Named one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance, Rebecca Patterson shepherds the investments of the nation’s 1 percent. But she credits her UF journalism degree with setting her apart.
On the evening of November 8, 2016, investor Rebecca Patterson (BSJ ’90) was hunkered in her loft apartment in downtown Manhattan, fielding calls from work colleagues and watching the U.S. election night returns come in. As the chief investment officer of Bessemer Trust, she was responsible for guarding her wealthy clients’ portfolios – a staggering $125 billion in assets under supervision – and tonight’s results could roil financial markets around the world, putting her clients’ capital at risk.
Since 8 a.m., the polls had been heavily predicting a win for Hillary Clinton, but Patterson wasn’t taking chances. Her team had created investment playbooks for the three possible outcomes: a Clinton win, a Trump win and a night with no clear winner, as in Bush/Gore 2000.
At 8:20 p.m., The New York Times confidently gave Clinton an 82 percent chance of winning. Early Wednesday morning, at 2:31 a.m., in a victory characterized as an “upset” by the media, Donald Trump was declared America’s 45th president.
The journalism skills I acquired at the University of Florida are what differentiate me as an investor.
— Rebecca Patterson —
Patterson didn’t wait for the opening bell on Wall Street to act. While the president-elect and his supporters were popping champagne corks at the New York Hilton Midtown, Patterson gave her team the go-ahead to begin trading in Asia, selling off stocks there and rebalancing clients’ portfolios. This playbook was based on key promises Trump had made on the campaign trail.
“Candidate Trump had repeatedly said that if elected president, he would be tough on China and punish China for manipulating its currency,” said Patterson in a recent interview.
On November 9, when all the Asian stock markets posted heavy losses, Bessemer’s assets were buffered from the fallout – removed largely from emerging markets and placed in U.S. equities.
The 2016 presidential election was a singular event, but Patterson’s decision making that night exemplifies the leadership and foresight that prompted American Banker to name her one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance.
“We spend a lot of time, I like to call it, ‘looking around corners,’ trying to imagine what could happen,” Patterson said about leading her team of 90-plus researchers, analysts and portfolio managers.
In addition to shepherding the investments of America’s 1 percent, Patterson serves on the Council of Foreign Relations, the New York Federal Reserves’ Investor Advisory Committee and the Economic Club of New York, as well as chairs the University of Florida Investment Corporation (UFICO) Board of Directors. Her financial acumen is also sought after by producers at CNBC, where as a regular contributor she offers fast-paced market analysis on Fast Money, Squawk Box and other shows.
“We’ve come to depend on Rebecca’s insight and research-based, unbiased opinion of the financial markets,” said CNBC Executive Producer Jason Gewirtz. “She really has great range and is plugged into many different sectors and regions all over the world.”
How did a homegrown Florida girl end up at the epicenter of international investing? It all began in the late 1980s at the University of Florida, where Patterson majored not in business or economics, as one might expect, but in journalism.
“The journalism skills I acquired at the University of Florida are what differentiate me as an investor,” she said. “As a journalist, you’re trained to ask questions, to be a skeptical listener and to put together different pieces to get different perspectives.
“Today, when I think about the world and the economy and where things are going, I rely on those same processes, except with more quantitative rigor.”
Please Feed the Gators
Born in St. Louis in the late 1960s, Rebecca moved to Gainesville with her parents and older brother, Matthew, when she was just a few months old. Her father, Jim Patterson (1936-2004), worked as publications director for the University of Florida, while mom Betty was a former journalist. The Gators soon loomed large in the Pattersons’ lives, as did actual ravenous reptiles.
Rebecca’s earliest memories include trips to Lake Alice in the family’s 1969 convertible black-and-white VW bug. Dad would park the car at the shoreline, roll down the canvas top and give the all-clear for Rebecca and Matthew to feed the alligators, while Betty cautioned the preschoolers not to fall in.
“I apologize to anyone hearing about this today, but we didn’t know better,” said Rebecca. “We used to feed the alligators marshmallows.”
In 1972, the Pattersons moved to Largo, in the Tampa Bay area, where Mom and Dad opened their own PR firm, Shoreline Communigraphics, in their garage.
Forget about cheering on the USF Bulls; the Pattersons remained hardcore Gators, with Dad wearing a plastic Gator head on game days. Naturally, Rebecca was UF-bound when it came time for college. Any question of a major evaporated in her junior year of high school when she signed up for a journalism class.
“It was a lightbulb moment,” she said. “Journalism came so naturally; it wasn’t even an effort.”
‘Ledes’ and Leotards
In the fall of ’86, with the goal of eventually becoming an expert in European affairs, Patterson entered UF’s College of Journalism and Communications (CJC), where she majored in print journalism and edited Florida Blue Key’s Keynotes. She also wrote articles for the Gainesville Sun. Some of those early lessons – like how to write a lede (the opening of a news article) and convey information effectively – still help her to this day.
“At Bessemer, I have to communicate with my clients about what I’m doing with their money, and I need to do it clearly and succinctly in English, no buzzwords or jargon,” said Bessemer. “Journalism helped me tremendously with that.”
The high-achieving undergrad belonged to Alpha Delta Pi sorority and served as vice president of the Mortar Board Senior Honor Society; she was also tapped for Omicron Delta Kappa and Savant Leadership Honorary. However, her most memorable extracurricular activity involved wearing Spandex at Gator games.
“People laugh at me now, but I was one of the members of the inaugural  Dazzlers dance troupe,” said Patterson, who grew up studying dance.
“The only thing I’m slightly embarrassed by are the outfits, which we thought were attractive in the late ’80s: white bikinis over blue leotards,” she said. “They looked like little white diapers!”
From Journalist to Analyst
Her UF diploma in hand, Patterson did a year of graduate studies in Strasbourg, France, and then began covering politics, financial markets and economics for the Associated Press, Dow Jones and the St. Petersburg Times. Her growing fascination with finance motivated her to earn a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University in 1995, after which she covered foreign-exchange (FX) markets in New York and London.
While working in London in 1997, Patterson met her future husband, Robert Frank, then a European correspondent for the Wall Street Journal (and now CNBC’s wealth editor and the author of “Richistan”). The couple’s romance entered a more serious phase the following year when the Journal offered Frank a job in Singapore. As he later recounted to The New York Times, he told Patterson, “I’ll go to Singapore, but only if you will go with me.”
Patterson said yes, making a dramatic career switch to become an FX research analyst at J.P. Morgan’s Singapore investment bank.
“Moving from journalism to finance was a leap into the unknown for me,” Patterson told Business Insider in 2017. “I’m so grateful for that because I got a chance to really understand China and the region, and that’s helped me immensely in my career.”
She would stay at J.P. Morgan for 15 years, rising to become global head of currencies and commodities, and then chief investment strategist for institutional clients.
In July 2001, Patterson and Frank flew from Singapore to New York for their wedding ceremony, after which the couple permanently settled in Manhattan. In June 2005, she earned an MBA from New York University, just four days prior to giving birth to their first child, daughter Amelia. (A second daughter, Elana, was born in 2008.) By then, Patterson was a vice president at J.P. Morgan and was frequently being quoted as a currency expert by leading newspapers and business journals, as well as appearing on CNN and Fox News.
A Day in the Life
Skip forward to 2012. In that year, Patterson became the first woman chief investment officer of Bessemer Trust, a private firm created in 1907 by Carnegie Steel cofounder Henry Phipps Jr. Today Bessemer is the one of the world’s largest wealth managers for ultra-affluent families, with the average client/family investing $43 million.
It is said that a CIO needs nerves of steel to survive the job’s high-stakes demands, but Patterson relishes the challenges of “peering around corners” and making money for her firm.
“It’s fascinating and really interesting and fun,” she said.
What has always impressed me about UF is that despite having more than 50,000 students, there is this amazing sense of community on campus.
— Rebecca Patterson —
A typical day for Patterson begins at 5:30 a.m., when she checks her phone to see what’s been going on in the world while she was asleep. An hour later, she’s at her office desk at 630 Fifth Avenue, in the Rockefeller Center complex in midtown Manhattan, where she scrutinizes events in the world’s markets and gets ready for a day of meetings with clients, senior leadership and staff. Some days she pops over to the Nasdaq MarketSite studio, overlooking Times Square, to comment on market behavior for CNBC. By 7 p.m., she’s back at her and Frank’s downtown apartment for a meal with their daughters, now 14 and 11.
“At night around the dinner table, more often than not, we’re talking about current events and the markets, and the girls hear it,” said Patterson, who believes in taking the girls to marches and demonstrations so they witness, she says, democracy in action.
“I do it not to brainwash them to believe in one party or another, but to make sure they understand they have a voice and a responsibility to use it,” she said.
A UF Family
In the midst of her busy life, Patterson finds time to give back to the Gator Nation. In addition to chairing the UFICO advisory board, she and her husband support a CJC fund that helps students having financial difficulties due to unexpected circumstances or crises. It is their way of saying thank you to the college, as well as the journalism profession itself.
“I credit much of my success to my ability to digest information, separate noise from news, and communicate quickly and effectively,” she said. “My husband, also a journalist, appreciates the training I had and my love of and connections with the university.”
Patterson has also shared her wisdom at the CJC’s Becoming a Woman of Influence workshop. The annual event showcases successful women alumni in the communications field.
Returning to the scene of her Dazzler days reminds Patterson of what sets UF apart.
“What has always impressed me about UF is that despite having more than 50,000 students, there is this amazing sense of community on campus,” she said, “whether it’s with your dance troupe, your classmates, your Greek friends or your extracurriculars.
“It’s an amazing testament to the university that they’re able to take a big school and make it feel really close, like a family.”