On the Founders podcast, host David Senra distills stories and lessons from Ed Thorp’s biography A Man For All Markets.
A thought before I get to my notes:
Senra’s outstanding podcasts are thoughtful Cliff notes to the biographies of successful business founders. It’s a great series because the same themes keep popping up. The repetition is a great way for having the common threads that bind these founders stick. (In fact, “repetition” itself is such a common theme. Most of the founders are extremely focused, taking a small set of ideas to their logical extremes. There is a focus and lack of distraction. Many founders understand the importance of branding which entails “repetition”. Having your product synonymous with quality, or low cost, or prestige, whatever it is. Repetition is a cornerstone to establishing a brand.)
An oft-repeated theme on Founders is that the subjects are deeply flawed, often miserable. You are warned to not glorify them but instead extract their deep but narrow wisdom, instead of copying their lives. This episode is special because Ed Thorp is the one person, Senra uses as his own personal blueprint.
And I agree. Thorp in his entirety (or at least what we can know from his public action and writing) is an admirable and impressive individual.
I strongly recommend listening to the podcast.
The following are my notes. They are bits that stand out to me and not a summary. They are for my future reference and of course, shared for anyone else who cares.
On mediocre people
“I would learn to avoid them when I could and finesse them when I couldn’t”.
That’s one of the most important sentences in the entire book.
“I would learn to avoid them when I could and finesse them when I couldn’t”.
2 simple guiding questions
If I do this what do I want to happen and if I do this what do I think will happen?
If there’s a way to make money, the larger the stakes, the more corruption you will find
Ed found patterns of corruption from a young age:
He’s in high school, he realizes, “Hey, the student government is corrupt. It’s just a bunch of the popular kids. Popular kids are not doing anything that can actually help”. He is probably the smartest kid in school. I mean, Ed is no doubt a genius. So he figures out a way. He’s the one leading the charge, and he winds up installing people that think like him in like 13 of the 15 positions. So this made him an enemy. He says, “A couple of the candidates realized I must be behind the change, so they’re doing advertising”.
They’re doing basically a bunch of things to remove people he felt were in unjust positions. “A couple of the candidates realized I must be behind it and spent their campaign speech time attacking me personally”. The social click had always run the student government. They were entitled.
When he starts counting cards he realizes that not only are the casino’s all “mobbed” up to keep people like him out. He was poisoned and later after he gets the gaming commission to send an inspector he learns that the inspector is in the casino’s pocket. It totally backfires, as the inspector is able to fiinger Ed out to the casino whose mobsters cut his car’s brakes to kill him!
Senra compares this to the drug trade in Miami in the 1980s:
There’s a great documentary called Cocaine Cowboys, and in it, they talk about how corrupt the ’80s Miami was. You have a cocaine boom. The richest person in the world at that time was considered to be Pablo Escobar. They’re just printing money. The local Federal Reserve branch in Miami was taking in more in cash than all the other Federal Reserve branches in the United States combined.
And so you have this huge economic incentive. If you’re a drug dealer selling a ton of cocaine, these pesky cops keep catching your guys. They wind up pulling them over, taking drugs, money, essentially costing you an expense, like “I’m losing my product, I’m losing money. So what do you do”? You fill the entire police force up with your people. “So from the outside, it looks like all these cops are there against me, and they’re actually on my team”. And in that documentary, he talks about, “There’s at least 1 graduating class in the 80s, if not more, where every single person, every single new graduate from the police academy was eventually tied to the drug dealers, the cartels, whatever you want to call them” They owned every single cop. And why did they do that? Because they were making tons of money, and money corrupts.
Ed finds Wall Street unsurprisingly more corrupt than the casinos. Bigger stakes:
Eventually, his hedge fund, the East Coast offices, gets raided by the IRS. Rudy Giuliani, who is — this is before he was the Mayor of New York City, he is the lead, what is it, the prosecutor of the Southern District of New York. And this had nothing to do with Ed. Every single thing was wind up being dropped against them. “Rudy Giuliani wanted my partner to give him dirt on Goldman Sachs and Michael Milken. My partner wouldn’t cooperate , so Giuliani raided our office. The trial dragged on for years at a great expense. The government ended up dropping prosecution for most — of most people on most counts”
So it says the case against this hedge fund appears to be a federal prosecution of securities violators. It’s on superficial level, right? To understand why it really happened, you need to go back to the 1970s when first-tier companies could routinely meet their financing needs from Wall Street and the banking community, whereas less established companies had to scramble. Seizing an opportunity to finance them, a young financial innovator named Michael Milken built a capital-raising machine for these companies. This is the invention of junk bonds.
“Filling a gaping need and hungry demand in the business community, Milken’s group became the greatest financing engine in Wall Street history”.
“Such innovation outraged the old” — this is the history lesson, “Such innovation outraged the oldline establishment of corporate America who were initially transfixed like deer in the headlights, as a hoard of entrepreneurs funded with seemingly unlimited junk bonds, began a wave of unfriendly takeovers. Many old firms were vulnerable because the officers and directors had done a poor job of investing the shareholders’ equity. With subpar return on capital, the stocks were cheap. A takeover group could restructure, raise the rate of return, and make such a company considerably more valuable”.
But here’s the thing, the people you’re now attacking are the people they have all the money and the power, and they don’t want you to do this. The officers and directors of America’s big corporations were happy with the way things had been. They had enjoyed their hunting lodges and their private jets. They granted themselves generous salaries, retirement plans, bonuses of cash, stock and stock options, and golden parachutes. All these things were designed by and for themselves and paid for with corporate dollars.
The expenses routinely ratified by a scattered and fragmented shareholder base. Economists call this conflict of interest between management and the shareholders who are the real owners, the agency problem. It continues today. The newcomers were knocking the more vulnerable managers off their horses into the mud. Something had to be done. Government ought to be sympathetic. The old corporate establishment had most of the money, and they were the most politically powerful and influential group in the country. Their Wall Street subdivision might sustain some damage, but one could expect the fall of Michael Milken to release, as it did, a huge honey pot of business to be taken over by everyone else.
The old establishment of financiers were lucky in that prosecutors would find numerous violations of security laws within the Milken group. So he’s not saying that Michael didn’t do anything wrong. His point was that the people that he was overthrowing had sway over with the politicians and used their money in power to say, “Hey, go after that guy, even if we’re doing some of the same shady stuff, okay”?
This is where Ed is going to give us his thinking on this with the — like a story, a metaphor. “It’s like the case of a man who’s been cited 3 times in a single year for driving while intoxicated. His neighbor would also drink and drive but was never pulled over. Who’s the greater criminal? Now, suppose I tell you that the man who did it only 3 times and was apprehended every time, whereas his neighbor did it 100 times and was never caught. How could this happen? What if I tell you that the 2 men are bitter business rivals, and the traffic cops’ boss, the police chief, gets large campaign contributions from the man who gets no traffic citations? Now, who is the greatest criminal”?
And so this kind of echoes Ed’s experience with Bernie Madoff in the SEC when he discovered there’s a ton of people, Ed just being one of them, that knew Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme had told people about it. So he’s asked the question, “Did you ever think you should go to the authorities with this”? And then this is Ed’s response, “Bernie Madoff had been a Chairman of NASDAQ. He was the third biggest market trader in the U.S. He was on all types of committees. He was the establishment. The SEC checked him every year and gave him a rubber stamp of authenticity”.
Ed’s schooling us not on how we think the world works or how we think it should work. He’s telling us how it does work.
[This section was resonant because I’m currently watching the History Channel’s The Men Who Built America series which is littered with stories of corruption…manipulating stock prices, collusion, Carnegie/Rockefeller/JP Morgan buying the 1896 election by supporting pro-industrialist monopolist McKinley over threatening populist William Jennings Bryan. Teddy Roosevelt’s eventual anti-trust campaigns were a direct retaliation on behalf of downtrodden workers. Even the Edison/Morgan vs Tesla/Westinghouse battle over the electricity standard led to Morgan/Edison muscling out Tesla/Westinghouse whose AC technology triumphed by threatening lawsuits they knew Westinghouse could not afford to fight even though Morgan knew he would lose in court]
Share in public
The importance of like putting your work out there, putting your thoughts out there and sharing them because it leads to all these unexpected opportunities. He winds up being like first LP in Citadel as a result of this.
The people that are interested in learning what you’ve learned also happen to be people that are lifelong learners. And those are the kind of people that get themselves involved in very interesting activities in the future. Many of those interesting activities can have a financial benefit to them.
Acknowledgment, applause and honor are welcome and add zest to life, but they are not ends to be pursued”.
“I felt then, as I do now, that what matters in life is what you do and how you do it, the quality of the time you spend and the people you share with”
“Chance and choice”
“Life is a mixture of chance and choice. Chance can be thought of as the cards you dealt in life. Choice is how you play them. I chose to investigate blackjack. As a result, chance offered me a new set of unexpected opportunities”.
Heraclitus, said, “Character is destiny”
“The path I would take was determined by my character, namely what makes me tick”
Voracious consumer of information
A lot of the stuff you’re going to read is not useful, but it’s all the little bits that you pick up that lay the foundation that are actually useful in the future. “Much of what I read was dross, but like a whale filtering the tiny nutritious krill from huge volumes of seawater, I came away with a foundation of knowledge”
Ed and Warren Buffet meet as Buffet starts Berkshire and Ed starts Newport Princeton
As Warren and I talked, the similarities and differences in our approach to investing became clearer to me. He evaluated businesses with the aim of buying shares of them or even the entire company, so cheaply that he had an ample margin of safety to allow for the unknown and the unanticipated. His objective was to outperform the market in the long run, and so he judged himself largely on the performance relative to the market.
“In contrast, I didn’t judge the worth of various businesses. Instead, I compared different securities of the same company with the object of finding relative mispricing from which I would construct a hedged position. Long, they’re relatively undervalued; short, they’re relatively overvalued, from which I could extract a positive return despite stock market ups and downs”.
So his entire life, he operated a market-neutral hedge fund, and I’ll get to more of his numbers and stuff later on. His goal was to accumulate the most money. Warren began to invest while still a child and spent his life doing it remarkably well. My discovery is fitting with my life path as a mathematician and seemed much easier, leaving me largely for you to enjoy my family and pursue my career in the academic world.
And what’s crazy is he’s going to start the world’s first quantitative hedge fund, it’s called Princeton Newport Partners. He’s still working as a professor, for like the first like 10 — even though he’s rich — or he started — like starts to get really rich, like 10 or — I have to know in the book, it’s like a dozen years into it. He’s like, “All right, I can’t do both. I got to finally give up. I’m sad to give up my academic life, but I’m clearly on to something here”. It’s just amazing how long he stuck with it.
So this is the result of — they wind up spending — I think they meant like 2 or 3 times, and this is where he realizes that Warren Buffett is an intelligent fanatic. And so the crazy thing is not only did Ed Thorp make a ton of money, but like I said, he winds up buying Berkshire, starting investing in Berkshire stock. It was like $900 at the point when Ed Thorp starts building position. And then he tries to get other people to buy and he tells them, don’t ever sell this, this will make your family rich…
Impressed by Warren’s mind and his methods as well as his record as an investor, I told Vivian that I believed he would eventually become the richest man in America”. Buffett was an extraordinarily smart evaluator of underpriced companies, so he could compound money much faster than the average investor. He could also continue to rely mainly on his own talent even as his capital grew to an enormous amount. Warren furthermore understood the power of compound interest and clearly planned to apply it over a long time.
The intelligent fanatic is extremely important, and hopefully, you are one in your own business, and if not or you don’t have a desire to, then find somebody who is and let your money ride with that person.
Hiring and management
4 different ideas – one, management by walking around; two, hire for intelligence and enthusiasm over experience; three, hire on a trial basis; and four, talent is expensive and worth every penny.
“Now, I had to learn how to choose and manage employees. Figuring this out for myself, I evolved into the style later dubbed management by walking around. I talked directly to each employee and asked them to do the same with their colleagues. I explained our general plan and direction and indicated what I wanted done by each person, revising roles and tasks based on their feedback”.
“For this to work, I needed people who could follow up without being led by the hand as management time was in short supply. Since much of what we were doing was being invented as we went along and our investment approach was new, I had to teach a unique set of skills. I chose young, smart people just out of university because they were not set in their ways from previous jobs. It is better to teach a young athlete who comes from his sport fresh than to retrain one who has learned bad form, especially in a small organization”.
“It was important that everyone worked well together. I was unable to tell from an interview how a new hire would mesh with our corporate culture. I told everyone that they were temporary for the first 6 months, as we were for them. Sometime during that period, if we mutually agreed, they would become regular employees”.
“In order to attract and keep superior staff, I paid wages and bonuses well above the market rate. This actually saved money because my employees were far more productive than average. The higher compensation limited turnover, which in turn saved time and money otherwise you used to teach my one-of-a-kind investment methodology”.
First LP in Citadel
“What would have Princeton Newport Partners been worth 25 years later? How could I possibly have any idea? Amazingly enough, a market-neutral hedge fund operation was built on the Princeton Newport model, the Citadel Investment Group”.
“It was started in 1990 in Chicago by a former hedge fund manager named Frank Meyer. When he discovered a young quantitative investment prodigy, Ken Griffin, who was then trading options from his Harvard dorm room. I met with Frank and Ken outlining the workings and profit centers of PNP as well as turning over cartons of documents outlining in detail the terms and conditions of all their outstanding warrants and convertible bonds. These were valuable because they were no longer available”.
“Citadel grew from a humble start in 1990 when I became its first limited partner, that’s insane by the way, with a few million dollars and 1 employee, Griffin — with 1 employee, which is Griffin, to a collection of businesses managing $20 billion in capital and having more than 1,000 employees 25 years later. Ken’s net worth in 2015 was estimated at $5.6 billion”. I think today at the time I’m recording this, his net worth is over $20 billion, if I’m not mistaken.
[Really interesting insight that has implications for markets]
Though the institutions of society have difficulty learning from history, individuals can do so.
Why is lifelong learning so important?
“Education has made all the difference for me. Education builds software for your brain. When you’re born, think of yourself as a computer with a basic operating system and not much else. Learning is like adding programs, big and small to this computer. From drawing a face to riding a bicycle to reading or to mastering calculus, you will use these programs to make your way in the world. Much of what I’ve learned came from schools and teachers. Even more valuable, I learned at an early age to teach myself. This paid off later on because there weren’t any courses in how to beat blackjack, build a computer for roulette, or launch a market-neutral hedge fund”…I found that most people don’t understand the probability calculations needed to figure out gambling games or to solve problems in everyday life. I believe that simple probability and statistics should be taught in grades kindergarten through 12.
The best jobs are neither decreed nor degreed, they are creative expressions of continuous learners in free markets.