Friday, July 3, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell on Nassiam Taleb

How Nassim Taleb turned the inevitability of disaster into an investment strategy.

One day in 1996, a Wall Street trader named Nassim Nicholas Taleb went to see Victor Niederhoffer. Victor Niederhoffer was one of the most successful money managers in the country. He lived and worked out of a thirteen-acre compound in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and when Taleb drove up that day from his home in Larchmont he had to give his name at the gate, and then make his way down a long, curving driveway. Niederhoffer had a squash court and a tennis court and a swimming pool and a colossal, faux-alpine mansion in which virtually every square inch of space was covered with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American folk art. In those days, he played tennis regularly with the billionaire financier George Soros. He had just written a best-selling book, "The Education of a Speculator," dedicated to his father, Artie Niederhoffer, a police officer from Coney Island. He had a huge and eclectic library and a seemingly insatiable desire for knowledge. When Niederhoffer went to Harvard as an undergraduate, he showed up for the very first squash practice and announced that he would someday be the best in that sport; and, sure enough, he soon beat the legendary Shariff Khan to win the U.S. Open squash championship. That was the kind of man Niederhoffer was. He had heard of Taleb's growing reputation in the esoteric field of options trading, and summoned him to Connecticut. Taleb was in awe.

"He didn't talk much, so I observed him," Taleb recalls. "I spent seven hours watching him trade. Everyone else in his office was in his twenties, and he was in his fifties, and he had the most energy of them all. Then, after the markets closed, he went out to hit a thousand backhands on the tennis court." Taleb is Greek-Orthodox Lebanese and his first language was French, and in his pronunciation the name Niederhoffer comes out as the slightly more exotic Nieder hoffer. "Here was a guy living in a mansion with thousands of books, and that was my dream as a child," Taleb went on. "He was part chevalier, part scholar. My respect for him was intense." There was just one problem, however, and it is the key to understanding the strange path that Nassim Taleb has chosen, and the position he now holds as Wall Street's principal dissident. Despite his envy and admiration, he did not want to be Victor Niederhoffer -- not then, not now, and not even for a moment in between. For when he looked around him, at the books and the tennis court and the folk art on the walls -- when he contemplated the countless millions that Niederhoffer had made over the years -- he could not escape the thought that it might all have been the result of sheer, dumb luck.

Taleb knew how heretical that thought was. Wall Street was dedicated to the principle that when it came to playing the markets there was such a thing as expertise, that skill and insight mattered in investing just as skill and insight mattered in surgery and golf and flying fighter jets. Those who had the foresight to grasp the role that software would play in the modern world bought Microsoft in 1985, and made a fortune. Those who understood the psychology of investment bubbles sold their tech stocks at the end of 1999 and escaped the Nasdaq crash. Warren Buffett was known as the "sage of Omaha" because it seemed incontrovertible that if you started with nothing and ended up with billions then you had to be smarter than everyone else: Buffett was successful for a reason. Yet how could you know, Taleb wondered, whether that reason was responsible for someone's success, or simply a rationalization invented after the fact? George Soros seemed to be successful for a reason, too. He used to say that he followed something called "the theory of reflexivity." But then, later, Soros wrote that in most situations his theory "is so feeble that it can be safely ignored." An old trading partner of Taleb's, a man named Jean-Manuel Rozan, once spent an entire afternoon arguing about the stock market with Soros. Soros was vehemently bearish, and he had an elaborate theory to explain why, which turned out to be entirely wrong. The stock market boomed. Two years later, Rozan ran into Soros at a tennis tournament. "Do you remember our conversation?" Rozan asked. "I recall it very well," Soros replied. "I changed my mind, and made an absolute fortune." He changed his mind! The truest thing about Soros seemed to be what his son Robert had once said:

My father will sit down and give you theories to explain why he does this or that. But I remember seeing it as a kid and thinking, Jesus Christ, at least half of this is bullshit. I mean, you know the reason he changes his position on the market or whatever is because his back starts killing him. It has nothing to do with reason. He literally goes into a spasm, and it?s this early warning sign.

For Taleb, then, the question why someone was a success in the financial marketplace was vexing. Taleb could do the arithmetic in his head. Suppose that there were ten thousand investment managers out there, which is not an outlandish number, and that every year half of them, entirely by chance, made money and half of them, entirely by chance, lost money. And suppose that every year the losers were tossed out, and the game replayed with those who remained. At the end of five years, there would be three hundred and thirteen people who had made money in every one of those years, and after ten years there would be nine people who had made money every single year in a row, all out of pure luck. Niederhoffer, like Buffett and Soros, was a brilliant man. He had a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. He had pioneered the idea that through close mathematical analysis of patterns in the market an investor could identify profitable anomalies. But who was to say that he wasn't one of those lucky nine? And who was to say that in the eleventh year Niederhoffer would be one of the unlucky ones, who suddenly lost it all, who suddenly, as they say on Wall Street, "blew up"?

Taleb remembered his childhood in Lebanon and watching his country turn, as he puts it, from "paradise to hell" in six months. His family once owned vast tracts of land in northern Lebanon. All of that was gone. He remembered his grandfather, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Lebanon and the son of a Deputy Prime Minister of Lebanon and a man of great personal dignity, living out his days in a dowdy apartment in Athens. That was the problem with a world in which there was so much uncertainty about why things ended up the way they did: you never knew whether one day your luck would turn and it would all be washed away.

So here is what Taleb took from Niederhoffer. He saw that Niederhoffer was a serious athlete, and he decided that he would be, too. He would bicycle to work and exercise in the gym. Niederhoffer was a staunch empiricist, who turned to Taleb that day in Connecticut and said to him sternly, "Everything that can be tested must be tested," and so when Taleb started his own hedge fund, a few years later, he called it Empirica. But that is where it stopped. Nassim Taleb decided that he could not pursue an investment strategy that had any chance of blowing up.

Read the rest.