It might be cliché to say that great professors can exert a shaping influence on your career path. In Josh White’s case, it might also be an understatement.
As a Finance major at the University of Tennessee, Josh aspired to work for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). At the time, the Enron and WorldCom scandals “consumed all the news,” he says. “Here were these guys making all this money and lying on financial statements to investors.”
After graduation, the Knoxville native enrolled in a JD-MBA program at UT. During the program’s first year, one of his professors offered some career-altering advice: he could pursue his same interests in regulation and business with a Ph.D. White liked the idea, changing academic paths to pursue a traditional MBA while simultaneously beginning a doctoral program.
Later, his mentor provided a more direct career intervention. As it happened, two SEC officials — Commissioner Luis Aguilar and Deputy Chief Economist Kathleen Hanley — gave a talk in Knoxville. “My adviser had the foresight to know that I should meet with them,” White says. “She arranged a breakfast and invited me.” The breakfast conversation led to an interview and then a post-doctoral job offer. “I made it to the SEC as an economist,” he says, “instead of as an attorney.”
His timing was fortuitous. Under Professor Craig Lewis, who took a leave from Owen to serve as the SEC’s Chief Economist, the agency began enhancing cost-benefit analyses for proposed new rules. “He effectively became the sixth SEC commissioner,” White says. The new approach that Lewis implemented provided invaluable opportunities for a scholar like White to study the intersection of finance, regulation and corporate strategy — and provided a foundation for an academic career that began at the University of Georgia and then brought him to Vanderbilt, where he was reunited with Lewis, in 2017.
White’s scholarly output has been prolific. Several of his studies draw on his experience in Washington. One paper detailed how the SEC came to define “qualified residential mortgages” in a way that actually excluded the two biggest risk factors (credit scores and loan-to-value ratios) in mortgage defaults. Another paper examined Securities Offering Reform (SOR) — a deregulatory move by the SEC that eased disclosure restrictions on corporations prior to seasoned equity offerings. Contrary to dire predictions from some commentators, White found that the new rule improved the flow of information in the market and benefited investors and companies.
Some of White’s most recent research debunks another common view: that anti-takeover defenses by companies stifle innovation and hurt shareholder interests.
All of White’s work informs his classroom teaching. At a basic level, MBA students in his Corporate Financial Policy course gain a better understanding of how the law drives corporate decisions. He reinforces the lesson with case studies and questions drawn from current events.
Another lesson from White’s SEC days: Make finance understandable to students without Finance backgrounds. His former boss, Mary Jo White, fit that description; before becoming Chair of the SEC, she had been the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan who successfully prosecuted criminals from John Gotti to the terrorists behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “You learn to teach in a way that’s not patronizing when you make presentations to Mary Jo White,” he says.
Most of all, White seeks to be a mentor as others were for him. In 2018, after a student took an interest in a topic covered in class, White helped him conduct an independent study of the effects of the Trump tax cuts on investment and share repurchases. Recalling his own time as a post-doc at the SEC, he’s also working with two young scholars in the Finance Department’s recently expanded post-doctoral program to help them develop their research portfolio. “Mentorship,” he says, “had a profound effect on me. I am trying to pay it forward.”