Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

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In this post we speak to Chay Ornthanalai who, in 2019, took over the role of Academic Director for the Master of Finance program. We hear about the 5am starts in Alberta early in his career, how his research interests are evolving, and why intuition is important to be a successful finance professional.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background?

My background prior to finance was in engineering. I earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in economics. I still remember my younger years working on a project that studied the impact of heterogeneous blast waves on a cantilever structure. That was when I spent several summers in the middle of a desert at a defense research facility near Medicine Hat, Alberta. We would wake up at 5:00 am on weekdays to head out to the test site. This experience taught me the importance of a good work ethic. On a good day, we were detonating up to 25 explosives to collect data. I would spend most of my days in a bunker next to the ground-zero site handling instrumental diagnostics.
I later discovered several similarities between the study of blast wave physics and derivatives pricing. That’s when I got interested in finance and decided to pursue my doctoral study in financial economics. My research focus was in the modeling of crash risk and understanding how the fear of crash risk impacts security pricing.  My first academic appointment was at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where I taught fixed income and derivatives to graduate students in financial engineering.
I joined Rotman eight years ago. It still feels like yesterday.  My research interests have expanded during my time here. Besides derivatives and risk management, I have several ongoing research projects in the area of investments. More recently, I became curious about how retail investors (i.e., you and I) execute security trading and how households manage their investment portfolio. I find this to be very exciting. While most of the research focus in finance has centered around institutional investors, such as mutual funds and pension funds, there is a lot to be discovered about how retail investors trade.
Most of my students usually ask me about my last name “Ornthanalai.” It’s Thai. However, I have spent most of my life in Canada. Unfortunately, I do not cook Thai food well. I just love eating it.

What do you teach, and what might students expect in your class?

I currently teach two courses in the MFin program:  Risk Management, and Investments. Although these two courses seem unrelated, they are central to my professional and research interests. It’s very fun for me to teach these two courses as I am passionate about the topics.
I don’t rely heavily on textbooks in my class. I often give students readings about recent policy research and investment strategies that institutional investors are exploiting.

The MFin program at Rotman is designed to push your development beyond the CFA requirement. In keeping with this agenda, I update my materials every year to make sure that our students are learning from the most recent research and findings, which are usually not yet available in textbooks.

An important takeaway that I continually emphasizing to my students is that finance and economics are not “science.” In fact, they belong under the area of “social science and humanities.” There is not a clear or correct answer to every problem that we study in class. I often hold back from telling students what they should believe in --- because there is usually no correct answer in financial economics. Instead, I often ask students to explain their logic which makes them reach their conclusions and challenge them with alternative views.
Overall, my teaching philosophy is to encourage students to form their own opinions. I often say to students: “the worst thing to do when you see a fence is to sit on it.”

What do you think is the greatest strength of the Rotman Master of Finance program?

The alumni network. I have seen many MFin alumni became very successful in the capital markets in Canada and worldwide.  Our alumni have been invaluable to our program, in terms of providing students with career advice and networking.
The diversity of our student body is also a strength that we are very proud of. Besides our very selective admission process, we aim to curate a diverse cohort of students with different career and professional backgrounds. It’s always fun to teach in a class where you have a portfolio manager, wealth planner, investment banker, risk manager, actuary, equity analyst, senior account, and engineer, etc.  

The diversity of our student body really creates a healthy debate and contributes to the learning experience of our students.

What is your favourite thing about working at Rotman, and with the MFin program?

I love the diversity and inclusion that Rotman and Toronto have to offer to our students, staff, and faculty. I feel fortunate to be working at a university that fosters academic freedom to pursue controversial research questions and that pushes me to continually innovate my teaching.
My favorite thing about the MFin program is the calibre of students that I interact with in class.  Most of our students have a proven professional career in finance or a related field. It is not unusual that there is a student in class who knows more about a certain topic than I do.  I also like that my MFin students always challenge my explanations or standard beliefs in finance. This is precisely what I try to teach my students. I want them to develop economic intuition to reach their own informed decisions.

What tips would you pass on to a student to help them make the most of their time at Rotman?

The MFin program at Rotman is rigorous. There is no way to sugar coat it. It is designed to be challenging and requires that you have a very good work ethic.  I would encourage our students to think of their time at Rotman as a part of their life-long learning marathon. It is definitely not a race. Collaborate with your classmates and seek connections with our faculty and staff.
Last but not least, use your economic intuition. This is a valuable tool that I want all graduates from the MFin program to rely on when making business decisions.

There is no doubt that our MFin students will be taking on important roles in the global economy. I hope the intuition that they developed while at Rotman will help shape their future decisions.

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