The (missing) Desk Quants of Main Street

A long time ago, I’d written about my experience as a Quant at an investment bank, and about how banks like mine were sitting on a pile of risk that could blow up any time soon.

There were two problems as I had documented then. Firstly, most quants I interacted with seemed to be solving maths problems rather than finance problems, not bothering if their models would stand the test of markets. Secondly, there was an element of groupthink, as quant teams were largely homogeneous and it was hard to progress while holding contrarian views.

Six years on, there has been no blowup, and in some sense banks are actually doing well (I mean, they’ve declined compared to the time just before the 2008 financial crisis but haven’t done that badly). There have been no real quant disasters (yes I know the Gaussian Copula gained infamy during the 2008 crisis, but I’m talking about a period after that crisis).

There can be many explanations regarding how banks have not had any quant blow-ups despite quants solving for math problems and all thinking alike, but the one I’m partial to is the presence of a “middle layer”.

Most of the quants I interacted with were “core” in the sense that they were not attached to any sales or trading desks. Banks also typically had a large cadre of “desk quants” who are directly associated with trading teams, and who build models and help with day-to-day risk management, pricing, etc.

Since these desk quants work closely with the business, they turn out to be much more pragmatic than the core quants – they have a good understanding of the market and use the models more as guiding principles than as rules. On the other hand, they bring the benefits of quantitative models (and work of the core quants) into day-to-day business.

Back during the financial crisis, I’d jokingly predicted that other industries should hire quants who were now surplus to Wall Street. Around the same time, DJ Patil et al came up with the concept of the “data scientist” and called it the “sexiest job of the 21st century”.

And so other industries started getting their own share of quants, or “data scientists” as they were now called. Nowadays its fashionable even for small companies for whom data is not critical for business to have a data science team. Being in this profession now (I loathe calling myself a “data scientist” – prefer to say “quant” or “analytics”), I’ve come across quite a few of those.

The problem I see with “data science” on “Main Street” (this phrase gained currency during the financial crisis as the opposite of Wall Street, in that it referred to “normal” businesses) is that it lacks the cadre of desk quants. Most data scientists are highly technical people who don’t necessarily have an understanding of the business they operate in.

Thanks to that, what I’ve noticed is that in most cases there is a chasm between the data scientists and the business, since they are unable to talk in a common language. As I’m prone to saying, this can go two ways – the business guys can either assume that the data science guys are geniuses and take their word for the gospel, or the business guys can totally disregard the data scientists as people who do some esoteric math and don’t really understand the world. In either case, value added is suboptimal.

It is not hard to understand why “Main Street” doesn’t have a cadre of desk quants – it’s because of the way the data science industry has evolved. Quant at investment banks has evolved over a long period of time – the Black-Scholes equation was proposed in the early 1970s. So the quants were first recruited to directly work with the traders, and core quants (at the banks that have them) were a later addition when banks realised that some quant functions could be centralised.

On the other hand, the whole “data science” growth has been rather sudden. The volume of data, cheap incrementally available cloud storage, easy processing and the popularity of the phrase “data science” have all increased well-at-a-faster rate in the last decade or so, and so companies have scrambled to set up data teams. There has simply been no time to train people who get both the business and data – and the data scientists exist like addendums that are either worshipped or ignored.

Auctions of distressed assets

Bloomberg Quint reports that several prominent steel makers are in the fray for the troubled Essar Steel’s assets. Interestingly, the list of interested parties includes the promoters of Essar Steel themselves. 

The trouble with selling troubled assets or bankrupt companies is that it is hard to put a value on them. Cash flows and liabilities are uncertain, as is the value of the residual assets that the company can keep at the end of the bankruptcy process. As a result of the uncertainty, both buyers and sellers are likely to slap on a big margin to their price expectations – so that even if they were to end up overpaying (or get underpaid), there is a reasonable margin of error.

Consequently, several auctions for assets of bankrupt companies fail (an auction is always a good mechanism to sell such assets since it brings together several buyers in a competitive process and the seller – usually a court-appointed bankruptcy manager – can extract the maximum possible value). Sellers slap on a big margin of error on their asking price and set a high reserve price. Buyers go conservative in their bids and possibly bid too low.

As we have seen with the attempted auctions of the properties of Vijay Mallya (promoter of the now bankrupt Kingfisher Airlines) and Subroto Roy Sahara (promoter of the eponymous Sahara Group), such auctions regularly fail. It is the uncertainty of the value of assets that dooms the auctions to failure.

What sets apart the Essar Steel bankruptcy process is that while the company might be bankrupt, the promoters (the Ruia brothers) are not. And having run the company (albeit to the ground), they possess valuable information on the value of assets that remain with the company. And in the bankruptcy process, where neither other buyers nor sellers have adequate information, this information can prove invaluable.

When I first saw the report on Essar’s asset sale, I was reminded of the market for footballers that I talk about in my book Between the buyer and the seller. That market, too, suffers from wide bid-ask spreads on account of difficulty in valuation.

Like distressed companies, the market for footballers also sees few buyers and sellers. And what we see there is that deals usually happen at either end of the bid-ask spectrum – if the selling club is more desperate to sell, the deal happens at an absurdly low price, and if the buying club wants the deal more badly, they pay a high price for it.

I’ve recorded a podcast on football markets with Amit Varma, for the Seen and the unseen podcast.

Coming back to distressed companies, it is well known that the seller (usually a consortium of banks or their representatives) wants to sell, and is usually the more desperate party. Consequently, we can expect the deal to happen close to the bid price. A few auctions might fail in case the sellers set their expectations too high (all buyers bid low since value is uncertain), but that will only make the seller more desperate, which will bring down the price at which the deal happens.

So don’t be surprised if the Ruias do manage to buy Essar Steel, and if they manage to do that at a price that seems absurdly low! The price will be low because there are few buyers and sellers and the seller is the more desperate party. And the Ruias will win the auction, because their inside information of the company they used to run will enable them to make a much better bid.


Shorting private markets

This is one of those things I’ll file in the “why didn’t I think of it before?” category.

The basic idea is that if you think there is a startup bubble, and that private companies (as a class) are being overvalued by investors, there exists a rather simple way to short the market – basically start your own company and sell equity to these investors!

The basic problem with shorting a market such as those for shares of privately held startups is that the shares are owned by a small set of investors, none of whom are likely to lend you stock that you can sell and buy back later. More importantly, markets in privately held stock can be incredibly illiquid, and it may take a long time indeed before the stocks move to what you think is their “right” level.

So what do you do? I’ll simply let the always excellent Matt Levine to provide the answer here:

We have talked a few times in the past about the difficulty of shorting unicorns: Investors can buy shares in the big venture-backed private tech companies, but they can’t sell those shares short, which arguably leads to those shares being overvalued as enthusiasts join in but skeptics are excluded. As I once said, though, “the way to profit from a bubble is by selling into it, and that people sometimes focus too narrowly on short-selling into it”: If you think that unicorns as a category are overvalued, the way to profit from that is not so much by shorting Uber as it is by founding your own dumb startup, raising a lot of money from overenthusiastic venture capitalists, paying yourself a big salary, and walking away whistling when the bubble collapses.

Same here! If you are skeptical of the ICO trend, the right thing to do is not to short all the new tokens that are coming to market. It’s to build your own token, do an initial coin offering, and walk off with the proceeds. For the sake of your own conscience, you can just go ahead and say that that’s what you’re doing, right in the ICO white paper. No one seems to mind.

Seriously! Why didn’t I think of this?

Portfolio communication

I just got a promotional message from my broker (ICICI Direct). The intention of the email is possibly to get me to log back on to the website and do some transactions – remember that the broker makes money when I transact, and buy-and-hold investors don’t make much money for them.

So the mail, which I’m sure has been crafted after getting some “data insight”, goes like this:

Here is a quick update on what is happening in the world of investments since you last visited your investment account.
1. Your total portfolio size is INR [xxxxxx]*
2. Sensex moved up by 8.36% during this period#
3. To know more about the top performing stocks and mutual funds, click here.

While this information might be considered to be useful, it simply isn’t enough information to make me learn sufficiently about my portfolio to take any action.

It’s great to know what my portfolio value is, and what the Sensex moved by in this period (“since my last logon”). A simple additional piece of information would be how much my portfolio has gone up by in this period – to know how I’m performing relative to the market.

And right in my email, they could’ve suggested some mutual funds and stock portfolios that I should move my money to – and given me an easy way to click through to the website/app and trade into these new portfolios using a couple of clicks.

There’s so much that can be done in the field of personal finance, in terms of how brokers and advisors can help clients invest better. And a lot of it is simple formula-based, which means it can be automated and hence done at a fairly low cost.

But then as long as the amount of money brokers make is proportional to the amount the client trades, there will always be conflicts of interest.

Asking people out and saving for retirement

As early readers on this blog might be aware of, I had several unsuccessful attempts at getting into a relationship before I eventually met the person who is now my wife. Each of those early episodes had this unfailing pattern – I’d somehow decide one day that I loved someone, get obsessed with her within a short period of time, and see dreams for living together happily ever after.

All this would happen without my having made the least effort on figuring out how to communicate my feelings for the person in question, and that was something I was lousy at. On a couple of occasions I took a high risk strategy, simply approaching the person in question (either in person or online), and expressing my desire to possibly get into a long-term gene-propagating relationship with her.

Most times, though, I’d go full conservative. Try to make conversation. Talk about banal things. Talk about things so banal that the person would soon find me uninteresting and not want to talk to me any more; and which would mean that I had no chance of getting into a relationship – never mind “long-term” and “gene-propagating”.

So recently Pinky the ladywife (who, you might remember, is a Marriage Broker Auntie) and I were talking about strategies to chat up people you were interested in (I must mention here we used to talk about such random stuff in our early conversations as well – Pinky’s ability to indulge in “arbit conversations” were key in my wanting to get into a long-term gene-propagating relationship with her).

As it happens with such conversations, I was telling stories of how I’d approach this back in the day. And we were talking about the experiences of some other people we know who are on the lookout for long-term gene-propagating relationships.

Pinky, in one of her gyaan-spouting moods, was explaining why it’s important that you DON’T have banal conversations in your early days of hitting on someone. She said it is important that you try to make the conversation interesting, and that meant talking about potentially contentious stuff. Sometimes, this would throw off the counterparty and result in failure. But if the counterparty liked the potentially contentious stuff, there was a real chance things might go forward.

I might be paraphrasing here, but what Pinky essentially said is that in the early days, you should take a high-risk strategy, but as you progress in your relationship, you should eschew risk, and become more conservative. This way, she said, you maximise the chances of getting into and staying in a relationship.

While I broadly agree with this strategy (when she first told me this I made a mental note of why I’d never been able to properly hit on anyone in the first place), what I was struck by is how similar it is to save for your retirement. 

There are many common formulae that financial advisors and planners use when they help clients save for retirement. While the mechanics might vary, there is a simple principle – invest in riskier securities when you are young, and progressively decrease the risk profile of your portfolio as you grow older. This way, you get to maximise the expected portfolio value at the time of retirement. Some of these investment strategies are popularly known as “glide path” strategies.

Apart from gene propagation, one of the purposes of getting into a long-term relationship is that there will be “someone who’ll need you, someone who’ll feed you when you’re sixty four”. Sixty four is also the time when you’re possibly planning to retire, and want to have built up a significant retirement kitty. Isn’t it incredible that the strategies for achieving both are rather similar?

Direct listing

So it seems like Swedish music streaming company Spotify is going to do a “direct listing” on the markets. Here is Felix Salmon on why that’s a good move for the company. And in this newsletter, Matt Levine (a former Equity Capital Markets banker) talks about why it’s not.

In a traditional IPO, a company raises money from the “public” in exchange for fresh shares. A few existing shareholders usually cash out at the time of the IPO (offering their shares in addition to the new ones that the company is issuing), but IPOs are primarily a capital raising exercise for the company.

Now, pricing an IPO is tricky business since the company hasn’t been traded yet, and so a company has to enlist investment bankers who, using their experience and investor relations, will “price” the IPO and take care of distributing the fresh stock to new investors. Bankers also typically “underwrite” the IPO, by guaranteeing to buy at the IPO price in case investor demand is low (this almost never happens – pricing is done keeping in mind what investors are willing to pay). I’ve written several posts on this blog on IPO pricing, and here’s the latest (with links to all previous posts on the topic).

In a “direct listing”, no new shares of the company are issued, the stock gets listed on an exchange. It is up to existing shareholders (including employees) to sell stock in order to create action on the exchange. In that sense, it is not a capital raising exercise, but more of an opportunity for shareholders to cash out.

The problem with direct listing is that it can take a while for the market to price the company. When there is an IPO, and shares are allotted to investors, a large number of these allottees want to trade the stock on the day it is listed, and that creates activity in the stock, and an opportunity for the market to express its opinion on the value of the company.

In case of a direct listing, since it’s only a bunch of insiders who have stock to sell, trading volumes in the first few days might be low, and it takes time for the real value to get discovered. There is also a chance that the stock might be highly volatile until this price is discovered (all an IPO does is to compress this time rather significantly).

One reason why Spotify is doing a direct listing is because it doesn’t need new capital – only an avenue to let existing shareholders cash out. The other reason is that the company recently raised capital, and there appears to be a consensus that the valuation at which it was raised – $13 billion – is fair.

Since the company raised capital only recently, the price at which this round of capital was raised will be anchored in the minds of investors, both existing and prospective. Existing shareholders will expect to cash out their shares at a price that leads to this valuation, and new investors will use this valuation as an anchor to place their initial bids. As a result, it is unlikely that the volatility in the stock in initial days of trading will be as high as analysts expect.

In one sense, by announcing it will go public soon after raising its last round of private investment, what Spotify has done is to decouple its capital raising process from the going public process, but keeping them close enough that the price anchor effects are not lost. If things go well (stock volatility is low in initial days), the company might just be setting a trend!

People are worried about investment banker liquidity 

This was told to me by an investment banker I met a few days back, who obviously doesn’t want to be named. But like Matt Levine writes about people being worried about bond market liquidity, there is also a similar worry about the liquidity of the market for investment bankers as well. 

And once again it has to do with regulations introduced in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. It has to do with the European requirement that bankers’ bonuses are not all paid immediately, and that they be deferred and amortised over a few years. 

While good in spirit what the regulation has led to is that bankers don’t look to move banks any more. This is because each successful (and thus well paid) banker has a stock of deferred compensation that will be lost in case of a job change. 

This means that any bank looking to hire one such banker will have to compensate for all the deferred compensation in terms of a really fat joining bonus. And banks are seldom willing to pay such a high price. 

And so the rather vibrant and liquid market for investment bankers in Europe has suddenly gone quiet. Interbank moves are few and far in between – with the deferred compensation meaning that banks look to hire internally instead. 

And lesser bankers moving out has had an effect on the number of openings for banker jobs. Which has led to even fewer bankers looking to move. Basically it’s a vicious cycle of falling liquidity! 

Which is not good news for someone like me who’s just moved into London and looking for a banking job!

PS: speaking of liquidity I have a book on market design and liquidity coming out next month or next next month. It’s in the publication process right now. More on that soon!