Moontower #163

Lately, I’ve been watching Pirates of Finance episodes during my weekly cardio sessions. Jason and Corey are a special combination when they just riff on whatever pops in their head. A recent episode, The Gamification of People, provoked some musings.

Where Exactly Are We Racing To

The pirates revisit Malcolm Gladwell’s discovery that the best hockey players in Canada were disproportionally represented by athletes whose birthdays were just after the grade cutoff. So children who are the oldest in their class or hit puberty in their class first have an advantage.

If you are a summer birthday you understand this. The school year starts, and some student brings Rice Krispy treats for the class and you think “this mf is a whole year older than me”. Jason remarks that even though he has no kids, he has heard that parents in affluent suburbs hold their kids back at a young age so they can be swept up by the positive reinforcement loop of being a better athlete or student. A ”snowball effect” builds as a confident child draws more attention from coaches, gets into the higher track in class, and is even less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

Via WaPo:

Researchers found the youngest children in a grade — those born in August, just before the cutoff — were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD compared with those who were born the next month and became the oldest in their class.

Corey notes that as knowledge of Gladwell’s chapter in Outliers spread, the efficient market mechanism kicked in. Parents started holding their children back a grade. Jason, who admittedly has no kids, sounded skeptical. Jason, if I was in the comments section of the livecast, I would have told you — the practice is called “redshirting”. Like the NCAA athletes.

Our local school district is extremely strict about not allowing it. By making the date cut-off a redline, they don’t have to deal with every case-by-case plea to hold kids back. In fact this week, I was chatting to a mom of triplets at my kids’ school, who despite a totally valid reason (in my totally unqualified opinion) for holding the kids back, did not get an exception.

The impulse to redshirt your kid, even though you risk them being bored by playing “down” a level, for a competitive advantage is classic Moloch — a race to the bottom. If a parent doesn’t hold back their kid in such a community are they now doing them a disservice? I mean what a miserable question to entertain. But here we are.

A few years ago, schools in our area decided to move the scholastic calendar to start in early August. Why? So they can have more time in class to prepare for the end-of-year standardized state tests. What has been the cost of this intervention? Togetherness. My kids now go to school a full month earlier than their cousins in NJ. The end of August is a classic time for vacation with both camps and school out of session. I know, I know — violins. I won’t turn what amounts to a high-class problem into a crusade, but the point is the school is reaching for an artificial advantage. If every school adopts this calendar, the advantage goes away and we are just worse off. It’s all frustratingly familiar.

Let’s go back to Corey’s point about market efficiency. Mechanically speaking, he’s right. But it’s actually more interesting as a demonstration of the flaws in market-maximalist thinking. If you graduated from U of Chicago, turn back now. You’ve been warned.

The market is a servant of our collective values. If we choose the wrong values we are asking to be consumed by the “paper-clip maximizer”. This is exactly why AI research is so concerned with safety. We tell the system what to optimize for and it will do so faithfully — but without an appreciation for what we forget to tell it.

Market-based thinking needs to be accompanied by a responsible understanding of our values. This runs head-on into an accounting problem — “not everything that we measure matters, and not everything that matters can be measured”.

A specific instance of this is negative externalities. The textbook examples are companies that socialize the costs of pollution while capturing private profit. More oblique examples abound in Corey and Jason’s conversation. How does the UI of investment platforms “nudge” our behavior? Are those nudges good for the clients, the company, or both? They give the example of a robo-advisor that tells you the concrete tax cost of selling appreciated assets. It’s an effective speedbump because investors hate paying taxes. It seems like a win for both the advisor and client. But how do we compare the sure tax savings against the theoretical risk reduction that happens by cutting concentration? This is hardly straightforward. You don’t have to be THAT cynical to think that a tie goes to the robo-advisor’s interest. Would a more nuanced speedbump that considers the trade-offs of different actions fulfill fiduciary responsibility better? Is it worth the brain damage to clients?

I don’t have answers to any of this. One of my beliefs is that our dashboards of cost/benefit are woefully underpowered. Partially because of incentives — commercial interests talk their own book. But also because of irreducibly complicated chains of causation. Even if you could construct higher fidelity models of reality, internalize all the externalities, and identify the “best” values you’d still fail. Because on average people don’t really want the truth. We are cognitive misers. We either want the laziest solutions or we want to keep our delusions intact.

I’m pro-markets. But any platonic idea that they are “free” and not downstream from laws motivated by imperfect actors is an illusion. That markets do a generally effective job in allocating resources reminds me of that Twain bit: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. Misplaced confidence is more dangerous than things we know are dangerous because things that appear safe become load-bearing. If a money-market account defaults, that is far scarier than BTC going to zero because we size our exposures in proportion to how safe they are.

We need to be careful about what values we ask markets to chase. Free market maxis love to cite the law of unintended consequences against nudgy top-down policy. That’s valid. But the sense that markets, whose guardrails emerge from human negotiation and therefore limited foresight, aren’t immune to unintended consequences is a fantasy.

No idealogy is so important that we can’t inquire — who’s serving who?

Ouija Boards

Corey and Jason struck another nerve. They get into the topic of sales. They acknowledge that while they have an idealistic aversion to sales, that’s not a practical position. Everything is sales because sales is persuasion. From getting clients to finding a mate. No controversy there.

Consider the used car dealer’s tactics — lying, creating urgency, and so on. Yes, it’s cringe, but…it’s also a strawman. The best salespeople don’t look like they are selling. And they often aren’t in the conventional sense. They aren’t trying to convert you, they just cater to your bias. That sounds nefarious but it doesn’t have to be. If I am in the market for an investment fund, tell me why I should want yours. I’m buying one either way, put your best foot forward. It’s hard to distinguish “talking your own book” from “the manager is employing strategy X because they believe in it”. They are already betting their career on it. Where does belief end, and conflicted interests begin? It’s a tough question. Sure, the benefit of a doubt needs to be earned but assuming everything is a scam will leave you in a cave.

Back to the tactics. The pirates mention “mirroring” and saying people’s names (“John Smith, let me tell you something about this car”) as examples of manipulation often found in sales guides or books like Cialdini’s Influence (brief notes from an interview with the author here). Corey acknowledges that some people do this naturally.

I felt seen.

If a server tells me their name, I use it. I tell myself this is a way to be kind. I take the Zeroth Commandment seriously. But am I post-rationalizing an adaptive behavior? Have I figured out that being kind is a way to get what I want? Am I manipulative?

I feel like I’m shooting airballs here because I just don’t f’n know. There are 2 kinds of people. Those that are full of shit and those that admit it. It’s a bit of a cope, but I’m old-fashioned in thinking intentions matter. It makes you sound smart to moan about the road to hell being paved with such intentions. It sounds smart because there’s truth to that. But it has less to do with intentions themselves and more to do with reality being sloppy spaghetti. The arrows of causality are far more bi-directional and recursive than our coherent explanations suggest. Well-intentioned people often come off looking like Steinbeck’s Lennie strangling the objects of their affection by not knowing any better.

Still, discounting intentions fully in deference to optimization is a cope of its own. Incentives are Oujia boards. They guide us to what we want while we tell ourselves stories about how our beliefs make sense. We spell out the letters of whatever serves us individually.

And then we look at one another “Did you move it? I wasn’t moving it. What does it spell?”


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Money Angle

With the StockSlam Sessions rapidly approaching, I want to thank Jeff Malec at RCM Alternatives for inviting Tina, Steiner, and me to his show. You can listen to the pod or watch on Youtube. Steiner is an offline guy, so foremost this is a nice introduction to him.

  • The Game of Trading with SIG Alums Kris A, Tina L, & Steiner (Link)

    We have a little saying over here on The Derivative, “The More, The Merrier”, and on this week’s episode of The Derivative, we’re not chatting with one guest, but THREE! Class may no longer be in session, but we are taking a trip down the SIG/Susquehanna memory lane and having our own class reunion with Kris Abdelmessih, Michael Steiner, and Tina Lindstrom.

    If you’re interested in learning how big trading firms find and teach their traders, hold on to your seat because these three give you the answer key! Kris, Tina, and Michael are in session with Jeff and discussing competing with peers, finding an option’s fair value, making markets, and being in the game of trading, educating kids with board games, and of course Steiner’s new trading board game: Stock Slam! Discover how the game works and how you can join up with these three in NYC for a live session in this three-of-a-kind episode

We are doing these sessions because trading is a neat laboratory to learn about decision-making. Weighing risk-reward, thinking adversarially (this thread by @0xDoug is in my hall of fame), resisting confirmation/hindsight biases, using probability, considering counterfactuals, not “resulting”, and much more. So much of my writing focuses on these “meta” topics because trading gave me a better education than school ever did.

If we can help people practice thinking this way, it’s a like growing new brain lobe that’s adaptive for many real-life situations.

The following is adapted from a thread I wrote that demonstrates an idea in a trading context:

People understand that even though insurance has negative expectancy it can still improve a portfolio that is focused on compounded returns. It makes no sense to look at the line-item of insurance divorced from the optionality it gives you in the rest of your portfolio.

(I could pull lots of links on this idea, but let’s be brief).

This concept is fractal. Let’s zoom in on the smallest portfolio — a spread. You don’t necessarily care about the p/l of any individual leg of a spread trade but the performance of the spread overall.

Before we consider a spread, let’s just look at the single position. Suppose you buy something for $4 when it’s worth $5 but then sell it for $4.50. You made both a:

  • +$1 expected value trade
  • -$.50 EV trade.

If you knew it was worth $5 you negated half a good trade with a bad trade.

In real life, you often might like the price of a spread but it’s hard to tell which leg is the “good side”. That’s one of the reasons you trade the spread. Once you do the spread you don’t care about the individual p/ls.

Another reason you may do a spread is that you might like a trade (ie maybe vol is cheap in X) but can do it bigger if you spread it. This is one of those questions that comes up a lot on real trading desks. Do I like the outright, or do I like the trade better paired against something else (and assuming I can do the trade bigger if I spread it)? Do I like being long z units of X exposure, or do I prefer 5z units of (X-Y)? The answer depends on understanding the distribution of the outright vs the spread and the relative price of each within those distributions.

Finally, there’s the general lens of how I approach trading (which I discuss in the RCM interview). Liquid markets tell us a lot about “fair value”. If we take fair value as the consensus “outside view”, then we can examine illiquid markets for pricing discrepancies compared to that outside view. Of course, those markets have their own idiosyncracies, so you need to take an “inside view” and normalize as much as possible to the liquid reference asset. This is a standard way to identify possible opportunities. It’s a mix of art and science. The science is in the measurement but the art is in handicapping how much the differences should matter. This isn’t arbitrage. It’s informed betting. If you need certainty, you will either be too late or the strategy will have the lifespan of a mayfly.

[I actually googled “shortest lifespan” and was met with irony:

We often hear that mayflies, like the whiteflies of the Susquehanna River, have the shortest lifespan of any animal on Earth, just 24 hours for many species.

SIG is named after that river.]

Now let’s broaden the concept to investing. For that, I turn to Byrne Hobart’s paywalled post Assuming Efficient Markets to Exploit Market Inefficiencies:

If there’s an efficient market A and an inefficient one B, A is easier to trade in, but B is probably the one that’s mispriced. So that price inefficiency partly represents a measure of how hard inefficiencies are to exploit! In the case of Druckenmiller’s recession call, he actually made the paradoxical judgment that inefficient market B was priced incorrectly relative to A, but that A was the one to bet on—because the specific inefficiency at hand was that a recession was likely and it wasn’t being accurately reflected by anything.

This raises an important point, because there are two broad ways to look at relative inefficiency. One is to just stick with the relative argument: if stocks are pricing a boom and bonds are pricing a recession, bet that one of these will go away. But that’s a frustrating conclusion to draw, because it basically amounts to saying: The market is telling me something important, and I don’t care what it is. The relative-value bet works equally well regardless of which thesis is right, but it’s still outsourcing a lot of judgment to the market. And annoyingly, once the valuation gap closes, you have two problems: first, you haven’t figured out why the discrepancy existed in the first place, and if there’s an inexplicable 1-standard deviation change in some correlation, there is no law of the universe saying it can’t go to 2 or 3. (There is a weaker law saying it can go to 20, when enough levered participants are betting on it.) The other problem is that real-world theses produce additional ideas; an argument that the economy is going into a recession has second- and third-order consequences, and generates more ideas.

This kind of tradeoff, between a low-risk claim that two views are contradictory and a higher-risk claim that one of them is right, extends far beyond finance.

Through games, direct instruction, and making connections between abstract concepts and examples in the wild, Tina, Steiner and I want to see if we can help others get better. And selfishly, I want to think better, so I’m stoked to be a part of this.

*Applications are closed and invitations already went out but these sessions are an experiment to guide how we test and improve the transfer of knowledge. If you didn’t get accepted it’s because space was extremely limited compared to applicants. This is not meant to be exclusive, we are going to figure out how we can spread what we learn. As Axl once said, we just need a little patience [bandana sway].

Last Call

A friend recently mentioned that she willfully puts on blinders about big questions. She prefers to focus on the practical because it can be painful or lonely to dwell on the large problems we see in society.

I’m sympathetic to this view. It brings me to a conclusion I’ve come to over the last few months. You can’t tear down people’s constructs without offering another way. It’s a riff on “the best way to complain is to build.” If you succeed in providing people an alternative the old will crumble away on its own. You don’t blow up someone’s house without having a better one waiting for them. With a bow on it.

It’s the same reason you wouldn’t tell young kids you can’t pay the rent. They can’t do anything about it. Being around Steiner again has been inspiring because he really understands this. Steiner doesn’t criticize unless he has a solution. He can lament, but won’t pontificate. He recognizes that whining without proposing thoughtful solutions is not just annoying, it’s intellectually lazy.

From My Actual Life

Kids are funny.

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