Houston Voices

Rice University research finds that investors and executives are more likely to help out those from their alma mater

According to research done by a Rice University professor, businessmen and women are more likely to help out colleagues who attended the same university. Pexels

Friends help each other out, right? Imagine young men or women racing down a New England playing field, effortlessly passing a lacrosse ball on their way to the goal. Now imagine some of those old friends as CEOs of large firms, and others as managers of mutual funds. Do they still have each other's backs?

That was the question Rice Business Professor Alexander W. Butler explored in a recent paper. What he found makes perfect sense given human nature, and raises serious questions about the dynamics of the financial market.

Yes, Butler and his coauthor, Umit G. Gurun of the University of Texas at Dallas, found, CEOs of publicly traded corporations and mutual fund managers from the same schools do appear to help each other out. It may be conscious or unconscious: they do what friends do the world over. But the effect on the market can be profound.

To trace the role of social connections in the world of corporate and finance, Butler and Gurun studied how mutual fund managers vote when shareholders proposed limiting executive pay. They cross-referenced these data with information about the educational background of the firms' executives and of the mutual fund managers who took part in the votes.

When voting fund managers and an executive went to the same schools, Butler found, those halcyon days at A&M or Wharton clearly corresponded to fewer votes to limit executive pay.

Now, this may reflect all kinds of things. Shared school ties could mean fund managers have more relevant information about a firm's CEO and his or her value. The shared culture and vocabulary of a school environment might ease information flow between a CEO and managers. But there is also another possibility: Perhaps the value a mutual fund manager places on a CEO's firm has nothing to do with the company's actual value. The manager may simply support him because he's a school friend.

CEOs weren't the only ones to benefit from old-school ties. Well-connected investors prospered too. When a fund manager shared a school background with a given CEO, Butler found, the fund outperformed funds whose managers weren't part of the network. For investors as well as CEOs, in other words, school ties with decision makers at mutual funds raised the chances of a winning outcome.

So a shared school or social background leads to well-paid CEOs, successful fund managers and happy investors. What's not to celebrate?

Plenty, it turns out.

The better trading outcomes of well-connected mutual fund managers have implications far beyond one happy set of shareholders. The Securities and Exchange Commission protects a level playing field because it's in the public interest for the U.S. financial markets to be liquid.

Consumers buy and sell stocks more easily when they are confident that a product's price is reasonably close to its actual value. When one party seems to know more about a stock – perhaps through friendship with the CEO – other investors may lose confidence that they can assess the value of stocks as accurately. When too many consumers distrust the market, liquidity drops. Fewer people buy and sell.

Think how much it easier it is to buy a used car with public resources such as Carfax, or pre-owned car certifications. In the past, a buyer had to wonder what a car seller knew but wasn't saying – or else try to buy a car from someone she already knew and trusted.

Almost everyone has a friend. Almost everyone has experienced the memories, common lingo, and wordless sense of goodwill that come from sharing a common history. Butler and Gurun's study of corporate and financial markets, however, shows how these natural instincts can disadvantage players outside the alumni circle. Shareholders may have less power to limit CEO pay. And consumers may end up less confident about the value of stocks, shaking trust in the financial markets overall. Surely, that's not what friends are for.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Alexander W. Butler is a professor of finance at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

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Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

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A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

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Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."