Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Become a financial superforecaster

Superforecasting was one of my favorite books of 2015. Although Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner pretty well steered clear of the financial markets in the book, recognizing that markets are, as I wrote in my review, “rife with aleatory uncertainty (the unknowable),” they nevertheless believed that, even in the financial markets, learning to become a superforecaster would pay off.

Now we all have a chance to become part of the Good Judgment community and try our hands at forecasting. Who knows, maybe we’ll discover that we have what it takes to become a superforecaster.

Here’s the press release announcing the challenge.

Good Judgment Inc (GJI) and the CFA Society Los Angeles are launching an exciting new partnership for the members of CFA Society Los Angeles, the wider global CFA community, and those interested in becoming better forecasters in the world of economics and finance.

CFA charterholders and other interested parties will have the opportunity to compete in the “CFA Society Los Angeles 2017 Finance & Economic Challenge” (www.gjopen.com/cfa) on a battery of forecastable questions debuting on February 16 on Good Judgment Open (GJI’s crowdsourced forecasting platform). Participants will be challenged to forecast pressing questions on a variety of topics, such as:

• Before 1 July 2017, will new federal funding be approved for the California High-Speed Rail Authority's "bullet train" project?
• What will be the end-of-day closing value for the euro against the U.S. dollar on 15 February 2018?
• Before 2018, will Tesla file for bankruptcy or begin restructuring their debt in a corporate workout?

The CFA Society Los Angeles Board of Governors agreed that posting a challenge focused on economics and finance on Good Judgment Open would provide its members a superb platform to interact on important questions of the day, while simultaneously improving their ability to make good judgments.

Why forecast with GJI and CFA Society Los Angeles?

1. Keeping score is essential to get the feedback that improves accuracy. So often in human judgment, there is no objective measurement of success. Good Judgment Open uses a scoring system that allows forecasters to learn how the accuracy of their forecasts differs from the crowd.

2. Small improvements in forecasting add up.

3. Forecasting is a skill that can be best cultivated in dedicated forecasting tournaments (demonstrated by the work of Dr. Phil Tetlock, co-founder of GJI and co-author of “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction”)

4. The 25 economics and finance questions will offer experts in the broader business community an opportunity to leverage their expertise to forecast questions relevant to their work.

To participate in the “CFA Society Los Angeles 2017 Finance & Economic Challenge,” please go to gjopen.com/cfa and register for the Challenge to begin forecasting.

Champ, Going Public

Norm Champ spent almost 20 years in the private sector practicing law and serving as general counsel of a hedge fund before opting to join the SEC. Going Public: My Adventures Inside the SEC and How to Prevent the Next Devastating Crisis (McGraw-Hill, 2017) recounts his five years (“adventures” is a stretch) in government.

My initial reaction to this book was negative since it focused so much on the petty. But then, upon reflection, I decided that it was undoubtedly an accurate, if limited, account of how people function, and don’t function, inside government agencies. And for this reason was worth reading.

When Champ began his first job at the SEC, heading up investment management exams in New York, he assumed that the SEC was “a typically dysfunctional bureaucracy that needed to fix what had been broken.” Instead, he found that “there were parts of it that had never been built.” For instance, there were no internal guidelines on how to do the examinations of financial firms; “employees were more or less left to use their best judgment.” And some of the procedures “were slanted toward what was best for government workers—not enforcement of the federal securities laws. Examiners at Madoff’s firm actually drafted a letter asking the options exchange for records of his trading, but the examiners appear to have decided not to send the letter because it would pull in too many records that would have taken a long time to review. If those examiners had had procedures requiring them to verify at least some trading, they would have sent the letter and Madoff might have been unmasked because he did not trade at all—on the exchange or anywhere else.” And lest you think these investigators were swamped with work, on average they completed only a little more than two exams per person per year.

Civil service protections and union grievance procedures make it nearly impossible to fire SEC employees. The one case Champ cites in which an employee was actually let go involved a supervisor who had not shown up at the office in about five years (and who nonetheless got his standard annual raise). A new manager succeeded in having him terminated.

Another commonplace in the SEC and throughout the federal government is the anonymous complaint. Since employees have such strong job security, they can send the inspector general and others anonymous grievances without fear of consequences. “Those opposed to change use anonymous notes to protect the status quo.” During Champ’s tenure at the SEC, these nameless complaints appeared constantly. It cost him thousands of dollars in legal fees to help navigate the investigations.

Champ initiated reforms where he could, first in examinations and then as the top federal policymaker for investment management, also known as the wax museum when he arrived because it was frozen in time and place. IM has three major responsibilities: “it writes the rules regulating the investment management industry, provides guidance to industry and government on how those rules are applied in practice, and reviews documents that mutual funds use to sell their shares to investors.”

Champ’s account of the state of affairs in the wax museum is chilling. He introduced changes, including upgrading antiquated technology and hiring a math geek squad. But, even though he praises the efforts of many of his colleagues who “work so hard for investors,” one has the feeling that the SEC remains a work in (very slow) progress. Of course, as financial regulations get rolled back, it may have more time to improve its own infrastructure.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Yamarone, The Economic Indicator Handbook

Richard Yamarone, a Bloomberg senior economist, has written a book that, as he himself admits, “is overwhelmingly related to economics as seen from the Bloomberg terminal.” For those of us who don’t have access to such a luxury, The Economic Indicator Handbook: How to Evaluate Economic Trends to Maximize Profits and Minimize Losses (Wiley, 2017) can here and there be a frustrating read. The first chapter, for instance, describes the kinds of data available on the Bloomberg terminal, complete with screen captures: the economic calendar, economist estimates and expectations, the Bloomberg economic surprise index, the events calendar, the economic statistics table, the economic workbench, the Bloomberg orange book of CEO comments, treasury and money market rates, and the Bloomberg financial conditions monitor and its financial market conditions index. Some of this information is available elsewhere but not so conveniently packaged.

Having done his duty to his employer, Yamarone proceeds to discuss in eleven chapters the business cycle, GDP, labor market and employment, retail sales, NFIB small business economic trends, personal income and outlays, housing and construction, manufacturing, prices and inflation, confidence and sentiment, and the Federal Reserve. Most of the data come from publicly available sources.

Yamarone’s descriptions of the various economic indicators are perhaps the clearest I’ve seen anywhere. He explains what the indicators measure, how they are constructed, how they can be used, their strengths and weaknesses, sometimes how they can be tweaked to improve their ability to forecast changes in the economy.

For example, some economists chart the spread between two subsets of the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index: the Present Situation Index and the Expectations Index. “The reasoning behind this strategy is simple: If the expectations index is less than the present situation index, generating a negative spread, the implication is that people are happier with where they are now than with where they see themselves in the near future. Conversely, a positive spread implies a belief that greater prosperity lies just around the corner, a good sign for spending and the economy. The wider the spread in either direction, the drearier or dreamier future conditions are expected to be relative to the present.” This spread has often been a good leading indicator. It “generally bottoms out just before a recession begins and peaks just after it ends.”

Yamarone slices and dices economic indicators, looking for their most predictive elements. He claims, for instance, that perhaps the single most important sentiment indicator is the trending behavior of the Conference Board’s 35-54 age group.

The Economic Indicator Handbook is useful both as a book to read cover to cover and as a reference book. That it comes with a lot of Bloomberg Terminal eye candy—beautiful charts and graphs—only adds to its value.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Lidsky, Eyes Wide Open

At the age of 13 Isaac Lidsky learned that he was beginning to go blind; by the age of 25 he had lost his sight entirely. His initial reaction was, naturally, to be fearful since his future seemed dark, both literally and figuratively. In Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly (TarcherPerigree/Penguin Random House, 2017), expanding on his popular TED talk, he recounts how he embraced his blindness and “gained a life richer in understanding, connection, and success.”

Lidsky, now 37 years old, has had a life that many would envy—if, that is, they could skip the “being blind” part. He was a child actor, starring as “Weasel” on NBC’s sitcom Saved by the Bell: The New Class. He graduated from Harvard at the age of 19 with a degree in mathematics and computer science and proceeded to found an internet advertising technology company. When it was finally thriving, he left to attend Harvard Law School. After three years as a U.S. Justice Department attorney, he became a Supreme Court law clerk, working for Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He then put aside his legal career to acquire a struggling construction company, growing it tenfold in five years.

Eyes Wide Open is an intellectually sophisticated, uplifting book that I highly recommend. Yes, it includes advice that you’ve undoubtedly heard before, but the context makes that advice all the more compelling.

For this post I’m going to share two short excerpts that traders might find especially applicable to their endeavors. First, the paralyzing effect of fear.

“Fear narrows your focus and tunnels your vision. … When you confront the unknown, you face the greatest need to look outside yourself, to see beyond your mental database, to broaden your perspective and to think most critically. But fear produces the opposite effect. It beats a retreat deep inside your mind, shrinking and distorting your views. It drowns your capacity for critical thought with a flood of disruptive emotions. … Similarly, fear often emerges when you face a compelling opportunity to take action, to evolve, to make progress, to overcome, to transcend. But fear can be paralyzing. Its inertia is massive. Like its sibling denial and its cousin pride, fear clings to the status quo. Fear thrives in the fictitious minutiae of the mental images it inspires. It immerses you in those images, lulls you into inaction, and invites you to passively watch its prophecies fulfill themselves.”

Second, the devastating message of your inner critic and the response of the strong man.

You will never be good enough, he says. Don’t bother trying. … What remains to be done is vast compared to that which you have achieved. You require far more resources than those already marshaled. … Success is an island fortress, hazy and remote. The critic is obsessed with that fortress, the outcome, the destination, the final product. … You are on a fool’s errand, he says. This is hopeless.”

By contrast, “The strong man values effort, struggle, momentum, growth. He finds none of these things in perfection and thus has no use for it, in concept or in application. … For the strong man, the ‘best’ is a fallacy. He assesses the quality of the effort expended, not the results obtained. … What next? he asks. It is his mantra. Just keep moving.

You’ll be amazed what you can achieve. Lidsky threw out the first pitch at a Marlins-Cubs baseball game to promote Hope for Vision—and it was a strike. All it took for a blind man to learn to throw a regulation pitch was three or four hours of practice.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Damodaran, Narrative and Numbers

Even as flagging, high-profile hedge funds are looking for salvation in the quant world, academics are raising a red flag. Perhaps we’ve gone overboard in our efforts to reduce all financial activity to a set of numbers. For instance, Robert J. Shiller, in his presidential address delivered at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association at the beginning of this year, extolled the virtues of studying (admittedly quantitatively) popular narratives to understand economic fluctuations.

In Narrative and Numbers: The Value of Stories in Business (Columbia University Press, 2017) Aswath Damodaran, professor of finance at New York University Stern School of Business and a self-avowed numbers man, delves into the role of storytelling in the context of valuing businesses and making investments. Valuation, he claims, is a bridge between numbers and stories. “In effect, valuation allows each side to draw on the other, forcing storytellers to see the parts of their stories that are improbable or implausible, and to fix them, and number crunchers to recognize when their numbers generate a story line that does not make sense or is not credible.”

In the early chapters Damodaran looks at storytelling in general and business storytelling in particular. At issue is whether the stories a business tells (or the investor creates) are possible, plausible, or probable. Damodaran admits that “the lines between the possible, plausible, and probable are not always easy to draw.” He suggests instead thinking about the distinction between the impossible, implausible, and improbable, laying them out on a continuum of skepticism. “Impossible and improbable are quantifiable, the first because you are assigning a zero probability to an event happening and the latter because you are attaching a probability (albeit a low one) that an event will happen. Implausible lies in the muddled middle, since proving that it cannot happen is not feasible and attaching a probability judgment to it is just as difficult.”

Since Damodaran argues that “stories without numbers are just fairy tales and numbers without stories to back them up are exercises in financial modeling,” the core of his book deals with the process of connecting a plausible story to value drivers, using value drivers to estimate value (and, in reverse, extracting stories from existing valuations), and then, in a feedback loop, improving and modifying the narrative.

Damodaran illustrates his points in some detail using the examples of Uber, Ferrari, Amazon, and Alibaba.

The intended audience of Narrative and Numbers includes both entrepreneurs (and managers) and investors. With both groups the goal is to prevent wishful thinking from becoming expectation. Damodaran has carefully and convincingly developed an antidote to that financial poison.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cohan, Why Wall Street Matters

William D. Cohan, an investment banker turned journalist, is the author of Money and Power, House of Cards, and The Last Tycoons. Having criticized Wall Street in his earlier books, he now comes to its defense (for the most part) in Why Wall Street Matters (Random House, 2017).

The book is short, only about a hundred pages. It reads like an op-ed piece with expansive footnotes for the uninitiated. Responding to the Wall Street bashing that prevailed, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump, during the presidential campaign and to the ever critical Elizabeth Warren, Cohan sets out to show “why it is important to nearly everything we hold dear, and why we wouldn’t much like to live in a world without Wall Street. … The ability of Wall Street to provide capital when and where it is needed at a fair price … is an essential fact of modern-day life.”

Cohan takes the reader on an excursion through time, starting with the early days of the physical Wall Street when it housed the colony’s slave market in a wooden shed and when, as the site of the Stamp Act Congress, it also became a center of revolutionary fervor. Today, of course, what we think of as “Wall Street” no longer exists on Wall Street, save for the U.S. securities arm of Deutsche Bank.

He explains what commercial banks do and how they differ from investment banks. He describes how, even though financial crises are the byproducts of human nature, not Wall Street inventions, “Wall Street is particularly adept at fomenting or fueling a crisis, given how Darwinian a place it is.” He takes the reader through the formation of the Federal Reserve and the throes of the Great Depression.

And then he gets to the thrust of his argument: the problem with Wall Street firms going public. In the good old days, investment banks and brokerage firms were private partnerships. For more than 150 years Wall Street firms “relied on the prudent use of their partners’ capital to take risks—which nonetheless occasionally went awry—and to run their businesses, knowing full well that a single mistake could spell the end for their firms, as well as threaten whatever fortunes they had personally built up over the years.” But when, in 1970, DLJ convinced the New York Stock Exchange to change its rules and allow it to go public, Wall Street culture itself changed. “Although it was unlikely the founders of DLJ could have anticipated all of what its IPO would unleash over the next nearly fifty years, they must have had some inkling that by substituting a bonus culture—where bankers, traders, and executives demand to be paid for the revenue they generated in their various product lines—for the long-standing partnership culture—where the individual partners of the firm collaborated to make sure only prudent risks were taken in order to ensure there would be annual pretax profits for them to divide—Wall Street would never be the same.”

With access to public money, Wall Street’s animal spirits were unleashed. It started innovating—securitizing mortgages, creating junk bonds and later credit default swaps, increasingly with the input of quants. And then came the financial crisis, which it helped engineer.

Wall Street, and banks in general, were vilified. The public was outraged, and the government responded with burdensome regulations. Wrong, wrong, Cohan argues. Wall Street matters, and banks shouldn’t be hamstrung.

Cohan’s fix is simple. “What needs to happen—and fast—is that the leaders of the remaining big Wall Street firms need to designate the top five hundred or so top executives at their respective firms—the ones that run business lines, decide how capital gets allocated, decide who gets how much compensation and who gets promoted and who doesn’t—and along with the other members of the executive suite create a way for the bank’s creditors and shareholders to be able to go after their full net worth—everything—in the case of a meltdown. … This one simple change in the Wall Street compensation system would render Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule irrelevant. … The compliance culture could be rolled back considerably.” And American economic growth could pick up again.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Peterson & Hoekstra, Crunch Time

Rick Peterson was, in his most chronicled job, pitching coach for the Oakland A’s during the Moneyball era. Most recently he was director of pitching development for the Baltimore Orioles. Judd Hoekstra is vice president of The Ken Blanchard Companies, which provides leadership training, and has co-authored two books. The two men pooled their skills, and their stories, to produce Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most (Berrett-Koehler, 2017).

The common thread of this book is reframing: reframing from trying harder to trying easier, from tension to laughter, from anxiety to taking control, from doubt to confidence, from failure to learning moment, from prepared to overprepared. Through reframing, they maintain, a person can learn to thrive under pressure.

Reframing “is not about pretending everything is perfect and positive. It is about finding different ways of interpreting a less-than-ideal situation.” It is about overcoming the fight, flight, or freeze response to pressure, viewed as a threat, and instead activating what the authors call the “Conscious Thinker,” which understands pressure as an opportunity.

Naturally, many of the reframing techniques have been described elsewhere. There are, after all, only a limited number of ways people have come up with to deal with performance under pressure, given our state of knowledge about brain functions. But here are a couple of pointers that traders may find useful.

First, in evaluating your performance, however you define ‘performance’ (and in trading profit can be a self-sabotaging way to view it), set up a personal performance evaluation scale, where 0 is your worst performance and 10, your best. The most important number on this scale is 5, “where you consistently perform today.” You shouldn’t view any performance that doesn’t reach your personal best as a failure. Instead, you should view any performance above 5 as a success. This approach doesn’t encourage mediocrity because as your performance improves, your personal average shifts. The old 6 becomes the new 5. “And because your average is always a 5 on a scale of 0-10, it shows you still have more game in you.”

Second, “you don’t have to feel great to perform great.” Tom Glavine, a Hall of Fame starting pitcher, admitted that he was “in the zone” only one out of every five starts over the course of his career. “If the only time you can win is when you go out there and all the stars are aligned and everything is great, then you’re going to struggle because that’s just not reality.” You have to learn how to win that B+ game or that C+ game. Glavine’s preparation “helped him develop an arsenal of pitches he could throw with precision. When one of his pitches wasn’t working, he adjusted. In addition, when his physical talent was not at its peak, Glavine used his mind to outsmart hitters.”

And finally, a nudge in the right direction, “While the process of overpreparing may feel boring, the results are spectacular.”