Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How a Misfit Group of Computer Geeks and English Majors Transformed Wall Street

From New York Magazine's Select/All, January 18:

In the 1980s, a quiet hedge fund located above a Marxist bookstore launched a revolution that would change finance (and give us Amazon).
In celebration of New York Magazine’s 50th anniversary, this weekly series, which will continue through October 2018, tells the stories behind key moments that shaped the city’s culture.
In the summer of 1988, the hedge-fund manager Donald Sussman took a call from a former Columbia University computer-science professor wanting advice on his new Wall Street career.
“I’d like to come see you,” David Shaw, then 37 years old, told Sussman. Shaw had grown up in California, receiving a Ph.D. at Stanford University, then moved to New York to teach at Columbia before joining investment bank Morgan Stanley, which had a new secretive trading group that was using computer modeling. A neophyte in the ways of Wall Street, Shaw wanted Sussman, who founded the investment firm Paloma Partners, to look at an offer he had received from Morgan Stanley’s rival, Goldman Sachs.

Sussman’s career has been built on recognizing and financing hedge-fund talent, but he had never encountered anyone like David Shaw. The cerebral computer scientist would go on to become a pioneer in a revolution in finance that would computerize the industry, turn long-standing practices on their head, and replace a culture of tough-guy traders with brainy eccentrics — not just math and science geeks, but musicians and writers — wearing jeans and T-shirts.

A harbinger of the techies who would storm Wall Street in a decade, this new generation of hedge-fund introverts would replace the profanity-laced trading rooms of the 1980s with quiet libraries of algorithmic research in every corner of the markets. They would also launch an early email system and look into the prospect of online retailing, leading one of Shaw’s most ambitious employees to take the idea and run with it. Yes, the seeds of Jeff Bezos’s Amazon were planted at a New York City hedge fund.
Thirty years ago, all of that was yet to come. All Shaw told Sussman at the time was, “I think I can use technology to trade securities.”
Sussman told Shaw the Goldman offer he had received was inadequate. “If you’re confident this idea is going to work, you should come work for me,” Sussman told Shaw. The offer led to three days of sailing in Long Island Sound on Sussman’s 45-foot sloop with the financier, Shaw, and his partner, Peter Laventhol. The two men —without disclosing many details — “convinced me they believed they could generate models that would identify portfolios that would be market-neutral and able to outperform others,” Sussman remembers. In lay terms, the strategy would make a lot of money without taking much risk.
Hedge funds were still fairly primitive, and while they were already using mathematical formulas to capture small price disparities in such esoteric instruments as convertible bonds — then a dominant hedge-fund strategy — Shaw was planning to take the math to a whole new level./...MUCH MORE
HT: FT Alphaville's Further Reading post, January 23