As North Carolina’s Treasurer, the Wharton alumna has an enormous portfolio. The post—established in 1715—is one of the most powerful among the states.
For her first press conference after taking office in 2008, North Carolina State Treasurer Janet Cowell was tasked with making the announcement that the state’s pension fund was down $20 billion, a market value decline of about 25 percent. Later, she was “eaten alive by the press” (in her words) after news that the fund was among the investors in Facebook’s IPO, and the stock had taken a dive.
In truth, the full picture was this: in 2008, nearly everyone’s market value was down, and the Facebook stock was a $4 million paper loss in a $75 billion portfolio – a small fraction of one percent. “It was a centimeter on a football field,” said Cowell, adding philosophically: “As treasurer, you have a lot of liability and a lot of responsibility in a world where people don’t always have a lot of appetite for learning exactly what it is you are doing.”
Such is politics. And Cowell wouldn’t have it any other way. As North Carolina’s Treasurer, the Wharton alumna has an enormous portfolio. The post—established in 1715—is one of the most powerful among the states. Cowell is responsible for a pension fund for 880,000 people worth over $80 billion, the 33d largest in the world. She chairs the board of a health plan providing for 665,000 beneficiaries. She supervises cash management for North Carolina’s $12 billion state bank. And, she says, unique among the states as a legacy of the Great Depression, she oversees all local government budgets. “We look at their finances to make sure they are in good order and issue all of their debt,” she says. “We oversee the bond rating, and also run an unclaimed property program. That’s what I call the Ed McMahon part of the job.”
Cowell takes her share of hits from political opponents and state employees who have resisted proposed changes to their healthcare and pension coverage. But by many objective measures, her management would be the envy of many a municipal government: North Carolina’s pension is 95% funded (the national average is 80%)—the fifth best-funded pension plan in the U.S., according to a Pensions & Investments ranking. The state boasts an AAA bond rating.
Treasurer is an elected position in North Carolina, and Cowell, a Democrat, is the first woman in the job and has won the spot twice. Running an election brings both great satisfaction and strife. “It’s halfway between president and dog catcher on the ballot,” she says. “You are whipsawed by what’s going on in partisan politics. It’s getting harder. If you could change the constitutional requirement today you would have a position like this appointed for eight years as opposed to on an election cycle. One upside is that as an elected official you see corners of the state you would never get exposure to because you are out there. It can be extremely challenging because of the negative campaigning. I had an opponent who wanted his own state currency, and you are thinking, ‘Didn’t we try that in 1865?’ And that guy won 46 percent of the vote.” (She won 53 percent.)
Though she says she didn’t plan it, Cowell has a background that seems squarely aimed for where she is today. She has true Southern credentials: the daughter of a Methodist minister and a school teacher, she grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee. But wanderlust struck early.
“In high school I really wanted to explore the world and go to a big city. I remember looking at the Penn catalogue and seeing that I could take Russian history or African history, and economics, and having gone to Germany for a year [as a high school exchange student], it really whetted my appetite. When I got to Penn, I just loved how many international students were there.”
She ended up with a Penn degree in Asian studies, and went on to earn both an MBA and master’s from Wharton’s Lauder Institute. “My learning team was a guy from Greece, a guy from Columbia, a Russian-American woman who grew up in the U.S., a Portuguese-American and me. That was such a great foundation.”
Internationalism, politics and finance thread throughout her trajectory. After working as a financial analyst in Hong Kong for Lehman Brothers and in Jakarta for Wardley James Capel, she moved back to the U.S. as a market analyst for Corning, Inc. Then to North Carolina. “As much as I love being involved in the international market and loved the adventure of those experiences, I wanted to be part of a community where I could vote and influence the outcome – not just be watching, so I moved back to the South with that intention.” In 2001 she ran for Raleigh City Council, serving two terms. Next, she twice ran for and won a seat in the State Senate.
Cowell says that having been on both sides of the public/private sector divide has given her invaluable insights into how one affects the other. “One of the best things about business school is that so many of the people who go there are can-do, positive thinkers, and all of that ambition and energy is needed in the public sector. It seems to me that you have a lot of redundancy in the private sector—20 analysts covering Coca-Cola, or a whole team tweaking the sales for a salad dressing. You are just out trying to eke out the marginal win. But in the public sector, sometimes there are millions of people affected by what you do. You can have a sweeping impact. You can just clean it up and make it a lot better.”
C’90, G’95, WG’95
University of Pennsylvania - Wharton - 1995
- Master of Business Administration
- Major(s): Marketing
University of Pennsylvania - Arts & Sciences - 1995
- Master of Arts
- Major(s): International Studies
University of Pennsylvania - Arts & Sciences - 1990
- Bachelor of Arts
- Major(s): History