Category Archives: arbit

Geek Talk

So I was talking to the wife using Viber when Viber acted up and disconnected. This happened a couple of times. Then I moved to FaceTime, but that too had problems, and started acting up. Finally I got irritated and decided I wouldn’t mind spending some money for uninterrupted conversation, so picked up my phone and dialled ISD.

And I told the wife, “I was getting damn irritated with packet switching, so I moved to circuit switching”. And then we got talking on why Viber was so irritating, and we talked about Tanenbaum (both of us really loved that textbook of Networking) and acknowledgements and transmission of messages on unreliable channels – which can only happen by introducing redundancy – which becomes painful in a human-to-human direct conversation.

I have an engineering degree, and am fairly good at maths, and read a fair bit of economics and history, so keep popping up concepts from these in my regular conversation. Some people find it abhorrent, and wonder if I’ve landed from another planet, given that I talk this way. For example, I remember using  the word “incentivise” while answering a question at a quiz (which had nothing to do with economics). I often rationalise purchases saying they offer “option value” – real options are one thing that I think I understand. And so forth.

From this perspective I think it’s really wonderful that I’m married to someone who not only tolerates this geek talk but actively encourages and participates in it! Like the wife has now become a big proponent of the concept of option value (though admittedly she has just joined B-school so is yet to appreciate the finer points of the Black-Scholes-Merton model). I’m not sure if before she met me she would quote as regularly from Harry Potter as she does now (or maybe I’m taking too much credit). And she keeps peppering examples from physics and astronomy and electrical engineering in her normal day-to-day conversation.

And speaking of physics and option theory and sporting analogies, I get damn irritated when people describe curves as the one below as “hockey sticks”.

I’m Indian, and the only hockey I know is “field hockey”, whose stick looks like a J. So whenever someone mentions “hockey stick” I start imagining a J-shaped curve. As for the above curve, I sometimes (especially when I’m hanging out with banker types) describe it as “call option payoff”. When I’m hanging out with more scientific types, I describe it as “photoelectric effect”.

I wonder how our kids will turn out!

A misspent career in finance

I spent three years doing finance – not counting any internships or consulting assignments. Between 2008 and 2009 I worked for one of India’s first High Frequency Trading firms. I worked as a quant, designing intra-day trading strategies based primarily on statistical arbitrage.

Then in 2009, I got an opportunity to work for the big daddy of them all in finance – the Giant Squid. Again I worked as a quant, designing strategies for selling off large blocks of shares, among others. I learnt a lot in my first year there, and for the first time I worked with a bunch of super-smart people. Had a lot of fun, went to New York, played around with data, figured that being good at math wasn’t the same as being good at data – which led me to my current “venture”.

But looking back, I think I mis-spent my career in finance. While quant is kinda sexy, and lets you do lots of cool stuff, I wasn’t anywhere close to the coolest stuff that my employers were doing. Check out this, for example, written by Matt Levine in relation to some tapes regarding Goldman Sachs and the Fed that were published yesterday:

The thing is:

  • Before this deal, Santander had received cash (from Qatar), and agreed to sell common shares (to Qatar), but wasn’t getting capital credit from its regulators.
  • After this deal, Santander had received cash (from Qatar), and agreed to sell common shares (to Qatar), and was getting capital credit from its regulators, and Goldman was floating around vaguely getting $40 million.

This is such brilliantly devious stuff. Essentially, every bad piece of regulation leads to a genius trade. You had Basel 2 that had lesser capital requirements for holding AAA bonds rather than holding mortgages, so banks had mortgages converted into Mortgage Backed Securities, a lot of which was rated AAA. In the 1980s, there were limits on how much the World Bank could borrow in Switzerland and Germany, but none on how much it could borrow in the United States. So it borrowed in the United States (at an astronomical interest rate – it was the era of Paul Volcker, remember) and promptly swapped out the loan with IBM, creating the concept of the interest rate swap in that period.

In fact, apart form the ATM (which Volcker famously termed as the last financial innovation that was useful to mankind, or something), most financial innovations that you have seen in the last few decades would have come about as a result of some stupid regulation somewhere.

Reading articles such as this one (the one by Levine quoted above) wants me to get back to finance. To get back to finance and work for one of the big boys there. And to be able to design these brilliantly devious trades that smack stupid regulations in the arse! Or maybe I should find myself a job as some kind of a “codebreaker” in a regulatory organisation where I try and find opportunities for arbitrage in any potentially stupid rules that they design (disclosure: I just finished reading Cryptonomicon).

Looking back, while my three years in finance taught me much, and have put me on course for my current career, I think I didn’t do the kind of finance that would give me the most kick. Maybe I’m not too old and I should give it another shot? I won’t rule that one out!

PS: back when I worked for the Giant Squid, a bond trader from Bombay had come down to give a talk. I asked him a question about regulatory arbitrage. He didn’t seem to know what that meant. At that point in time I lost all respect for him.

Twitter, outrage and political correctness

So I continue to be off twitter. The only tweets you see from me are the automated tweets that go out (which i customise a bit) every time I write a blog post, which has been fairly often in the last one month or so.

I gave up on my efforts to curate a twitter feed and get the links to pocket. I simply use the Flipboard app on my iPad, which I log on to once a day to see if there are interesting links. For a few days it worked. I collected lots of nice links. I still collect some nice links.

But then the thing with flipboard is that along with the links you end up seeing the twitter commentary that accompanied the links. And I see a lot of outrage. People don’t seem to have patience for a civil discussion on twitter any more. Everyone takes sides, every little topic is dissected like crazy and it’s almost like people have this pathological need to outrage and twitter is their vehicle for that. If this means that this might decrease their outrage in the rest of the world it’s a good thing, but I’m not sure if that is actually happening – it might even be that the constant outrage on twitter is keeping people’s outrage knives sharp and they are outraging more outside too.

Sometimes I like to crack a joke. More often than not it is likely to be offensive and politically incorrect. There is a friend who says he uses twitter exclusively as an outlet for the jokes that build up within his head -to let off steam in some sort of way. But then the extreme outrage and political correctness that twitter imposes on you means that you can never crack a nice harmless politically incorrect joke – people will descend upon you like a pack of wolves, and you get called names and all such.

And so you hold back. And you become a little less of what you were. And you regress. And then you find that you simply can’t function the way you used to a long time back.

Last night I was going through some of my blog posts from 2008 – I go on these trips sometimes. There will be some trigger that will remind me of a particular blog post, and from there I’ll read 20 other adjacent ones. Looking back at the blog posts, they were profound. They were the products of a clean and unfettered mind, who liked to put things out and who didn’t really mind any adverse reactions.

But over the last six years that mind has been dulled, sullied, bullied, into writing possibly only politically correct stuff, which might be flat and hardly profound. So the last month and a half when I’ve been out of twitter has also been an exercise to reclaim myself from @karthiks. And become back closer to skthewimp.livejournal.com – for that is the mode in which I think I function best!

Anyway.. My current thinking is that my facebook and twitter sabbatical will last until the end of October. Going by my brief intrusions into twitter via flipboard, though, it seems like I might stay away for much longer. But you know where to find me!

Planning and drawing

Fifteen years ago I had a chemistry teacher called Jayanthi Swaminathan. By all accounts, she was an excellent teachers, and easily one of the best teachers in the school where she taught me. Unfortunately I don’t remember much of what she taught me, the only thing I remember being her constant refrain to “plan and draw” while drawing orbital diagrams (I’ve forgotten what orbital diagrams look like).

Now, I remember wondering why it was that big a deal that she kept mentioning “plan and draw” while drawing or asking us to draw such diagrams. This question answered itself a few days later at my JEE factory, where the chemistry teacher started drawing an orbital diagram which soon threatened to go outside the blackboard. A friend who was sitting next to me, who was also from my school, quipped “this guy clearly didn’t plan and draw”.

The reason I’m mentioning this anecdote here is to talk about how, when faced with a deadline, we start running without realising what we are doing. I can think of a large number of disastrous projects from my academic and professional life (till a couple of years back my academic and professional life was rather disastrous), and looking back, the problem with each of them was that we didn’t “plan and draw”.

I especially remember this rather notorious “application exercise” as part of my marketing course at IIMB (btw, since the wife is doing her MBA now I keep getting reminded of IIMB quite frequently). We had a problem statement. We had a deadline. And we knew that the professor demanded lots of work. And off we went. There was absolutely no coherence to our process. There was a lot of work, a lot of research, but in hindsight, we didn’t know what we were doing! Marketing was my first C at IIMB (and the only C in a “non-fraud” course, the other being in a rather random course called Tracking Creative Boundaries).

Then I remember this project in my second job. “Forecast”, I was told, and asked to code in java, and forecasting I started, in java, without even looking at the data or trying to understand how my forecasts would solve any problem. Six months down, and forecasting going nowhere, I started coding on Excel, looked at the data for the first time, and then realised how hard the forecasting was, and how pointless (in context of the larger problem we were trying to solve).

There are several other instances – see problem, see target, start running – like the proverbial headless chicken (as made famous by former Indian ambassador to the US Ronen Sen). And then realise you are going nowhere, and it is too late to do a fresh start so you put together some shit.

That piece of advice I received in chemistry class 15 years back still resonates today – plan and draw (pun intended if you are in a duel). Its is okay to take a little time up front, knowing that you will progress well-at-a-faster-rate once you get started off. You need to understand that most projects follow the sigmoid curve. That progress in the initial days is slow, and that you should exploit that slowness to plan properly.

Sigmoid Curve

I will end this post with this beautiful video. Ilya Smyrin versus Vishwanathan Anand. Semi-finals of the PCA candidates tournament in 1994 – the tournament that Anand won to face off with Garry Kasparov at the WTC. Anand, playing black, gets only five minutes to play the whole game. Watch how he spends almost a minute on one move early on, but has planned enough to beat Smyrin (Anand only required a draw to progress, given the rules).

Raghuram Rajan replies to my Pragati article

At least I like to believe that! A couple of weeks back I’d published this article in Pragati (published by the Takshashila Institution, where I work part time as Resident Quant) slamming recent decisions by the Reserve Bank of India to make two factor authentication compulsory and to limit the number of free ATM withdrawals from non-home banks.

My criticism for both these decisions was that they were designed to take money out of the banking system, which would result in a reduction of money supply, and subsequent increase in borrowing costs, thus slowing down India’s economic recovery. I had some other criticisms, too, such as it being none of the RBI’s business to mandate what was essentially a pricing decision between the RBI and the customer, and the perverse incentives the rule created for banks seeking to set up new ATMs.

Could it be that the above regulations are a move by the RBI to curtail money supply without necessarily doing the politically tricky task of raising interest rates?

If it is (and it is a very remote possibility), we should commend the RBI for what will then amount to be a sneaky decision. If not, it must be mentioned that though noble in thought, the two decisions are completely bereft of economic and financial reasoning.

I had written.

So an article published an hour back in Mint quotes Rajan on these two policies, where he defends them. On the two factor authentication issue, he is surprisingly defensive, offering nothing more than a statement that banks and companies need to follow the rules and not try to circumvent them in the name of innovation. Rajan then added that he is looking into permitting transactions up to  a certain limit that don’t need two factor authentication – something I had pointed out in my Pragati piece.

On the ATM issue, I (and other news organisations who I got my news from) seem to have got my information wrong. Apparently currently regulation exists that five ATM transactions per month from non-home banks are supposed to be free, and that is being cut down to three. Rajan clarifies (as reported in Mint today) that the new regulation only allows banks to charge customers beyond the first three transactions in a month, and they are not obliged to do so. He talked about the perverse incentives that the earlier regime (where banks were obliged to permit a number of free ATM transactions from non home banks) created.

My apologies for not reading the regulations correctly (of course a part of the blame has to go to the newspapers that reported it thus! :) ). I admit I should have checked from multiple sources on that one.

Coming to the point of the post, why do I think that Rajan is responding to my Pragati piece? You might argue that it might simply be a case of correlation-causation – that it might be coincidental that Rajan has spoken about two issues that I had highlighted in that post. However, there are two reasons as to why I believe that Rajan was responding to my post.

The first has to do with the combination of subjects. While the two regulations (ATM withdrawals and two factor authentication ) were widely reported in the media, I haven’t seen any piece apart from mine which addresses these two issues together (I must admit my perusal of Indian media has dropped nowadays given my Twitter and Facebook sabbatical). Given that Rajan has chosen to address these two issues today, it is likely that he is responding to my piece.

The second reason has to do with the timing. The Takshashila Institution sends out a weekly “dispatch” which is a summary of commentary written by its fellows and employees and associates. This is an emailer which contains links to these articles along with short snippets, and a number of fairly influential people (within the government and outside) are on the list of recipients. The latest edition of the Takshashila dispatch went out this morning, and it has a link to my Pragati piece. Now, while Rajan is not on the mailing list (to the best of my knowledge), it is likely that an influencer on the list with access to him brought it up today (it could even be the Mint journalist who has reported the story – that would still count as Rajan, albeit indirectly, responding to my piece). This reaffirms my belief that he was responding to my piece in his comments today!

You might think I’m deluded. So be it!

Carrots have become expensive

image

Carrots have become expensive in Bangalore, relative to cucumbers at least.

I’m at mainland China in Jayanagar to have their excellent pepper lemon chicken soup – which is brilliant when you’re nursing a cold – like I am  now.

Like any good Chinese restaurant they’ve given kimchi as complimentary starter and I’ve been eating that as I wait for me soup.

As you can see in the far right corner of the photo though the kimchi (not sure if the pickled carrot and cucumber they give as complimentary starter can be classified this or if the term is reserved for the pickled cabbage – anyhow) only has cucumber.

It’s my mistake that I took this photo now and not even it just arrived but what was supposed to be a bowl of carrot and cucumber was actually a bowl on picked cucumber only with one token piece of pickled carrot!

Clear indicator that carrots are expensive now – relative to cucumbers at least!!

PS: I shopped for vegetables on Wednesday. Bought carrots for sixty rupees a kilo while cucumbers cost twenty a kilo. So no ticket science to this post. Just a pertinent observation

Favours and slavedriving

The question is if you are allowed to slavedrive someone who is doing you a favour. Let’s say you want me to do something for you. I agree to do it, but slack in doing so – either I don’t want to do it and grudgingly agreed, or I genuinely want to help you and am caught up in other stuff, or if I forgot.

The question is if you are allowed to slavedrive me in terms of getting me to do what I promised, and if so, to what extent you are allowed to do that.

If you don’t do enough, then possibly it’s not enough of a prod for me to get things done in a way that works for you. If you prod too much, it can mess up our relationship, and I might refuse to do you any more favours for a long time!

Where and how do you draw the fine line here? Let’s assume we are acquaintances and don’t know each other’s working styles so there is some information asymmetry. How do we solve this problem?

If you have figured out, please leave a comment below. Any help on this one would be much appreciated!

CRIBS

I hereby propose that the venerable institution that was created earlier this year after a meeting in Fortaleza, based on an extension of a concept that the venerable Jim O’Neill proposed some ten years back, be renamed CRIBS.

There are several reasons for this. Primarily, the new name reflects the relative power of the countries that form the now organisation – there is no doubting, for example, that China is the most powerful nation in this grouping – indeed it can be argued that China is the most powerful nation in the world (with all the US treasuries they hold and all that).

The next more powerful nation in the group is of course Russia. Look at how they’ve quietly invaded Ukraine with impunity, knowing fully well that the Western powers can do little beyond cheap talk to contain them. Look at them forming the Eurasian Union, getting the support of Kazakhstan and Belarus – fairly inconsequential, of course, but with strong signalling value. Also let us not forget that inconsequential the UN and the UN Security Council may be – both China and Russia are permanent members of the council. Taking this forward it is not hard to see that these two are more powerful than India which is more powerful than Brazil (under recession now) which is more powerful than South Africa (which was never a part of the original grouping that O’Neill proposed).

The other reason for renaming the group is that the new name is more apt in terms of communicating the absolute pointlessness of a group of nations that has little in common but for the fact that they are large, significant in their respective local geographies, supposedly growing (though Brazil is not now) and were put in one paper by a famous economist working in a famous investment bank.

The third reason is that “BRICS” reminds people of bricks, which is constructive (pun intended). There is nothing constructive about this grouping, notwithstanding the bank that they are going to set up. Thus, the current name of the grouping is misleading and unfair to the general public.

I’m sure many more reasons can be invented, but these three are good enough reasons to rename the grouping. I hereby request our Dear Prime Minister Shri Narendra ModiJI to refuse to contribute India’s share to the bank unless it is renamed -after all none of the other countries are any good at English, so India should be able to bulldoze its way on this one!

Marketing

I’m in a conversation with a friend on marketing my consulting services and he gave me a most genius piece of advice

You can say you do supervised learning instead of saying regressions.

Last month I was at this big data conference. Everyone I met said they were into big data or analytics or some such. The follow up question would always be “and what exactly do you do?” Followed by a laugh about how these are much abused terms.