Category Archives: Corporate Life

Dilbert-like thoughts

Latter-day Robin Hoods

The other day, I was watching Bill Gates on The Daily Show with Jon Stewartmy favorite TV show. Gates touched upon his plans to spend billions of his own dollars on vaccines, education and other humanitarian projects through his foundation. Clearly passionate about his philanthropic efforts, Gates showed a milder side that wasn’t visible ten years ago during the corporate battles of the Microsoft kind.

Perhaps Gates is a naturally passionate guy, whether he is writing tiny operating systems that would fit in floppies or behemoth ones that would fit nowhere, whether in technical innovation or marketing wizardry, whether greedily amassing billions or, as now, spending it kindly. But attributing his philanthropy to his natural passion for everything he does is unfair, and diminishes its value. After all, he could have been spending (or at least, trying to spend) his money on himself just as passionately. That’s why I think of him as a modern-day Robin Hood, despite my geeky dislike for anything Microsoft-related, which is perhaps only a geek covenant now, rather than a practical ideology.

Robin Hood’s romantic idea of stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor had a critical flaw. He was an outlaw. The trouble with being an outlaw is that the full might of the legal system can be brought to bear on you quite independently of the morality of your activity. In Gate’s case, it would be like embezzling billions from Microsoft coffers and distributing it to the homeless, for instance. What he did, instead, was to make money in the stock market (which, of course, is embezzlement of a legal kind) and then give it to the poor. In other words, he stayed within the system and found a way to turn it around to his humanitarian purpose. If that is what he wanted to all along, kudos to him!

But what is thissystemthat we have to work from within? That’s an involved topic for another day. Stay tuned!

Midlife Crisis

In one of my recent posts, an astute friend of mine detected a tinge of midlife crisis. He was right, of course. At some point, typically around midlife, a lot of us find it boring. The whole thing. How could it not be boring? We repeat the same mundane things over and over at all levels. True, at times we manage to convince ourselves that the mundane things are not mundane, but important, and overlay a higher purpose over our existence. Faith helps. So do human bondages. But, no matter how we look at it, we are all pushing our own personal rocks to a mountaintop, only to to see it roll down at the end of the dayknowing that it invariably will. Our own individual Sisyphuses, cursed with the ultimate futility and absurdity of it all. And, as if to top it off, our knowledge of it!

Why did Camus say we went through the Sisyphus life? Ah, yes, because we got into the habit of living before acquiring the faculty of thinking. By midlife, perhaps, our thinking catches up with our innate existential urges, and manifests itself as a crisis. Most of us survive it, and as Camus himself pointed out, Sisyphus was probably a happy man, despite having to eternally push the rock up the slope. So let’s exercise our thinking faculty assuming it is not too dangerous.

Most of us have a daily life that is some variation of the terse French descriptionmetro, boulot, dodo. We commute to work, make some money for ourselves (and more for somebody else), eat the same lunch, sit through the same meetings, rush back home, watch TV and hit the sack. Throw in a gym session and an overseas trip once in a while, and that’s about it. This is the boring not merely because it really is, but also because this is what everybody does!

Imagine that — countless millions of us, born somewhere at some point in time, working hard to acquire some money, or knowledge, or fame, or glory, or loveany one of the thousands of variations of Sisyphus’s rockonly to see it all tumble down to nothingness an another point in time. If this isn’t absurd, what is?

If I were to leave this post at this point, I can see my readers looking for theUnsubscribebutton en masse. To do anything useful with this depressing idea of futile rock-pushing rat-race, we need to see beyond it. Or have faith, if we canthat there is a purpose, and a justification for everything, and that we are not meant to know this elusive purpose.

Since you are reading this blog, you probably don’t subscribe to the faith school. Let’s then look for the answer elsewhere. With your permission I will start with something Japanese. Admittedly, my exposure to the Japanese culture comes from Samurai movies and a couple of short trips to Japan, but lack of expertise has never stopped me from expressing my views on a subject. Why do you think the Japanese take such elaborate care and pride in something as silly as pouring tea?

Well, I think they are saying something much deeper. It is not that pouring tea is important. The point is nothing is important. Everything is just another manifestation of the Sisyphus rock. When nothing is important, nothing is unimportant either. Now, that is something profound. Pouring tea is no less (or more) important than writing books on quantitative finance, or listening to that old man attempting the Susannah song on his mouth-organ on Market Street. When you know that all rocks will come tumbling down just as soon as you reach the pinnacle of your existence, it doesn’t matter what rock you carry with you to the top. As long as you carry it well. And happily.

So I try to write this blog post as well as I possibly can.

Modeling the Models

Mathematical finance is built on a couple of assumptions. The most fundamental of them is the one on market efficiency. It states that the market prices every asset fairly, and the prices contain all the information available in the market. In other words, you cannot glean any more information by doing any research or technical analysis, or indeed any modeling. If this assumption doesn’t pan out, then the quant edifice we build on top of it will crumble. Some may even say that it did crumble in 2008.

We know that this assumption is not quite right. If it was, there wouldn’t be any transient arbitrage opportunities. But even at a more fundamental level, the assumption has shaky justification. The reason that the market is efficient is that the practitioners take advantage of every little arbitrage opportunity. In other words, the markets are efficient because they are not so efficient at some transient level.

Mark Joshi, in his well-respected book, “The Concepts and Practice of Mathematical Finance,” points out that Warren Buffet made a bundle of money by refusing to accept the assumption of market efficiency. In fact, the weak form of market efficiency comes about because there are thousands of Buffet wannabes who keep their eyes glued to the ticker tapes, waiting for that elusive mispricing to show up.

Given that the quant careers, and literally trillions of dollars, are built on the strength of this assumption, we have to ask this fundamental question. Is it wise to trust this assumption? Are there limits to it?

Let’s take an analogy from physics. I have this glass of water on my desk now. Still water, in the absence of any turbulence, has a flat surface. We all know whygravity and surface tension and all that. But we also know that the molecules in water are in random motion, in accordance with the same Brownian process that we readily adopted in our quant world. One possible random configuration is that half the molecules move, say, to the left, and the other half to the right (so that the net momentum is zero).

If that happens, the glass on my desk will break and it will make a terrible mess. But we haven’t heard of such spontaneous messes (from someone other than our kids, that is.)

The question then is, can we accept the assumption on the predictability of the surface of water although we know that the underlying motion is irregular and random? (I am trying to make a rather contrived analogy to the assumption on market efficiency despite the transient irregularities.) The answer is a definite yes. Of course, we take the flatness of liquid surfaces for granted in everything from the useless lift-pumps and siphons of our grade school physics books all the way to dams and hydro-electric projects.

So what am I quibbling about? Why do I harp on the possibility of uncertain foundations? I have two reasons. One is the question of scale. In our example of surface flatness vs. random motion, we looked at a very large collection, where, through the central limit theorem and statistical mechanics, we expect nothing but regular behavior. If I was studying, for instance, how an individual virus propagates through the blood stream, I shouldn’t make any assumptions on the regularity in the behavior of water molecules. This matter of scale applies to quantitative finance as well. Are we operating at the right scale to ignore the shakiness of the market efficiency assumption?

The second reason for mistrusting the pricing models is a far more insidious one. Let me see if I can present it rather dramatically using my example of the tumbler of water. Suppose we make a model for the flatness of the water surface, and the tiny ripples on it as perturbations or something. Then we proceed to use this model to extract tiny amounts of energy from the ripples.

The fact that we are using the model impacts the flatness or the nature of the ripples, affecting the underlying assumptions of the model. Now, imagine that a large number of people are using the same model to extract as much energy as they can from this glass of water. My hunch is that it will create large scale oscillations, perhaps generating configurations that do indeed break the glass and make a mess. Discounting the fact that this hunch has its root more in the financial mess that spontaneously materialized rather than any solid physics argument, we can still see that large fluctuations do indeed seem to increase the energy that can be extracted. Similarly, large fluctuations (and the black swans) may indeed be a side effect of modeling.

Group Dynamics

When researchers and academicians move to quantitative finance, they have to grapple with some culture shock. Not only does the field of finance operate at a faster pace, it also puts great emphasis on team work. It cuts wide rather than deep. Quick results that have immediate and widespread impact are better than perfect and elegant solutions that may take time to forge. We want it done quick rather than right. Academicians are just the opposite. They want to take years to mull over deep problems, often single-handedly, and come up with solutions elegant and perfect.

Coupled with this perfectionism, there is a curious tendency among academic researchers toward creating awowfactor with their results, as opposed to finance professionals who are quite content with thewowfactor in their bonuses. This subtle mismatch generates interesting manifestations. Academics who make the mid-career switch to finance tend to work either alone or in small groups, trying to perfect an impressive prototype. Banking professionals, on the other hand, try to leverage on each other (at times taking credit for other people’s work) and roll out potentially incomplete solutions as early as possible. The intellectual need for awowmay be a factor holding back at least some quant deliverables.

Philosophy of Money

Underlying all financial activity are transactions involving money. The termtransactionsmeans something philosophically different in economics. It stands for exchanges of goods and services. Money, in economic transactions, has only a transactional value. It plays the role of a medium facilitating the exchanges. In financial transactions, however, money becomes the entity that is being transacted. Financial systems essentially move money from savings and transforms it into capital. Thus money takes on an investment value, in addition to its intrinsic transactional value. This investment value is the basis of interest.

Given that the investment value is also measured and returned in terms of money, we get the notion of compound interest andputting money to work.Those who have money demand returns based on the investment risk they are willing to assume. And the role of modern financial system becomes one of balancing this risk-reward equation.

We should keep in mind that this signification of money as investment entity is indeed a philosophical choice that we have made over the past few centuries. Other choices do existIslamic banking springs to mind, although its practice has be diluted by the more widely held view of money as possessing an investment value. It is fascinating to study the history and philosophy of money, but it is a topic that calls for a full-length book on its own right. Understanding money at its most fundamental level may in fact enhance our productivitywhich is again measured in terms of the bottom line, consistent with the philosophy of money that enjoys currency.

Back to Blogging

It has been a while since I wrote anything on my blog. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t writing. In fact, I was very busy with my second book. I managed to send in the draft manuscript to John Wiley & Sons a couple of weeks ago, but only after the associated sleep deprivation had become a more or less habitual insomnia. I also finished everything I wanted to do on the plugin front. Now, I am ready to blog again.

The habitualization of insomnia is probably not in vain. John Wiley and Co will get back to me with their comments and suggestions, which will keep me busy for a couple of months again working on the book. The book, Principles of Quantitative Development, is an attempt to find the niche at the intersection of computer science, mathematical finance, and the business of trading and making money. I felt that this niche was being neglected, and the void thus created may have been the proverbial straw on the camel’s back that precipitated the current financial meltdown. In setting its sight at such a large problem from its lofty soapbox, the book indeed starts with an ambitious goal, but perhaps a timely one.

On the plugin development front, my latest contribution is a translator for other plugins. It will be of interest to fellow plugin authors and their international users. It is a fairly nifty piece of software, if I may say so myself. If you want to take a quick look, here it is. Easy Translator and my other gem, Theme Tweaker, may not become as popular as my other plugins (which help bloggers make money through AdSense), but they showcase ideas and programming wizardry that few other plugins do. As you can tell, I’m rather proud of them.

Back to blogging now, coming up in the next few days will be an analysis of the philosophy of money (an idea for my next book), the reasons behind quantitative professionalsfailings, and a comparison of the work-culture in a corporate machine and the idyllic (but poorly compensated) academic life. Ah, how I miss those days. There is an old Chinese saying: Be careful what you wish for; you may get it!

Slippery Slopes

But, this dictum of denying bonus to the whole firm during bad times doesn’t work quite right either, for a variety of interesting reasons. First, let’s look at the case of the AIG EVP. AIG is a big firm, with business units that operate independently of each other, almost like distinct financial institutions. If I argued that AIG guys should get no bonus because the firm performed abysmally, one could point out that the financial markets as a whole did badly as well. Does it mean that no staff in any of the banks should make any bonus even if their particular bank did okay? And why stop there? The whole economy is doing badly. So, should we even out all performance incentives? Once we start going down that road, we end up on a slippery slope toward socialism. And we all know that that idea didn’t pan out so well.

Another point about the current bonus scheme is that it already conceals in it the same time segmentation that I ridiculed in my earlier post. True, the time segmentation is by the year, rather than by the month. If a trader or an executive does well in one year, he reaps the rewards as huge bonus. If he messes up the next year, sure, he doesn’t get any bonus, but he still has his basic salary till the time he is let go. It is like a free call option implied in all high-flying banking jobs.

Such free call options exist in all our time-segmented views of life. If you are a fraudulent, Ponzi-scheme billionaire, all you have to do is to escape detection till you die. The bane of capitalism is that fraud is a sin only when discovered, and until then, you enjoy a rich life. This time element paves the way for another slippery slope towards fraud and corruption. Again, it is something like a call option with unlimited upside and a downside that is somehow floored, both in duration and intensity.

There must be a happy equilibrium between these two slippery slopesone toward dysfunctional socialism, and the other toward cannibalistic corruption. It looks to me like the whole financial system was precariously perched on a meta-stable equilibrium between these two. It just slipped on to one of the slopes last year, and we are all trying to rope it back on to the perching point. In my romantic fancy, I imagine a happier and more stable equilibrium existed thirty or forty years ago. Was it in the opposing economic ideals of the cold war? Or was it in the welfare state concepts of Europe, where governments firmly controlled the commanding heights of their economies? If so, can we expect China (or India, or Latin America) to bring about a much needed counterweight?

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Profit Sharing

Among all the arguments for hefty bonuses, the most convincing is the one on profit generation and sharing. Profit for the customers and stakeholders, if generated by a particular executive, should be shared with him. What is wrong with that?

The last argument for bonus incentives we will look at is this one in terms of profit (and therefore shareholder value) generation. Well, shareholder value in the current financial turmoil has taken such a beating that no sane bank executive would present it as an argument. What is left then is a rather narrow definition of profit. Here it gets tricky. The profits for most financial institutes were abysmal. The argument from the AIG executive is that he and his team had nothing to do with the loss making activities, and they should receive the promised bonus. They distance themselves from the debacle and carve out their tiny niche that didn’t contribute to it. Such segmentation, although it sounds like a logical stance, is not quite right. To see its fallacy, let’s try a time segmentation. Let’s say a trader did extremely well for a few months making huge profits, and messed up during the rest of the year ending up with an overall loss. Now, suppose he argues, “Well, I did well for January, March and August. Give me my 300% for those months.Nobody is going to buy that argument. I think what applies to time should also apply to space (sorry, business units or asset classes, I mean). If the firm performs poorly, perhaps all bonuses should disappear.

As we will see in the last post of the series, this argument for and against hefty incentives is a tricky one with some surprising implications.

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Talent Retention

Even after we discount hard work and inherent intelligence as the basis of generous compensation packages, we are not quite done yet.

The next argument in favour of hefty bonuses presents incentives as a means of retaining the afore-mentioned talent. Looking at the state of affairs of the financial markets, the general public may understandably quip, “What talent?” and wonder why anybody would want to retain it. That implied criticism notwithstanding, talent retention is a good argument.

As a friend of mine illustrated it with an example, suppose you have a great restaurant thanks mainly to a superlative chef. Everything is going honky dory. Then, out of the blue, an idiot cook of yours burns down the whole establishment. You, of course, sack the cook’s rear end, but would perhaps like to retain the chef on your payroll so that you have a chance of making it big again once the dust settles. True, you don’t have a restaurant to run, but you don’t want your competitor to get his hands on your ace chef. Good argument. My friend further conceded that once you took public funding, the equation changed. You probably no longer had any say over payables, because the money was not yours.

I think the equation changes for another reason as well. When all the restaurants in town are pretty much burned down, where is your precious chef going to go? Perhaps it doesn’t take huge bonuses to retain him now.

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Talent and Intelligence

In the last post, I argued that how hard we work has nothing much to do with how much reward we should reap. After all, there are taxi drivers who work longer and harder, and even more unfortunate souls in the slums of India and other poor countries.

But, I am threading on real thin ice when I compare, however obliquely, senior executives to cabbies and slum dogs. They are (the executives, that is) clearly a lot more talented, which brings me to the famous talent argument for bonuses. What is this talent thing? Is it intelligence and articulation? I once met a taxi driver in Bangalore who was fluent in more than a dozen languages as disparate as English and Arabic. I discovered his hidden talent by accident when he cracked up at something my father said to mea private joke in our vernacular, which I have seldom found a non-native speaker attempt. I couldn’t help thinking thengiven another place and another time, this cabbie would have been a professor in linguistics or something. Talent may be a necessary condition for success (and bonus), but it certainly is not a sufficient one. Even among slum dogs, we might find ample talent, if the Oscar-winning movie is anything to go by. Although, the protagonist in the movie does make his million dollar bonus, but it was only fiction.

In real life, however, lucky accidents of circumstances play a more critical role than talent in putting us on the right side of the income divide. To me, it seems silly to claim a right to the rewards based on any perception of talent or intelligence. Heck, intelligence itself, however we define it, is nothing but a happy genetic accident.

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