Irving Kahn, Investor Who Profited in ’29 Crash, Dies at 109

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Irving Kahn
Irving Kahn, CFA and Chairman, Kahn Brothers & Co., center, rings the Opening Bell at the New York Stock Exchange in 2005. Source: NYSE via Bloomberg News

Irving Kahn, the Manhattan money manager whose astounding longevity enabled him to carry firsthand lessons from the Great Depression well into the 21st century, has died. He was 109.

He died on Feb. 24 at his apartment in Manhattan, his grandson, Andrew Kahn, said Thursday.

A studious, patient investor from a family whose durability drew the attention of scientists, Kahn was co-founder and chairman of Kahn Brothers Group Inc., a broker-dealer and investment adviser with about $1 billion under management.

Last year, at 108, he was still working three days a week, commuting one mile from his Upper East Side apartment to the firm’s midtown office. There, he shared his thoughts on investment positions with his son, Thomas Kahn, the firm’s president, and grandson Andrew, vice president and research analyst. The cold New York City winter kept Kahn away from the office the past several months, his grandson said.

“I prefer to be slow and steady,” Kahn said in a 2014 interview with the U.K. Telegraph. “I study companies and think about what they might return over, say, four or five years. If a stock goes down, I have time to weather the storm, maybe buy more at the lower price. If my arguments for the investment haven’t changed, then I should like the stock even more when it goes down.”

Staying Sharp

Kahn worked to stay mentally agile, reading three newspapers daily and watching C-SPAN, according to a 2011 article in New York magazine.

Among the memories he filed away was his work with Benjamin Graham, the stock picker and Columbia Business School professor whose belief in value investing influenced a generation of traders including Warren Buffett. Graham, who died in 1976, distinguished between investors, to whom he addressed his advice, with mere “speculators.”

Kahn assisted Graham and his co-author, David Dodd, in the research for “Security Analysis,” their seminal work on finding undervalued stocks and bonds, which was first published in 1934. In the book’s second edition, published in 1940, the authors credited Kahn for guiding a study on the significance of a stock’s relative price and earnings.

Graham Eclipsed

In 2012, at 106, Kahn told Bloomberg Businessweek that Graham’s principles, though relevant as ever, were increasingly being drowned out by noise.

“I’ve seen a lot of recoveries,” he said. “I saw crash, recovery, World War II, a lot of economic decline and recovery. What’s different about this time is the huge amount of quote-unquote information. So many people watch financial TV at bars, in the barber shop. This superfluity of information, all this static in the air.”

The Longevity Genes Project at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York took special interest in Kahn and his three siblings, who met the definition of “SuperAgers” -- people who reached 95 without having cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes or dementia.

Kahn’s sister, Helen Reichert, died six weeks shy of her 110th birthday, in 2011. Another sister, Leonore, died in 2005 at 101, healthy until injuring herself in a fall. The youngest sibling, Peter, died at 103 in February 2014. He and Helen had changed their surnames to Keane after encountering anti-Semitism in the 1930s, said Thomas Kahn.

Drops Out

Irving Kahn was born in Manhattan on Dec. 19, 1905, to Saul Kahn, a salesman of electric fixtures, and his wife, Mamie. He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and attended City College for two years before dropping out to go into business.

In 1928, working as a clerk at the Wall Street brokerage Kuhn, Loeb & Co., Kahn heard about a trader named Graham who seemed to know how to outperform the market. Kahn visited Graham’s office at the New York Cotton Exchange, and an alliance was born.

“I learned from Ben Graham that one could study financial statements to find stocks that were a ‘dollar selling for 50 cents,’” Kahn told the Telegraph. “He called this the ‘margin of safety’ and it’s still the most important concept related to risk.”

In June 1929, Kahn sold short 50 shares of Magma Copper, betting $300 -- more than $4,000 in today’s dollars -- that the price would fall. Four months later, on Oct. 29, 1929, the market crashed. Kahn’s $300 investment would triple in value.

Trader ‘Gambling’

He had counted on a downturn, he later explained, because he was watching traders bid the price of stocks higher and higher.

“I wasn’t smart,” he said in a 2006 interview with National Public Radio, now known as NPR. “But even a dumb young kid could see these guys were gambling. They were all borrowing money and having a good time and being right for a few months, and after that, you know what happened.”

After trading closed for the day, he would ride the subway with Graham to Columbia and sit in on Graham’s investing classes. He became Graham’s part-time teaching assistant.

He scouted potential investments for Graham’s partnership, Graham-Newman, and worked on Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor” (1949).

When Graham retired from his investment partnership in 1956, he recommended Kahn to clients seeking a new adviser. By then Kahn was a partner at Abraham & Co., which was later bought by Lehman Brothers. With sons Alan and Thomas, he parted with Lehman in 1978 to open Kahn Brothers.

Contrarian Investing

Kahn made a practice of poring over technical magazines and scientific journals in search of investment ideas. Like Graham and Buffett, Kahn and his firm sought to be “contrarian in nature,” said Thomas Kahn, whose middle name is Graham. That meant buying securities “that are out of favor and in the dumps for some reason.”

Kahn met his wife, Ruth Perl, at Columbia, where she was studying for her Ph.D. in psychology. They married in 1931; she died in 1996. They raised their three sons at their home in Belle Harbor, in the Queens section of New York. The oldest, Donald, became a math professor at the University of Minnesota. He died last month at 79.

Kahn was a founding member of the New York Society of Security Analysts and was one of the 284 candidates who took the first Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) examination, in 1963.

Guiding Students

He was a co-founder and president of the New York City Job and Career Center, which opened in the early 1970s to teach vocational skills to high-school students.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, which was his 80th year in the finance game, Kahn said he supported proposals to separate deposit-taking banks from those that use their own money to trade securities.

He explained: “I wouldn’t lend you a dime if I knew you loved to gamble at a casino.”

In addition to sons Alan and Thomas and grandson Andrew, he is survived by six other grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

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