Project onto blanks

Keanu Reeves – good films, bad actor?

I read an interesting article recently on Keanu Reeves acting style. Apparently in the world of acting, his style is to present himself as a blank canvas, upon which viewers can project themselves. It helps explain why I love so many of his movies (Matrix, Point Break, John Wick, Bill & Ted), but struggle to understand why, as he doesn’t appear to be a very good actor.

This style of acting certainly makes sense in the context of watching a film, we gain particular pleasure from being able to imagine ourselves as a participant in the drama. Similarly, I have also read that men watching sport are essentially fantasizing that they are actually playing themselves.

Keanu’s aim is not to overwhelm, his voice and facial expressions are muted, the personality left somewhat undefined and given this lack of concrete character, we can overwrite with our own feelings. Although I’m less of a fan, it helps explain why Tom Cruise is such a successful leading man.

This concept does not just apply to sports and movies, it occurs to me to this has wider applications:

 

Extension to business

An area where I find I’m mindful of this issue is when I conduct an interview at work.

If I run an informal, unstructured interview then often my impression of a candidate will relate closely to my mood. If I am highly positive and energetic, then we are likely to have an energetic conversation and I will come out thinking this person has those qualities. I tend to think well of people and so am in danger of projecting the qualities I like onto them.

Over time, I have built a more structured interview and hiring process, with a prepared common list of questions and involving independent interviewers. This helps to highlight a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses in a more objective manner.

 

Extension to politics

The effect in politics is also interesting, perhaps increasingly so.

The marketing of politicians has evolved over the decades. It used to be that politicians had a set of views, often described in speeches and laid out in a manifesto.  Later it seems clear that to win an election you do not need to have coherent views and that the overall spin and marketing is what matters.  Now, it appears that elections have moved to another level.  Politicians are even more electable if their views are actively incoherent.  A politician is no longer required to be a well-rounded person with specific policies and characteristics which can be evaluated – it is more important to be an avatar for the emotions of their support base.

The outstanding recent example of this is of course Trump. But it also helps explain the behaviour of the leading Brexiteers, such as Boris Johnson. A lack of coherent viewpoints is not a flaw, it is the essence of their appeal. They are liked because of their incoherence, not in spite of it.  By making rambling, nonsensical speeches without the need to engage with any aspect of reality, they create a perfect blank upon which the emotions of their supporters can be projected. You do not need to look for the inconsistencies and incompatibilities within their support base, they are sure to exist. What’s more important is the common emotional need they all share, and wish to express.

This also means that whatever you think of Trump or Boris personally, they are not the real problem.
Without them, another avatar would be found to take their place. Boris will only remain the darling of the Telegraph as long as he continues talking gobbledygook in a manner they find amusing.  He knows that if he gave a serious speech acknowledging the trade-offs involved in Brexit, they would find another to take his place, so he happily makes speeches which he must know are full of lies and nonsense. It is very possible that Trump does not understand any of this or that he is not in control of his movement, or even his own identity. His candidate lost the recent Alabama primary to a candidate promoted as backed by the @realDonaldTrump. Steve Bannon told a rally “a vote for Judge Roy Moore is a vote for Donald J Trump”, while Trump himself was campaigning for Sen. Strange!

The movement existed before Trump and is merely using him as its current symbol. They are in a symbiotic relationship of mutual support, and have created a powerful and dangerous, political force.

A Black swan

This is a term commonly used – but I struggle to understand what people mean by it.

Types of probabilistic events?

In Taleb’s book of the same name, “Black Swan” appears to be used in a variety of ways:

  1. For a well-defined outcome with a low probability
    for example: selling lottery tickets or buying CDOs in 2006/7.
    (perhaps the people buying such CDOs did not understand that they were selling lottery tickets but they should have!)
  2. For general uncertainty
    We all know it is possible to have a currency crisis in the UK in the next 5 years but it is not very sensible to put a single number on it. This is concept of “uncertainty” from Knight and Keynes and many macro issues fit into this category. A frequentist approach to probability works for rolling dice but often not for rare events.
  3. For “fat tail” events
    Extreme events occur in reality more commonly than a normal distribution would suggest.
  4. For when the distribution is just unknown
    It is possible that it will be known at a later stage, but currently there is insufficient information.
  5. For an unknown, possible outcome
    This seems to be the new, popular meaning.

Numbers 1 through 4 are well-known and have perfectly good ways to describe them. I think that only number 5 really makes sense as a potential separate meaning for “Black Swan”.

Does number 5 actually exist?

This is also the meaning I have most problem with as I struggle to find real-world examples of it. There are many examples where people did not consider the possibility of a given outcome, but at the same time you can find many people who did and even had decent reasons to expect it to happen. At the individual level it makes some sense as being imaginative can be hard work! However, if some people are not surprised at the occurrence, then how can it be something which “is not even imagined as a possibility prior to its occurrence” unless as you say it is entirely subjective and individual.

It may have been unimaginable to Cheney that the Iraqi people did not embrace US troops as liberators in 2003. Does that mean it was a Black Swan as it was not conceived possible and was clearly important? Or does it just mean Cheney was wrong?

Common usage

Let’s consider what many see as the great Black Swan of 2008:

This is what I think people mean:

· 2008 was a massive drop in markets

· A great deal of common practice in managing risk was terrible

· They didn’t see it coming because it was unforeseeable

Therefore

· I should not feel bad about not predicting it

· Black Swans are very rare, so we should not expect it to happen again

· We should carry on pretty much as before

 

Why it annoys me

This version of events is just an excuse for being wrong, for not learning from it or changing behavior. It should be obvious that I find the term annoying in this way of excusing poor decision making and avoiding responsibility.

Alan Greenspan indeed said that the financial crisis was “unforeseeable”.

 

On Epistemology

Another confusion I had about the theory of the “Black swan” laid out in the book, is the way it sits at odds with the philosophy of science and specifically Popper. Popper, in fact, gets no mention in Taleb’s book, even though Popper’s key concept of falsifiability has long been linked and explained via the original example of black swans.

Quick aside on jargon

  • A conjecture – is an unproven proposition which appears correct
  • A hypothesis – is a testable statement

To illustrate Popper’s concept:
If your hypothesis is that all swans are white.
It would be disproved if you find a black swan.

Given its falsifiability, this is compatible with scientific enquiry

It is clear in this example, to be testable, you have to have considered what events would falsify it.

If we now put Taleb into similar language:

  • Taleb
    a Black Swan is an unimagined event for certain people which disproves their conjecture
  • Popper
    a Black Swan is a defined event which would falsify a hypothesis

Written this way, I think it show the two meanings are incompatible. Popper’s version makes sense and is useful. It is therefore such a shame that Taleb’s popularisation of the term “Black Swan” has taken something important and meaningful and turned it into nonsense.

Questions I like to ask in meetings

“I don’t understand”

The number one, most useful phrase to use in a meeting, when:

  1. I simply did not get something and it seems important
    Perhaps there is a missing context, perhaps it is something very unfamiliar or maybe I am missing something obvious. To be a full participant in the meeting, it is important to pause here and get clarity.
  2. I did not get something and suspect that a mistake has been made                  Someone that can explain their conclusions from “first principles” without obfuscation, generally has thought through a problem deeply. Asking for a proper explanation in a meeting, generally exposes mistakes in the analysis or a mistake that I have made (point 1). The analysis is often entirely sensible, but may lack full consideration of other aspects or links to other parts of the project.

People often avoid saying “I don’t understand” as they don’t want to appear silly; this form of bluffing can create a huge drag on the performance of a team. To this end, I consciously trying to create a positive culture around it, showing no embarrassment when expressing the fact I do not understand.

 

“Can we go back to the beginning?”

(1). I suspect the project/meeting is going off track and I want to go back and check assumptions.

A very common error, which relates to my previous post, is to assume that previous decisions are irrevocable and so choices are limited and forced.
For example, let’s say that in the early stages of a project, a decision was made to prefer option A over option B. This was an entirely sensible and pragmatic choice given the information at the time and a sensible amount of due diligence. Later in the project, we have hit a problem and we need to do something we do not like to progress.

Typically, a team would think the options are:

i. Cancel the project (often not feasible)

ii. Find some creative alternative to move forward (let’s try but cannot find one)

iii. Move ahead – even if it is unpalatable

Options i) and ii) may not be possible and option iii) can often have terrible results.
What has been missed is iv):

iv. Go back to a previous decision and see if changing that, allows us to go around the issue.

In my experience, project teams often really dislike this option, as it feels like they are going backwards and destroying previous work. In practice, much of the work is still relevant and progress can be made extremely quickly, ending up at a far better place.

 

(2). I suspect we are making the wrong sort of “plan”.
Again, this is related to my previous post. Discussion seems to have moved on to implementation, when we ought to be talking about “ideas and suggestions” (i.e. what we should be doing). You may often feel like you are fighting a very strong prevailing current of thought, especially when you have a team of competent implementers who may consider the creative phase as going backwards or just wasting time. To make this happen, I often have to be quite determined and utilise personal capital to persuade people we should spend our time this way.

If I think of when I have added the most value to a project, it is often because I helped us go back and re-evaluate previous decisions. When I think of the worst projects I have been involved with, a common feature was ploughing on when we actually needed to rethink our entire approach.


“Can I have a worked example?”

Words often don’t mean the same thing to everyone, they often mean different things in different contexts; it’s the great and terrible thing about words and it has enormous scope for confusion within a team. Examples are a great way to help explain a concept, especially ones with numbers in Excel!

  • Do the numbers add up? The critical test, often missed. We miss that we have double counted something, missed an item entirely or simply made a miscalculation.
  • Does it have logical coherence? With an example, it is far easier to see where there has been an assumption or missed step.
  • Did the words mean what I thought they meant? Examples can often show a very different meaning to the entire concept and its previous description.

 

Conclusion

These key questions all display some lack of comprehension, a desire to go back a stage and to clarify or rethink. I think these are most useful questions, because culturally we have been trained not to behave this way. Few children want to put up their hand in class and admit they do not understand, risking the contempt and ridicule of their peers for not keeping up. In my early career, I saw people progressing by projecting confidence, which only much later I understood to be a thin veneer. It takes courage to behave this way in a meeting – but perhaps when someone else does you can support them because you understand why it is so important.

Decision Making

Decision making is an area of interest I frequently return to. Last week I explained how I like to work to a new starter at the firm, and thought it would be a good opportunity to share more broadly.

Building a robust process that supports decision making has been crucial throughout my trading career, but I now find it helpful more generally in many areas of my life.

I outline my approach below. To me, it is both simple and comes naturally. However, I wonder how common such an approach is, given how often confusion arises.

Before I go through the individual steps, perhaps the most important aspect to emphasize is the difference between the steps in yellow, which focus on what we should do, and those in blue which concern how we should go about it. This helps form a clear division between before and after a decision has been made.

Steps in the process

Ideas

This stage is free and unconstrained – the objective is creativity

  • Do not dismiss anything
  • Be open to other people’s ideas
  • Do not worry too much about practicality or attractiveness

 

Suggestions

Suggestions are ideas that are liked, or at least plausible – the objective is initial due diligence

  • Intelligent pushback
  • Alternative suggestions (and perhaps even completely new ideas)
  • Plausibility analysis

(Note “suggestions” is plural i.e. still at the stage of multiple possibilities.)

 

Proposal
The objective here is sufficient detail needed to make a decision.

  • Narrowed to a primary suggestion, or perhaps an examination of a small number of options.
  • Key area is to highlight major issues/red flags
  • No problem suggesting going back a stage for some more ideas and suggestions rather than moving ahead.

 

Decision

A clear moment and where the project transitions to a very different stage.

 

Implementation
Objective here is work out how to do something and actually do it

  • Most people are far more comfortable at this stage

 

To illustrate the process, here is a trading example:

(1) Ideas

Let’s just list a few basic investment ideas:

Buy S+P

Sell S+P

Buy European equities

Buy EM equities

Sell US bonds

(2) Suggestions

We like the idea of long equity exposure
We narrow down to S+P and DAX as the prime candidates

(3) Proposal

After detailed analysis, the proposal from the analysis team is
“to buy $50m of S+P as soon as practical.”

(4) Decision

After review, the proposal is refined, and we decide to buy $75m of S+P exposure

(5) Implementation

At this stage, the process of ideas, suggestion, proposal, and decision can be repeated, this time for implementation. Thus, a decision could be to use S+P mini futures and execute within the first hour of the opening of the US cash market the next trading day.

 

 

What goes wrong?

Over the years, I observe that many people in a work environment show a preference for either the pre-decision “ideas and suggestions” zone or the post decision “implementation” zone, rarely both. Each style can be very useful, but I’ve learnt it’s important to be aware of the differences, to play to people’s strength and to avoid confusion.

Those who prefer implementation:

  • Premature decision making

It’s very easy to start the process with a decision already made, skipping the supporting steps, with any subsequent analysis purely a rationalisation to present to others and ourselves, in other words confirmation bias.

  • Rush to implementation

In the framework above, it is clear an idea is not a decision and also a suggestion is not a decision. In reality, what can sometimes happen is when I suggest an idea, people around me think I have made a decision and move straight to how we would implement. This is especially confusing when it turns out that those same people never thought it was a good idea! People often explain that previous bosses have strong opinions and just expect to get it done. In this respect, I have learnt to be very explicit to avoid causing confusion.

Those who prefer the ideas and suggestions stages:

  • Lack of details

Preferring the positivity and creativity of the early stages, people often don’t value the details or due diligence required to actually make a decision. Red flags or major issues are critical to consider pre-decision, as once the decision is made, momentum makes it hard to go back again.

  • Inability to drill down to a concrete proposal

We can always find another idea or another suggestion.
However there comes a stage of pragmatism in all decision making, when some suggestions need to be discarded, and others more deeply investigated to form a proposal.
This is also the stage where implementation considerations are important; but people who prefer “ideas and suggestions” may not pay sufficient attention to these and so it’s crucial to widen the team.

 

“Plan”

Note that I did not use the word “plan” above. This is because it is commonly used to describe a proposal and also relates to implementation. In fact, these stages share common materials; the details from the proposal will often cover some of the implementation. The crucial difference is one is before decision and the other is after.

Again, people used to working on implementation, can take the details involved in the proposal as indication that a decision has been make. The temptation to move the project along, rather that focus on any issues that may indicate a major mistake.

 


Conclusion

To make good decisions, it’s clear you need both types of people!

Having a team which excels at implementation is a wonderful thing, similarly having people around you that get energised by thinking about new ideas. But even more important perhaps, is making sure that you spend sufficient time and energy on both aspects and find a way to integrate the contributions of everyone.

Thinking about where you sit in the process above, being aware what kind of preferences you have, could be helpful to your career, making you much more effective within teams at work.

The path to becoming a Portfolio Manager

Throughout my career, I have helped train and mentor a number of aspiring portfolio managers. Many find themselves prepared for various technical aspects of the job i.e. how to trade certain products, how trades settle, how to calculate risk, how to build a portfolio, how to manage stop-losses etc. In my opinion, these technical skills will not be the biggest problem faced on the journey, but rather the emotional issues that accompany it and sadly most people do not enjoy that aspect of the job.

For most becoming a portfolio manager is not a good career choice, but for a small number it is perfect. Therefore, one of the things I try and help aspiring managers to understand is the different stages they will pass through.

 

Stage 1 – Observer

This is the stage where people have shown real interest in financial markets. They follow the news, read analysis, develop their technical knowledge and skills, and enjoy forming market views and expressing them to others.

A common error for an aspiring PM is to think this stage is a long way along the road. A key element is the lack of clear feedback mechanism; or rather feedback is likely to be qualitative (perhaps social i.e. do people like what they say and write) but unlikely to be quantitative or objective.

 

Stage 2 – Paper trading

This is a helpful stage that I push aspiring PMs towards – I explain that this is what I did myself. My observation is that those who will become successful PMs will have already done this sort of activity on their own. After all who could stop them?

Paper trading is the stage where people can realise if they care enough about forming views and narrative about financial markets, or care about playing a game in which you keep score by how many dollars you gain or lose. Paper trading becomes engrossing because it is an active feedback mechanism on your decisions and thus the only way you could ever improve. All I do at this stage is help them think about trading and how to evaluate their decisions for themselves. The key is that only those that enjoy it and like keep to score in an honest way, can actively progress from here.

Most aspiring PM’s actually stop at this stage and soon revert to stage 1. Some get bored, some use their paper portfolio as a means to signal their “view” e.g. bullish the Australian dollar, much like a research strategist does. The preference to talk about trades where they were “right” often becomes dominant, rather than all the other lessons they learnt. If I point out that their overall paper portfolio has lost money they will often blame “money management” or “risk management” as though this is some technical add-on that is of secondary importance to their view formation.

 

Stage 3 – trading real money (small)

At this stage, aspiring PMs are often shocked to find out how much worse they perform than when they ran a paper portfolio. To the outside observer, it may appear identical, but for the participant I would highlight these key differences:

It is public
Actual P+L in a firm will be reported. In a paper portfolio you are free to make any decision you want and the only person who will ever know about them is yourself. Once real money is at stake, all your decisions are visible, and can be can be looked at much later by other people who will judge them. In this respect it is similar to my very first blog post “How to Write“, your thought process will change in the same way that writing in a private diary is different from an essay submitted to a teacher.

It is real money
I remember being really stressed at this stage in my career, partly because I was so bad at it! I kept losing money. It felt real to me. I would lose perhaps $500 on an FX trade and this felt like a lot of money. I could buy a TV for that. I struggled to understand why my bosses were so relaxed and tolerant of me throwing the firm’s money away. Later once I was the manager I understood that this is a cost of training and most people really struggle at this stage.

It matters for your career

This is especially tough as you are starting to take risks with your future. You need to persevere, building up evidence to convince people to give you more money to trade. It is hard to predict who will make this transition and who will fall back into the far more numerous careers in stage 1.

 

Stage 4 – trading real money (large)

By the time you get to Stage 4, the vast majority of aspiring PMs will have already fallen away. This does not mean that you are now the finished article and that it will be easy from here. Once you start managing larger amounts of money you will face different stresses.

Now your trading decisions will have a material impact on your life and career. If you do really well you will get a large bonus, buy a flat and a nice car. If you do not, you may get fired.

It is starting to be too late to simply go back to Stage 1 and find another path in finance (unlike at stage 3). Here you will be highly vulnerable to Desirability Bias (Desire – The Fatal Flaw). You will want to make good decisions really, really badly. You will really, really want the decisions you have made to be good ones. This can damage the delicate cognitive processes that are required for nuanced decision-making.

Some people struggle here and effectively behave as though they are still in Stage 3. They will take small risks and although they enjoy trading and are good at it, they cannot commit to risking their job and livelihood based upon it. For some reason, I loved this stage. I felt freed up from the restrictions of Stage 3 and had huge (over)confidence in my ability. In hindsight, I still had an awful lot to learn but my confidence and ambition kept me moving forward.

 

Stage 5 – full-time portfolio manager

Here there is nowhere to hide. Managing money is not just a part of your job – it is everything. The decisions you make will determine whether you can buy the nice house, pay for your kids to go to private schools, what lifestyle you can afford and more broadly your status in society.

My sense of this stage is that the people who really care about money, in the sense of what it can buy you, do not become portfolio managers. There are many safer and more reliable routes in finance to get those things.

The ones who do better are perhaps more like me. I did not care very much about leading a very affluent lifestyle, I had earned enough money in my career not to worry that I would end up in severe financial stress and so leaving the relative security of running a business in a bank did not feel very risky.

Conclusion

What I find striking is how hard is it to predict who will succeed at the various stages.

The people who were outstanding at Stage 1 might be complete failures at Stage 3. Those who were very good at Stage 3 would not come across anywhere near as well as the analysts and strategists in terms of their ability to talk about markets, economics and strategy.

Those who were successful at Stage 3 generally focused on the task at hand (i.e. find something, anything which they could turn into making a profit.) This might mean they became an expert in a tiny section of a market and thus needed to know nothing at all about unrelated areas of finance and broad market drivers. It is the focus on making money that is far more important than a broad interest in financial markets.

To become a portfolio manager, not only do you have to refine your technical ability, you will need add emotional strength to deal with the challenges. This can be even harder to predict.

Games 7 Is trading gambling?

My story of the racetrack (https://appliedmacro.com/2017/07/12/desire-the-fatal-flaw/) is how many people, from outside finance, see my world of traders and hedge fund managers. A bunch of gamblers who, at the mercy of their desires, love the thrill with the outcome largely down to luck.

This is invariably intended to be an insult. While I do not enjoy being insulted, I also find it interesting that it is so poorly directed. As with many insults, there is an element of truth but it says more about the speaker than the target.

Using the previous framework on games, they are suggesting that trading is:

  1. High volatility
  2. Low skill
  3. Motivated by desire for excitement

This is probably a fair representation of how a non-professional might engage in it. It is a very fair description of how I play poker with friends. This is why I think it says a lot about the speaker.

In contrast, I would describe professional trading in the game framework as:

  1. High volatility
  2. High skill
  3. Desire for consistent profits and to minimise excitement

This is also a good description of how a professional poker player would view their play.

For both trading and poker, the experience and motivations of amateurs and professionals are very different.

For a non-participant, the most common error is to assume that high volatility games are low skill ones – which we have already seen is certainly not the case. It is also easy to generalise from the few lucky cases that make a good story, and then mistakenly think that luck is all that matters.

Conclusion

Trading and poker have a lot in common. To some, they can be games with a high degree of randomness, where the motivation for playing is the fun that comes from experiencing the volatility. Or they can be games played by professionals, who want to reduce the volatility as much as possible to focus on the non-random positive earnings they can obtain from it.