Raj Sharma has made the Barron’s list of top financial advisers in America for more than a decade. He runs the Sharma Group and is managing director of Merrill Lynch Private Banking and Investment Group in Boston, overseeing more than $10 billion for clients. He spoke recently with Globe reporter Beth Healy about the markets and his career. Here’s what she found out.
1 Sharma didn’t grow up dreaming of stocks and bonds. His first passion was for music and records, which led him to work as a disc jockey in India, where he grew up. Even after his father persuaded him to get an MBA in India, he came to the United States to get a master’s degree in communications at Emerson College.
“I always say I’m an accidental adviser,” said Sharma. “My dad said, ‘Raj, become a banker.’ I said, ‘Dad, you don’t know anything. It’s more fun to be a DJ.’ ”
His first job was at an English language radio station in Hyderabad in southern India, where he had a two-hour, early morning slot. They paid him next to nothing — about as much per week as it cost to buy a meal out. But he loved it.
“I was listening to Voice of America at 2 a.m., and I heard that Elvis died. The next day at 6 a.m. was my two-hour show. I knew my radio station had only one LP of Elvis. So I called my friend and traveled 10 or 15 miles on my little motor bike at 4:30 in the morning to borrow his Elvis records. When my show started, I said, ‘This is Raj Sharma. Elvis has died; the king is dead.’ I played Elvis nonstop for one-and-a-half hours. They suspended me because I made a death announcement.’’
Sharma made the leap to financial services after seeing that all his friends in media and film were broke.
“Filmmakers are fun to hang out with, but nobody had any money.’’
As luck would have it, he started at Merrill Lynch two months before the stock market crash of 1987. He says he learned a lot from the tough entry.
“It was actually a great time to start because there was so much uncertainty. I tried to understand why the crash happened, and why people lost money. Every time, people lose money because of [borrowing] and debt. People got in trouble in the crash because they were borrowing money to buy stocks. It was the same with the financial crisis — only they were borrowing money to buy houses.’’
Sharma, 57, says he tries to understand people’s financial goals and how they spend their money, when helping them make a plan. And while his clients are generally very wealthy, he knows everyone is a little nervous about the risks in the market right now.
“Stocks are no longer undervalued. I think they’re fairly valued. We still think equities are going to be much better than bonds over the next 5 years. However, you have to temper your expectations of returns.”
As for bonds, they’re a little scary now too, with interest rates eventually likely to head up.
“Bonds are like vitamins. Everybody needs some. What we are doing with bonds today is laddered portfolios of individual bonds. It’s a defensive way of structuring a bond portfolio. It’s been a phenomenal time for bond investors, and I think we are looking at progressively higher rates over the next few years [meaning a decline in the value of bonds]. You need to be careful with your bond exposure.’’
Sharma became a US citizen 20 years ago and has served on a number of nonprofit boards here.
“A good piece of me is in India. But I’ve been incredibly fortunate as an immigrant coming to this country. My grandfather was a criminal lawyer under Mahatma Gandhi. My father was a chemist. English was my quasi-mother tongue. I feel it’s important to not just do well for my family, but for the community. I believe in helping other immigrants find the American dream.”Beth Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.