broader terms.”

Schwab was intrigued as well, by the chance to position Liz Ann as its new public face. “Liz Ann stood out as an intelligent woman in a field of men,” says  her boss Jerry Chafkin, president of Schwab’s Advised Investor Division. “Also, she’s very accessible, the way she talks. I think Liz Ann talks about investing and the markets in a way that makes ordinary investors say, ‘That makes sense to me.’ Others talk about markets in a way that impresses you with how smart they are. With Liz Ann, people are more likely to say, ‘She seems really smart, and I agree with her.’ That’s how we want Schwab to be different.”

As chief investment strategist, Liz Ann’s focus is the whole economy: stocks, bonds, overseas markets, et cetera. Her staff is a single personal assistant, which suits her fine. When something needs doing, she’d rather do it herself.

“Liz Ann is the most productive person I have met by a factor of two,” her husband says. “She is famous for not sitting. Maybe three times a week she will say at some point in the afternoon, ‘I have not yet sat today.’”

She keeps track of market news via Bloomberg, through conference calls with Schwab brokers and copious reading. Even cocktail parties are educational opportunities, as her social circles tend to contain many savvy businessfolk. “None of this is drudgery to me,” she explains.

One reason for that is her fluency with the market, a fluency that can spring up literally anytime, anywhere.

“It’ll be five in the morning, and the phone rings,” Meier explains. “It’s CNBC Asia, wanting her to go on in two minutes. She sits up, puts the light on dim, then does a live radio interview out of a complete sleep. I asked her once, ‘What if there was a war while you were asleep, and they ask you about it?’ She said if something major happened overnight, the person calling her would brief her about it in the minute before she goes on.”

Media market analysis has become big business in the twenty-first century, especially with the profusion of individual investors and cable channels that cater to their need to know. “There are now so many outlets that you don’t have that many people with that level of exper-tise,” Holland says. “That’s why you see her in so many places. Her job is to say yes when people call. She is supposed to be out there.”

“It definitely plays into positive returns,” Chafkin says. “Liz Ann’s media appearances help us in two ways. They reinforce that the Schwab of today is not the pure discount broker of a decade ago. They also raise our visibility as a full-service broker.”

With Rukeyser’s departure from the television scene, easily the best-known TV market analyst these days is James Cramer, the high blood pressure host of CNBC’s aptly named Mad Money. Cramer employs sound effects and shameless gusto in naming which stocks are hot or not. A disclaimer at the front of the program tells viewers not to use the show as the criterion for stock picks, but Liz Ann still sighs. “I know Jim,” she explains. “There’s a tremendous amount of work that sits behind the comments he makes, so I give him credit for that. But I fully admit that when I’m watching the show… I’m not at the point of cringing yet, but it smacks of what went on in the late nineties. That kind of ‘hot tip’ mentality that’s so dangerous.”

She doesn’t doubt the authenticity of Cramer’s on-air persona. “That’s who he is,” she adds. “My husband covered his hedge fund, Cramer Berkowitz. Berkowitz was the same way. They’re maniacs. They really are. It’s not an act.”

Liz Ann is more positive about another controversial figure in today’s market, President Bush. She owns up to being a supporter, though not without reservations. “I would have liked to see the veto pen come out more,” she sighs. But she adds quickly, “He understands free-market thinking and the concept of a small government,” and claims his tax cut was working in stimulating the economy while reducing the national debt, at least prior to Hurricane Katrina.

The enthusiasm runs both ways. Cavuto calls her “a powerful investment type whom Washington likes and trusts to handle economic matters.” When he was taking part in a Bush press session last summer, Cavuto did some research and found “her name comes up a lot among the economic people around President Bush.”

A couple of years ago, Liz Ann says she was approached about being named assistant secretary of economic policy, a position she declined “more for geography than anything else.” But she was still working for Bush as late as last fall, as one of nine members of the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform.

“When the woman from the White House called, my first response was that I don’t know anything about our tax code,” Liz Ann laughs. “I’ve never done my own taxes, I’m not a tax geek. She said, ‘That’s exactly what we want. The president does not want to form this with a bunch of practitioners.’ We’re thinking about the dynamic aspects, how taxes affect the economy.”

How does Liz Ann keep so many plates spinning at once? Her parents help.

“When we first moved out of the city and had our son, we hired a nanny,” she explains. “She decided she was homesick and left after three months. I was on the phone with my mom, lamenting the inevitable revolving door of nannies. My mother said very matter-of-factly, ‘We’ll do it.’ I thought she meant, ‘We’ll come and help until you find somebody.’”

Instead, Helen Sonders quit her job, and she and husband Ralph moved from their home near Philadelphia to Danbury, forty-five minutes from Darien. They have looked after the children on weekdays for the past eight years.

“It’s terrific to be around the kids as much as we are,” Helen says. “We had to give up some grandparenting rights, though. I have to be a little stricter than I’d like.”

Liz Ann remains as hands-on in her parenting as she can, getting things done early on Friday, her day working at home, so she can greet the children when they come home from school, take them to tennis lessons, the supermarket or the Sugar Bowl, one of several Darien eateries she frequents.

“Going out with Bob, I like to go to Greenwich and South Norwalk a lot, New Canaan, too,” she says. “We go to New Canaan probably the most, dinner and a movie. Darien, we tend to go if we are in the mood for a more subdued evening, like to Rory’s.”

The family also plays tennis and golf at the Country Club of Darien. Liz Ann recently took up golf again now that her children are old enough to ride in the cart with her. “My sport biases are kind of what I can do with the family,” she says.

One secret to her happy marriage, Bob says, is “we agree on 90 percent of everything.” He readily owns up to switching careers from law to finance because of his wife’s example. Liz Ann noticed he was miserable being a lawyer and offered to support him while he searched for work in business. He now helps manage the equities division for SG Cowen, a major New York brokerage house.

Because Liz Ann retains her maiden name in her professional capacity, not everyone Bob comes into contact with knows about his wife, even those who know about Liz Ann.

“One of our clients played golf with me one day at Darien Country Club, and while he was waiting for his wife to pick him up, I invited him over to the house,” Bob recalls. “We walk over to the pool house, and he sees Liz Ann there at the pool. He was wide-eyed. ‘Are you married to Liz Ann Sonders?’ I mean, he was ga-ga. This is a big client, and he was just a lapdog for Liz Ann. When his wife came, he had her and their baby come over to meet her.”

What is in Liz Ann’s future? The ceiling may be unlimited. Cavuto likens her lofty status to famous investment gurus like Peter Lynch or Sanford Weill: “Her motives go beyond what is beneficial for Schwab. She wants to help people do the right thing with their money and bring a culture of investment to the country.”

Liz Ann hardly seems in a hurry for the next new thing. “Of the nineteen years I’ve been in the business, the last three have been a blast,” she says. “I feel everything else was getting me to this point.”

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