Tal Cohen (MBA '01), EVP at Nasdaq, Shares His Perspective on the Markets During the Pandemic

Tal Cohen (MBA '01)
NYU Stern Program: Langone Part-time MBA
Company: Nasdaq
Industry: Financial services

Tal Cohen, executive vice president and head of North American markets at Nasdaq, shares his perspective on the current state of the markets and leadership lessons he's learned during this time.

Tell us a bit about your professional history leading up to your current role at Nasdaq. 

My career started as an accountant covering telecom for Arthur Andersen, one of the Big Six at that time. I subsequently joined the strategy and finance group within American Express where I worked on a number of M&A transactions within the Card & Travel business, tied to the rise of e-commerce. Both of these experiences reinforced my appreciation for the impact that technology can have on the broader economy.

By 2000, Stern had become influential in developing my burgeoning interest in capital markets, which brought me to Instinet, an emerging electronic institutional broker. After leading various product and business units for over a decade, I decided to take on a new challenge—leading a start up!

In 2010 I co-founded and served as CEO at Chi-X Global, a company designed to disrupt incumbent exchanges by introducing technology-led competition. We succeeded in lowering the cost of trading, bringing about innovation, and driving positive policy reform, all for the benefit of investors. Taking a business plan from launch to profitability was an amazing experience, and certainly prepared me for my current role at Nasdaq.

What are your main responsibilities as Nasdaq’s executive vice president and head of North American markets?

I oversee the transaction businesses across North America—equity, options and fixed income—along with the connectivity services business. At Nasdaq, we use technology to help customers navigate financial markets, and we are fortunate to be able serve the full spectrum of investors, banks, and brokers across the globe. These relationships provide invaluable insight into markets and the economy. I wake up every day energized by the opportunities and challenges present with running these businesses. 

We’re about a month past the steep decline in the markets. What is your perspective on how the markets have been holding up?

Let’s start by separating two concepts: how the markets have been functioning and the direction of the market.

Nasdaq and other exchanges have functioned well, and successfully handled unprecedented activity during this difficult period. Well-functioning exchanges play a vital role in helping markets and the broader economy manage uncertainty, and supporting investor confidence. This is possible due to years of preparation and investment in our technology platform. It also is a testament to years of industry-wide testing, the introduction of rules aimed to bolster resiliency, and the implementation of market guardrails designed to protect investors and public companies.

We are all in this together and I firmly believe that our markets can be part of the solution, by providing investors access to liquidity in these times of stress and by allowing businesses to access capital, on a transparent, resilient platform—The Nasdaq Stock Market. For example, what if a healthcare company was unable to raise R&D funds related to a vaccine or potential improvement in testing for COVID-19? 

In terms of market sentiment and direction, it is extremely tough to gauge, as this crisis is truly unprecedented. This is evident when considering the dramatic volatility and price movements unseen since the great depression. As the crisis has unfolded, markets have gotten better and more efficient at processing and calculating the deep implications of this pandemic. While we expect uncertainty to persist until the health crisis is under control, rest assured, Nasdaq is committed to doing its part. 

What impacts have you seen on the markets from the federal stimulus package and the Fed’s actions so far? 

I have been encouraged by Fed actions to date. The Fed’s direct, open and scalable intervention signals to me that they will do whatever is necessary. However, in order to address the longer-term impact, we need a sustainable and aggressive fiscal plan to get our economy back on its feet. 

The government must put money in the hands of those who need it most, and they must do it quickly. We must be aggressive in aiding industries that are most vulnerable, while ensuring it is done on a fair basis to taxpayers. Most importantly, our government must communicate future actions clearly, and with certainty.

What challenges have you faced as a leader during this time, and how have you handled them?

A silver-lining has been seeing how my team has risen to the challenge. I have never been more proud – watching them navigate the professional and personal impact of this health crisis has been inspiring. 

My primary focus has been, and will continue to be, the health and well-being of our employees. Next is the continued and uninterrupted functioning of our capital markets. These are 1 and 1A. In February we began to implement our BCP plan, and by mid-March, 98% of our employees were working from home. Throughout, we have tried to work extremely closely with employees to address both professional and personal matters, including everything from providing safety gear such as face masks, to sourcing any equipment employees need to work from home more comfortably. 

The long-term impact of working remotely is an important matter and we are working hard to bring a sense of normalcy, community and belonging. Simple actions such as virtual happy hours, morning Zoom exercise classes and frequent Town Halls have reduced anxiety and uncertainty during these difficult times. 

What leadership lessons have you learned that you’d like to share?

A personalized approach to managing people is important, in particular for diverse workforces; no two people are the same, so we must adapt how we communicate, manage, and work with each team member.

Empathy and inclusive leadership is key to building trust and loyalty. These attributes are also critical to cultivating teams that can withstand economic cycles and are well positioned for long term success. I’m a strong believer that having a consistent and durable set of values helps leaders face adversity and supports sound decision making. 

Finally, the ability to communicate a clear and cogent vision that employees can get behind and take ownership is a powerful way to establish culture and direction.

What are your favorite Stern memories? 

I really enjoyed my time at NYU, from my professors to classmates. I have many fond memories so hard to point to just a few. That said, what I miss most are the students I got to work with on group projects or late nights studying for exams. While we came from many different backgrounds and had different goals post-graduation, our shared experiences serve to create long lasting bonds and memories that I am so appreciative of.

How do you stay connected to the Stern community now? 

There are current and former Stern students who I communicate with, typically over social media, in an effort to address any questions they may have about the markets or to discuss opportunities in finance. I also keep up with the Stern newsletter on the latest and greatest developments at the university. In the future, I hope to explore more opportunities to stay in touch and give back to the university. 

Have you taken up any hobbies to unwind while in quarantine? Any book or podcast recommendations to share?

I have three teenagers at home so it is like Grand Central Station at times - loud, busy and entertaining. I am blessed to have them. During this time we look for ways to help our neighbors and community affected by the pandemic. 

My Netflix game has been improving. I also started reading “Upstream” by Dan Heath. Its focus is on solving problems before they happen. Very apropos for what we are going through currently.