Thursday, November 17, 2011

Financial Armageddon or Revenge of the Nerds?

Whatever happened to all the evil scientists who used to be paid big money to plan the end of the world? The designers of nuclear destruction. The actuaries of armageddon who calculated how many people could be killed how quickly for how much money and how more could be killed with less damage to property, and then had dinner and watched TV and went to bed. Whatever happened to them when the cold war ended?

A lot of them turned their mathematical brilliance to devising clever methods (tricks, games) for private financial companies. Methods, it turned out, as diabolical and destructive as the weapons they devised for the military.

Here's a 2009 article from the New York Times.

This blog post from 2007 describes the new brains behind the hedge funds as a cheerful revenge of the nerds. It's all a fun, profitable game. No social sense required. What does that imply?

Calvin Trillin wrote a humorous piece a couple of years ago about how much safer our economy was in the hands of the dumber members of the WASP aristocracy who were either too lazy or too dim to cause much trouble. (I found the relevant passage in this essay on the New Republic's website.)

'“The financial system nearly collapsed,” [said Trillin's barroom friend], “because smart guys had started working on Wall Street.” '...

'I reflected on my own college class, of roughly the same era. The top student had been appointed a federal appeals court judge — earning, by Wall Street standards, tip money. A lot of the people with similarly impressive academic records became professors. I could picture the future titans of Wall Street dozing in the back rows of some gut course like Geology 101, popularly known as Rocks for Jocks. ...'

'“Two things happened. One is that the amount of money that could be made on Wall Street with hedge fund and private equity operations became just mind-blowing. At the same time, college was getting so expensive that people from reasonably prosperous families were graduating with huge debts. So even the smart guys went to Wall Street, maybe telling themselves that in a few years they’d have so much money they could then become professors or legal-services lawyers or whatever they’d wanted to be in the first place. That’s when you started reading stories about the percentage of the graduating class of Harvard College who planned to go into the financial industry or go to business school so they could then go into the financial industry. That’s when you started reading about these geniuses from M.I.T. and Caltech who instead of going to graduate school in physics went to Wall Street to calculate arbitrage odds.”'

Here's an article from a blog out of Columbia University about math and physics geniuses working at hedge funds.

Here's an article referenced in the above article, from ALPHA, a magazine for hedge fund whizzes. Imagine a magazine for hedge fund thinkers... "What the Well-Dressed Quant is Wearing" is about miniskirts, I think. (Sorry. An obscure reference to the inventor of the miniskirt.)

Whether you're a nuclear physicist or a hedge fund mathematician, the small dots on the map or the diagram aren't people with lives and families and houses and livelihoods and dreams about the future, they are only abstractions, they are little bits in your calculations.

I'm reminded of a famous soliloquy from the Third Man, spoken from the top of a ferris wheel:

"Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax. The only way you can save money nowadays."

So what's a superior brainbox to do these days? Build bridges or cure diseases or sort out complex societal issues? No, it's much less stressful and more lucrative to go work at a secluded campus in leafy Connecticut and figure out ways to game the financial system. Here's a roadmap for your little genius who's considering where to go after high school. Courtesy of a prof at the University of Illinois. If your child is employed blowing up the global economy he might be able to keep his immediate family safe. You can hope. Or you can run a risk analysis of it.

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