The Market Strategist
by Ann Mary Quarandillo
Ask Brett Redfearn ’87 to describe his job at J.P. Morgan Securities in New York, and the first thing he’ll tell you is this: “I can tell you all about how markets work, but I'm not paid to pick stocks.”
Most people even in the financial industry have a hard time understanding what Redfearn does as J.P. Morgan’s head of market structure strategy for the U.S., Canada and Latin America. Instead of selecting investments, his job is to understand the markets at the micro-structure level — analyzing the relationships between regulations, technology and trading practices, then educating both colleagues and clients about the constantly changing cycle of activity.
“Markets are like living breathing organisms. There are so many different variables influencing what is happening,” Redfearn says. “There are opportunistic short-term traders, large institutions investing for the long term, massive amounts of market data, and psychology and fear. Markets are highly fragmented, trading speeds are ultra-fast, and prices, or spreads, are usually very tight. All of these factors and more affect how trading works and it’s fascinating. I gravitate toward the aspects of the market that are not well understood and are waiting for someone to put some context around. It’s a significant intellectual challenge understanding what’s going on and equally hard to explain it.”
Redfearn “never would have guessed” that he’d end up working for one of the biggest firms on Wall Street. He grew up in Delaware, the son of a successful attorney who wanted him to become a lawyer himself—a career path Redfearn resisted. “After one year at college, I found out I was not into the ‘traditional’ college experience,” he explains. So he took off to travel around the world with his guitar.
“Some of the most interesting people I met went to this place called Evergreen,” he remembers.
At Evergreen, he was an organizer for the Washington Public Interest Research Group (known better as WashPIRG) in the fight against nuclear waste disposal at the Hanford site, and created his own academic program around lobbying the legislature on the issue. After graduating, Redfearn earned his master’s degree from The New School for Social Research in New York. He began his career doing public sector economic development work with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
After a new political appointee was put in charge of the Port Authority, where Redfearn had been working as part of a public planning process for infrastructure and transportation projects in the region, the whole office was disbanded. He figures he’s one of the few people in his industry that got into finance in part because they were laid off from a public sector job.
“At that time, the public sector was either cutting jobs or cutting budgets, so I took an interview with the American Stock Exchange for a planning and strategy job in the research department,” he says. “I was good at research because of my education, and studying market dynamics was something I turned out to have a knack for.”
After eventually running a strategy and transactions team at the American Stock Exchange, Redfearn moved on to Bear Stearns, where he was responsible for equities market structure when J.P. Morgan bought the company in mid-2008. He was retained by JP Morgan during that tumultuous time. “I think that I was able to survive the transition in part because I have a very unique, strategic job that I helped to create. And that links back to Evergreen,” he explains.
“The work that I did with (founding faculty member) Beryl Crowe, Jeanne Hahn and other Evergreen faculty helped me change the way I think. It was a constant questioning, probing, challenging dynamic. So I always question my conclusions and beliefs and never get too comfortable with any one answer. If you are too married to one idea or belief, eventually you’re wrong. That may be the most important attribute that’s kept me thinking and staying fresh in a world that’s always changing. There really are no definitive answers… for long.”
As anyone who has a bank account or a 401(k) knows, the markets of the past few years have been some of the most volatile in history. Redfearn’s job is to help figure out the market micro-structure aspect of this, which he says is in part driven by the incredible speed of today’s electronic trading. He then explains new market developments, including regulatory changes, to clients, traders and money managers. He says “one of the most meaningful aspects of my job is working with exchanges and regulators to review and develop policies that will help ensure that markets are fair and orderly.” In that respect, Redfearn also serves on the Board of Directors of BATS Global Markets, a relatively new and growing stock exchange.
He understands that many people outside of Wall Street don’t have much trust right now in the financial industry. “Of course, I’ve had to ask the question: Am I adding value primarily to my bank account and my firm or am I also contributing to the integrity of the industry in which I’m operating? The answer is: I have a normative approach to everything that I do and couldn’t do this if I doubted that my values and ethics were fully intact and integral to the advice and analysis I provide.”
Redfearn was working on the 54th floor of the World Trade Center during the 1993 terrorist attack, and worked just a block away from the World Trade Center at the American Stock Exchange on 9-11. After experiencing two terrorist attacks, there’s a constant awareness that another possible event could occur near his workplace or home. Nonetheless, he has no plans to leave New York City and no imminent plans to exit the world of financial services. He says “Now more than ever we need a little bit of Evergreen in the business world”—one more reason that he remains committed to his work and to helping re-envision how the financial world works.