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Stories from the Field: Juliet Kong Stiehl

Stories from the Field: Juliet Kong Stiehl
Public Finance: Explaining the Many Aspects of Public Sector Finance Work

Q&A with Juliet Kong Stiehl, Head of Public Finance, East Region, Build America Mutual

In this Stories from the Field series, Natalie Cohen, senior fellow, Milken Institute Center for Financial Markets, interviews leaders in the field of public finance to trace their career paths and identify innovative accomplishments from which others can learn. We hope our readers and listeners—whether new to the field or experienced and seeking to advance their public finance careers—will learn more about the area and find inspiration from their innovation.

Juliet Kong Stiehl’s early interest in government studies led her to pursue an undergraduate major at Harvard University. Upon graduation, Stiehl interviewed and was accepted into a rotating analyst position at Financial Security Assurance, a legacy bond insurance company. That program afforded recent graduates the opportunity to work and learn in a variety of sectors and roles within the company. At that point in time, Stiehl wasn’t sure exactly where in finance she wanted to work, so the various rotations offered her insight into possible avenues to pursue.

Many of the largest investment and commercial banks offer analyst training programs and, in some cases, are considered on par with an MBA in finance—although with the difference that you work in numerous departments and get paid. As Stiehl moved through the various rotations, she realized that her interest in government finance was a good fit.

Stiehl explained the nature of bond insurance as a guarantee from the company to pay debt service on a bond when the issuer is unable to pay—at whatever point of time in the life of the security. Stiehl quipped, “Some people say we have to marry our deals.” Getting to the point of offering an insurance policy, however, involves a comprehensive review of demographics, financial condition, governance, and management, including an assessment of a borrower’s potential vulnerabilities and strengths. An analyst also reviews statutory authorization for debt, any unique revenue and spending limitations, legal structure, and the covenants a borrower agrees to meet. The analyst aims to determine the likelihood that a borrower will be able to pay over the life of the security, which might stretch out over 20–30 years.

Stiehl also spoke about some of the other roles and activities her job involves at Build America Mutual (BAM). She spent several years as head of recruiting new analysts/underwriters. The program was recently expanded to include internships at an earlier stage, and on completion, interns might be offered a position in the rotating analyst program.

It is important, Stiehl stressed, to include these analysts in a wide variety of company activities. As they grow through the program, they will add greater value and understand the expectations of their jobs. The rotating analyst program has also allowed the company to attract students from different backgrounds.

The company expanded the scope of colleges and universities they visit and recruit from, rather than just the Ivy Leagues. They’ve also created a partnership with Project Basta, which provides career readiness training for first-generation college students, including writing resumes and practicing interviews. BAM offers detailed feedback to Project Basta participants and has hired a number of them into the internship program.

Stiehl spoke about how diverse her job can be from day to day. One day, she may be sitting in front of her computer crunching ratios and analyzing financial statements or a borrower’s demographics. The next day, she may be writing her report in preparation for a presentation to the credit committee that decides on whether to offer an insurance policy on a transaction. She may fly off to a conference the next day to meet with clients or present on a panel. Her work has also covered multiple sectors, including airport and roadway transportation, public transit, water and sewer infrastructure, K–12 education, and state and local general government finance.

BAM has developed a green bond certification and is qualified as an official verifier under the Climate Bond Initiative. Stiehl mentioned the investors’ increasing interest in knowing that their investments advance positive action on climate as well as social and governance impact. This desire is popular, in particular among young up-and-comers in the industry. Despite remaining at the same company for many years, the diversity of activities and involvement keep things fresh and interesting for Stiehl. She invited those with even a glimmer of interest in the field to try it!