Michael Morford, founder of OK Invest, talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his annual investment forums and what he’s doing to promote financial fluency in the United States.
“The financial crisis has shown that collectively as a country, Americans don’t know what we are doing with our money,” says Michael Morford, founder of OK Invest and the Oklahoma Investor Conference. “The lack of understanding about the world of finance is a fact that has been ignored but cannot be ignored anymore.”
His nonprofit organization, OK Invest and its parent nonprofit, The Financial Fluency Foundation, is dedicated to improving financial literacy in the United States. “Of CFED’s four categories of learn, earn, save and invest, we focus on that last one: invest. Our ultimate goal is to get through to the lower socioeconomic communities and teach people to kick the payday lending habit and do simple things like open a 401k and an IRA. People need to understand that, even if they’re investing just a little bit of money, it’s critical to their future.”
Opportunist: Michael, how did you get into the financial industry?
Michael: My philanthropic interest and Wall Street experience have been on a collision course for many years now. I have been in Wall Street since I finished graduate school 15 years ago. Concurrently, I have been involved with nonprofits for the same amount of time. However, it wasn’t until my Army Reserve career ended that I finally had the time to pursue a charitable endeavor that could leverage my Wall Street background.
Quite honestly, my initial interest in Wall Street was purely the pursuit of money. Being a kid of the ‘80s, I grew up with the excesses of Greed Is Good. Believe it or not, Michael J. Fox’s character from “Family Ties” was actually an inspiration to me. [Laughs] However, I quickly learned that it’s one thing to have a job, but it’s an entirely different thing to have a career. Only after I experienced my own ups and downs in life did I learn that one truth that eludes us all: Without a true passion for something, what you do for a living will only be a job. It won’t be a career unless you have a passion for it. I have found that to be true in Wall Street as well as with my nonprofit.
Opportunist: Please tell us about your nonprofit.
Michael: I founded the Financial Fluency Foundation and OK Invest in 2008, amidst the global financial crisis. I realized how misinformed we are, collectively, about our money. There are plenty of nonprofit efforts to help people around the basics of money such as household budgets or credit scores, and yet I couldn’t find an organization that sought to help people with the upper end of the financial literacy spectrum. Because investing is considered a luxury for many, it is largely ignored by most philanthropic organizations. I decided that’s how I could do something to give back for my good fortunes by trying to expose Main Street to the intricacies of Wall Street.
Opportunist: What career accomplishments are you most proud of?
Michael: I am not one to focus on personal accomplishments. However, OK Invest’s first major program, the Oklahoma Investor Conference, is definitely my pride and joy. Getting the event off the ground has been a labor of love and worth every bead of sweat. Ensuring the event was put together the right way by having the support of state leaders, the state’s universities, and the state’s biggest companies matters. But, hopefully, that pride will be replaced with some of the harder financial literacy programming I believe the conference will eventually allow us to do.
Michael: We’re trying to cram a few outcomes into our conferences. We want to expose the individual investor to Wall Street by having CEOs and CFOs present their corporate presentation just like they would at an exclusive Wall Street conference. We want to discuss the basic strategies of investing by having fund managers discuss how they approach investing. And we want to push people’s knowledge about the economy by having state leaders debate current financial issues.
I don’t expect someone to be able to assess the quality of a stock investment by merely hearing that company’s CEO speak. However, if an individual, for example, BancFirst’s CEO David Rainbolt, speaks in consecutive years, hopefully they will go from thinking it’s a bank to it’s a bank that has a footprint in a specific area of the state to it’s a bank that has a footprint in a specific area of the state and is showing good loan growth.
Ultimately, though, we hope the conference can serve as the means towards establishing grittier, person-to-person financial literacy programs in communities that are under-banked and ignored.
Opportunist: When do you hold your conferences?
Michael: We had our first conference in September 2011, and it was kind of a “shake the cobwebs off” and get the thing going event. As a first effort, we kept it small by design. Next September, we plan to have a two-day conference, wherein we will start to attract institutional investors with specific interest in energy on day one, followed by a non-energy conference structure the next day.
We have speakers too, such as oil developer Harold Hamm, founder and CEO of Continental Resources. He is frequently on CNBC, and his company is a job creator and one of the leaders in the prolific Bakken oil fields of Montana and North Dakota. Corporate leaders and management teams from publicly traded companies, as well as Oklahoma’s Lieutenant Governor, Todd Lamb, were also keynote speakers. We also have panel discussions on the economy, and fund managers who present on how they invest—to kind of give a glimpse into their world.
Opportunist: What is your role as Managing Director, Head of Texas Sales for Sterne Agee?
Michael: I have a very narrow job description. Technically speaking, I am the head of Texas sales for our institutional equity research sales effort. Essentially, I am a liaison between fund managers and our firm. At the basic level, I ensure investment professionals are aware of the firm’s research calls. However, to excel at this job, one has to truly understand each fund manager’s investment approach and look for investment ideas that would help their fund.
Opportunist: What types of companies have you invested in?
Michael: I have been involved with virtually all sectors on Wall Street at one time or another. However, the constant thread is the energy sector. That is where I have the greatest interest. It’s in my blood—growing up on a cattle and wheat farm in Alfalfa County, Okla. I love all aspects of the energy complex. I find it so fascinating that I am actually pursuing my Ph.D. around energy policy and finance. I am also working with the Truman Project in Washington, D.C. towards their energy policy efforts.
Opportunist: Are there any areas of the energy sector that you’re particularly excited about?
Michael: Currently, I have focused most of my attention on the unconventional oil-levered independent producers. Areas such as the Williston Basin’s Bakken shale in North Dakota are becoming quite well known, but they are still largely underappreciated in the long term. EOG Resources, Oasis Oil & Gas, and Continental have really transformed our domestic oil drilling with their efforts up there. However, the broader basin in West Texas equally intrigues me. Everyone has heard of the Permian Basin because of its historical significance. But I don’t believe Wall Street appreciates just how expansive the broader region is. Over time, I believe West Texas will become bigger than the Bakken. That’s why these past six months I have been pushing Pioneer Resources, Concho Resources, and Approach Resources.
This interest in oil and gas is also helping me with the nonprofit. Not surprisingly, with Oklahoma’s influence on the sector, the vast majority of publicly-traded companies in the state are energy companies. Oklahoma is home to some of the biggest energy producers in the country with Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy, SandRidge, Gulfport, and Continental, just to name a few. Tulsa is the capital of the midstream industry. Even little old Cushing, Okla., is iconic in the industry. By default, our annual Oklahoma Investor Conference will always have a strong energy theme. But instead of trying to avoid that fact, we are trying to embrace it by having a dedicated energy day to attract outside investors to the state.
Michael: In a perfect world, I would hope that the Financial Fluency Foundation and OK Invest would have grown to the point that it has become a full-time job. If that were the case, that would mean we had launched similar efforts in other states. However, if I’m still here at Sterne Agee then that’s a great alternative. It means they haven’t run me out of here!
Opportunist: What do you think lies ahead for the U.S. economy?
Michael: Believe it or not, I am rather bullish on the economy. A lot of key indicators continue to point to a recovery. We are still trending positive for industrial production as well as business inventories. The Consumer Confidence Index is still above 60. These are all economic indicators that have proven time and again to be leading indicators. Plus, my conversations with fund managers have returned to business-as-usual as opposed to macro news dominating everything. To me, that says as much as the indicators. Don’t forget, when we are in the midst of a multi-year recession like we are coming out of, it’s hard to be optimistic. The inverse was true in the late-‘90s when it was unfathomable to believe the good times would ever stop.
OK Invest - www.okinvest.org
Financial Fluency Foundation - http://thef3.org/
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.