People respond to incentives, and so if we want to take on much bigger challenges, we need to collaborate across thousands and in some cases hundreds of thousands of people. How do you get 100,000 people to work together? It’s not that easy. In the old days, it was religion and before that it was simple fiat rules, tyranny. The Egyptians built some beautiful pyramids, but they did that with hundreds of thousands of slaves over decades. If we rule out slavery as a possible means of societal advances, there really isn’t any other choice. If we need 100,000 people to cure cancer, to deal with Alzheimer’s, to figure out fusion energy and climate change…I don’t know of any other way to do that other than financial markets: equity, debt, proper financing and proper payout of returns. I think that in many cases [finance] probably is the gating factor. That, to me, is the short answer to the question about why finance is so important.
The rise of the machine learning :
The quantitative investment world plays down the prospect of machines supplanting human fund managers, pointing out that the prospect of full artificial intelligence is still distant, and arguing that human ingenuity still plays a vital role. But the confident swagger of the money management nerds is unmistakable. Already there are quasi-AI trading strategies working their magic in financial markets, and the future belongs to them, they predict.
The Sunday after Lehman fell, pacing my empty trading floor, I realized once and for all that my models and reports could no longer tell me what to do. The one unmistakable fact was that my risks would increase if oil continued its decline. I decided that when I came in on Monday, I’d place a big bet that WTI would do just that.
And on a Saturday morning bike ride up the Hudson, it occurred to me that Mexico might be willing to restructure its deal—selling us back the option it owned, and buying a new one—in a way that would lock in billions of profits for the country, while giving me a much needed windfall too. I dropped my bike in a bush and texted our salesperson about the idea.
There were many other decisions and guesses, some made alone, others with help from my team, and still others made by my boss. All were guesswork, none could I have anticipated in stress testing, and all involved abandoning my original strategy along with the illusion of control it gave me.
If gold is the equivalent of a pet rock, then I can confidently say that oil is the equivalent of playing host to a herd of feral cats; it demands constant vigilance and maintenance. If gathered in sufficient quantities, it will probably try to kill you, or at least severely harm your health.
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The ideal oil storage trade works something like this: Buy the crude and immediately agree to deliver it at a later date, thereby locking in the difference between the spot and futures prices for what is, in theory, a riskless profit. In 2008, when the forward price of oil vastly eclipsed the spot price, this kind of arbitrage could net a hefty return.
A true oil storage trade therefore required an early buyer. The usual suspects—think Glencore and Trafigura—wouldn’t dream of touching my puny amount oil, of course. So I looked further afield, all the way to my ex-colleagues, who I thought surely must still harbor those long-ago dreams of owning Black Gold.
But it brings back bad memories of the stock market crash of 1987 when some Nasdaq dealers simply wouldn’t pick up their phones. They knew the investors on the other end were looking to sell their stocks and as market makers, these dealers would be obliged to buy—and they didn’t want to buy! In the aftermath of that incident, enraged investors demanded that the SEC prevent it from happening again. The Commission responded by forcing changes on Nasdaq, including mandating that market makers respond to messages on the fully electronic Small Order Execution System.
Today, the fully-automated Nasdaq market, with its market makers often using HFT techniques, is the very model of an efficient market that has dramatically lowered costs for investors.
Contrast that with the findings of the joint government staff report on the US Treasury “flash rally” which found high frequency traders “as a group continued to provide the majority of order book depth and a tight spread between bid and ask prices throughout the day, even during the event window.” In short, HFT answered the call.