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SJP’s Sarah Ruggins on the ‘wild ride’ from theory to practice

The head of multi-asset research discusses her experience of putting academia into practice in financial services.

St James’s Place’s head of multi-asset research Sarah Ruggins (pictured) speaks to our sister publication Portfolio Adviser about her journey from studying the philosophy of economics and financial sociology, to her role in the decision-making process at the UK’s largest wealth manager, and handling investors’ Magnificent Seven ‘FOMO’.

Ruggins believes her academic pursuits prior to her career in financial services have helped her to better understand the behaviour of investors and managing client expectations.

“When we think about diversification, and when we think about it in context of the regional outperformance of the Magnificent Seven, we hear a lot about regret,” she said, giving an example of how her academic background fits in with her current role. “We have clients going to dinner parties who are being asked about their multi-asset long-term investment portfolios, next to an individual who’s gone all-in to the S&P 500.

“We’re having a lot of conversations right now about performance and objectives. When you’re appropriately diversified, you are of course going to have a smoother return. You’re not going to participate in those upswings as much, but you will hopefully have some cushioning when the valuations correct, which is what we anticipate will happen over the next 12-to-18 months.

“From a behavioural perspective, I think it’s about staying true to your objectives, practising discipline, and having conversations with advisers if you’re worried about performance, and then staying resolute in the fact that diversification and the appropriate spread not just across asset classes, but risk, is really going to be integral moving forward.”

Ruggins currently heads up the SJP multi-asset research team, helping to inform decisions on portfolio construction, asset allocation, and strategic development ecosystems.

Before joining SJP, she was the Principal’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and research scholar for Queen’s University, Canada. She holds postgraduate degrees in the philosophy of economics and financial sociology.

Looking back on her career so far, Ruggins said: “It’s been a wild ride. I’ve always been inclined towards academics and, while I was waiting for the light bulb to go off and identify what I wanted my career specifically to be, I spent a lot of my time in academia. I have four different degrees in four different subjects, ranging from a Bachelor of Arts up to a doctorate in the social studies of finance.

“What I really did during that time was work on developing a core set of skills that I found came naturally to me that I enjoyed using and developing in my work. What I found over time is that those skills were quite transferable to all the different disciplines I was studying and the work experience I was having.

“The end goal for me was not a specific role at a specific company, it was more a pathway that would allow me to use those skills. I’ve studied, for example, international relations and philosophy. My master’s was in the philosophy of economics. And then my doctorate again, social studies of finance with more of a specialty in financial economics.”

Ruggins joined St James’s Place in 2018, initially as an analyst before becoming head of multi-asset research in 2021. She is currently acting head of investment specialists.

Explaining what drew her to financial services, Ruggins said: “It was the irreducible complexity in a lot of the ideas that we grapple with. I was able to take a lot of my learnings from social sciences and philosophy and apply those to the hard sciences, such as the mathematics, that I learned as well.

“What I really enjoy is living in that grey area and trying to reconcile the two, and trying to find answers to questions that aren’t easily quantifiable. I think that’s what a lot of us are attempting to do in the industry.

“That’s why I ended up in finance, to look at why people make the decisions they do, why regulators react to information in certain ways, and how trading behaviours and patterns change in response to the market. It’s all a mix of arts and hard sciences.”

Theory versus practice

Transitioning to a new industry often presents challenges. Ruggins’ own experience of moving from the world of theory into practice followed that path, as she described the first year of her move into financial services as the hardest of her career.

“I’d say the biggest shock was that there was no time for esoteric questions, there was a lot of focus on failing fast, and a lot of focus on getting the minimum viable product out there. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad product, it was still to a very high standard, but it’s just the minimum viable for that product.

“The resource constraints we’re operating in private industry forces you to act, think and prioritise your time in a completely different way. Whereas in academia, any tendencies you have towards perfectionism are almost celebrated and you can take much more time on more nuanced questions. I had to learn how to work at pace and how to prioritise my workload in a completely different way.”

In terms of investment decision-making, Ruggins believes establishing a team with diverse backgrounds and experiences is integral to building a strong process.

“It’s one of the most foundational elements to the research process, not just for manager selection, but for any type of debate that we’re having in the business. I’ve been very purposeful when looking at my team dynamics in introducing not just a variety of experiences, but a variety of backgrounds, and different professions and different qualifications into the team.

“So while we are a pure investment team, we don’t just have CFAs. We do have some PhDs, we have some masters and MBAs as well, and some individuals that don’t have higher education. I think the real difference we see when we build teams like this in a more holistic way, is the quality of debate. If there’s a culture of safety there, the quality of debate is much higher and much more robust.”

Away from investing, Ruggins has undertaken immense challenges to fundraise for charity. Last summer, she took part in a Transcontinental ultra-endurance cycling race, raising £20,000 for the St James’s Place Charitable Foundation by cycling across Europe from Belgium to Greece in under 14 days while providing her own mechanical, medical and navigational support. She plans to take part again this year.

In her teenage years, Ruggins was an Olympic hopeful, running her first Commonwealth Games qualifying time at 15 years old. However, her life changed when an injury required extensive surgery to both her feet. Soon after, she developed a disease to her nervous system which caused near total-body paralysis.

Speaking before the race last year, she said: “In those years my goals changed from running an Olympic qualifying time to surviving. But over time I gained confidence to try and flex my toes, feed myself independently, and hold a pencil well enough to write my name. During this time there were numerous charities involved in my care, and I could not have recovered without them.”

You can read more about Ruggins’ fundraising efforts on her Just Giving page.

This article was written for our sister title Portfolio Adviser

Part of the Mark Allen Group.