Singapore is a tiny city-state. Despite its diminutive size, Singapore has considerable financial muscle. It has been rated the fourth most active foreign exchange trading hub, and a major wealth management center in Asia, with funds amounting to almost half a trillion dollars, according to the Monitory Authority of Singapore. This mighty financial clout has its origins in a particularly pro-business atmosphere, world class (well, better than world class, in fact) infrastructure, and the highly skilled, cosmopolitan workforce–all of which Singapore is rightfully proud of.
Among the highly skilled workforce are scattered a hundred or so typically timid and self-effacing souls with bulging foreheads and dreamy eyes behind thick glasses. They are the Singaporean quants, and this short article is their story.
Quants command enormous respect for their intellectual prowess and mathematical knowledge. With flattering epithets like “rocket scientists” or simply “the brain,” quants silently go about their jobs of validating pricing models, writing C++ programs and developing complicated spreadsheet solutions.
But knowledge is a tricky thing to have in Asia. If you are known for your expertise, it can backfire on you at times. Unless you are careful, others will take advantage of your expertise and dump their responsibilities on you. You may not mind it as long as they respect your expertise. But, they often hog the credit for your work and present their ability to evade work as people management skills. And people managers (who may not actually know much) do get better compensated. This paradox is a fact of quant life in Singapore. The admiration that quants enjoy does not always translate to riches here.
This disparity in compensation may be okay. Quants are not terribly interested in money for one logical reason–in order to make a lot of it, you have to work long hours. And if you work long hours, when do you get to spend the money? What does it profit a man to amass all the wealth in the world if he doesn’t have the time to spend it?
Besides, quants seem to play by a different set of rules. They are typically perfectionist by nature. At least, I am, when it comes to certain aspects of work. I remember once when I was writing my PhD thesis, I started the day at around nine in the morning and worked all the way past midnight with no break. No breakfast, lunch or dinner. I wasn’t doing ground-breaking research on that particular day, just trying to get a set of numbers (branching ratios, as they were called) and their associated errors consistent. Looking back at it now, I can see that one day of starvation was too steep a price to pay for the consistency.
Similar bouts of perfectionism might grip some of us from time to time, forcing us to invest inordinate amounts of work for incremental improvements, and propelling us to higher levels of glory. The frustrating thing from the quants’ perspective is when the glory gets hogged by a middle-level people manager. It does happen, time and again. The quants are then left with little more than their flattering epithets.
I’m not painting all people managers with the same unkindly stroke; not all of them have been seduced by the dark side of the force. But I know some of them who actively hone their ignorance as a weapon. They plead ignorance to pass their work on to other unsuspecting worker bees, including quants.
The best thing a quant can hope for is a fair compensation for his hard work. Money may not be important in and of itself, but what it says about you and your station in the corporate pecking order may be of interest. Empty epithets are cheap, but it when it comes to showing real appreciation, hard cash is what matters, especially in our line of work.
Besides, corporate appreciation breeds confidence and a sense of self-worth. I feel that confidence is lacking among Singaporean quants. Some of them are really among the cleverest people I have met. And I have traveled far and wide and met some very clever people indeed. (Once I was in a CERN elevator with two Nobel laureates, as I will never tire of mentioning.)
This lack of confidence, and not lack of expertise or intelligence, is the root cause behind the dearth of quality work coming out of Singapore. We seem to keep ourselves happy with fairly mundane and routine tasks of implementing models developed by superior intelligences and validating the results.
Why not take a chance and dare to be wrong? I do it all the time. For instance, I think that there is something wrong with a Basel II recipe and I am going to write an article about it. I have published a physics article in a well-respected physics journal implying, among other things, that Einstein himself may have been slightly off the mark! See for yourself at http://TheUnrealUniverse.com.
Asian quants are the ones closest to the Asian market. For structures and products specifically tailored to this market, how come we don’t develop our own pricing models? Why do we wait for the Mertons and Hulls of the world?
In our defense, may be some of the confident ones that do develop pricing models may move out of Asia. The CDO guru David Li is a case in point. But, on the whole, the intellectual contribution to modern quantitative finance looks disproportionately lopsided in favor of the West. This may change in the near future, when the brain banks in India and China open up and smell blood in this niche field of ours.
Another quality that is missing among us Singaporean parishioners is an appreciation of the big picture. ClichÃ©s like the “Big Picture” and the “Value Chain” have been overused by the afore-mentioned middle-level people managers on techies (a category of dubious distinction into which we quants also fall, to our constant chagrin) to devastating effect. Such phrases have rained terror on techies and quants and relegated them to demoralizing assignments with challenges far below their intellectual potential.
May be it is a sign of my underestimating the power of the dark side, but I feel that the big picture is something we have to pay attention to. Quants in Singapore seem to do what they are asked to do. They do it well, but they do it without questioning. We should be more aware of the implications of our work. If we recommend Monte Carlo as the pricing model for a certain option, will the risk oversight manager be in a pickle because his VaR report takes too long to run? If we suggest capping methods to renormalize divergent sensitivities of certain products due to discontinuities in their payoff functions, how will we affect the regulatory capital charges? Will our financial institute stay compliant? Quants may not be expected to know all these interconnected issues. But an awareness of such connections may add value (gasp, another managerial phrase!) to our office in the organization.
For all these reasons, we in Singapore end up importing talent. This practice opens up another can of polemic worms. Are they compensated a bit too fairly? Do we get blinded by their impressive labels, while losing sight of their real level of talent? How does the generous compensation scheme for the foreign talents affect the local talents?
But these issues may be transitory. The Indians and Chinese are waking up, not just in terms of their economies, but also by unleashing their tremendous talent pool in an increasingly globalizing labor market. They (or should I say we?) will force a rethinking of what we mean when we say talent. The trickle of talent we see now is only the tip of the iceberg. Here is an illustration of what is in store, from a BBC report citing the Royal Society of Chemistry.
|National test set by Chinese education authorities for pre-entry students As shown in the figure, in square prism and foot of perpendicular is , |
|Diagnostic test set by an English university for first year students In diagram (not drawn to scale), angle is a right angle, |
The end result of such demanding pre-selection criteria is beginning to show in the quality of the research papers coming out of the selected ones, both in China and India. This talent show is not limited to fundamental research; applied fields, including our niche of quantitative finance, are also getting a fair dose of this oriental medicine.
Singapore will only benefit from this regional infusion of talent. Our young nation has an equally young (professionally, that is) quant team. We will have to improve our skills and knowledge. And we will need to be more vocal and assertive before the world notices us and acknowledges us. We will get there. After all, we are from Singapore–an Asian tiger used to beating the odds.
Photo by hslo