Prisoners of Reason



In 2011 when I began my PhD studies at Australia’s Monash University, Dr Andy Butfoy and I had a conversation about John Nash Jr, Thomas Schelling, the RAND think tank, and game theory. I had also recently re-watched the Adam Curtis documentary The Trap (2007) on how Nash’s insights influenced corporate negotiators and labour unions.


My first task for Andy was to reconstruct the history and prehistory of strategic culture theory-building, I soon found the parallel work of Jack Snyder, Colin S. Gray, and Ken Booth for RAND, the Hudson Institute, and US war colleges. It became clear that Nash and Schelling’s game theory was a rival research program to strategic culture and also to rational choice theory which Snyder adopted in later research.


Now, MIT’s S.M. Amadae has given us Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and the Neoliberal Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) – a well documented history of how game theory’s emphasis on strategic rationality influenced research and policymaking in nuclear strategy, economics, sociobiology, and the environment.


Amadae contends – as Curtis also did in The Trap – that noncooperative game theory and coercive bargaining gave economic and political elites the leverage to dominate others. The result is a highly competitive society in which brinkmanship and rentier extraction outflanks more cooperative solutions: winner-takes-all.


I’ll likely cite Amadae in Chapter 1 of my thesis.

2016 Resolutions

Thesis: I spent much of 2015 writing working notes or on Mid-Candidature Review documentation. In 2016, I’m going to convert much of this unpublished work to redrafted chapters. I will be re-reading some core works of counterterrorism and strategic culture with a focus on their data, methodology, and research design.


Research Program: I will be reading relevant articles and editorial submission guidelines from Contemporary Security Policy; International Security; Review of International Studies; Studies in Conflict and TerrorismTerrorism and Political Violence; and other relevant academic journals. I will also browse the Proquest, Scopus, and SSRN databases, and Australian Research Council, for emerging research. I will follow more relevant researchers on Google Scholar and via the scholarly associations that I am a member of.


Black Box Project: I continue to keep a development diary. In 2016, I will write a series of relevant decision rules.

Portfolio Analysis of UniSuper Management Pty Ltd

UniSuper Management Pty Ltd

  • Superannuation fund for 370,000 current and former employees in the Australian higher education sector.
  • Total market portfolio worth $4,621.91 million as of 27th November 2015.
  • Equities portfolio currently invested in 42 shares. A further 31 shares have recently been divested from according to regulatory filings.


UniSuper Equities Portfolio: Overview

  • UniSuper’s equities portfolio is concentrated in Financials (37.67%), Industrials (32.37%), and Energy (25.32%) sectors.
  • Australian shares dominate the equities portfolio (94.76%).
  • International shares in the equities portfolio are located in the United Kingdom (4.79%), New Zealand (0.028%), and the tax domiciles of Ireland (0.09%) and Luxembourg (0.08%).
  • 93.28% of UniSuper’s equities portfolio is concentrated in six shares.


UniSuper Equities Portfolio: Concentrated Holdings

  • Sydney Airport Holdings Ltd (ASX: SYD): 32.23% of UniSuper’s equities portfolio. 1 year benchmark: 46.96%. P/E: 246.44%. Est. P/E: 60.26%. ROE: 3.45%. Held by 663 mutual funds; 3 pension funds; and 1 hedge fund. UniSuper is the largest institutional shareholder with 15.76% (351.44 million shares).
  • Australian Pipeline Ltd (ASX: APA): 17.64% of UniSuper’s equities portfolio. 1 year benchmark: 18.65%. P/E: 38.53%. ROE: 16.28%. Held by 446 mutual funds and 2 pension funds.
  • Vicinity Centres Re Ltd (ASX: VCX): 13.11% of UniSuper’s equities portfolio. 1 year benchmark: 0.00%. P/E: 14.31%. ROE: 7.96%. Held by 613 mutual funds and two pension funds.
  • GPT Group (ASX: GPT): 15.61% of UniSuper’s equities portfolio. 1 year benchmark: 12.29%. P/E: 15.97%. ROE: 11.59%. Held by 643 mutual funds, 3 pension funds, and 1 hedge fund.
  • DUET Group (ASX: DUE): 7.65% of UniSuper’s equities portfolio. 1 year benchmark: 1.28%. P/E: 26.4%. ROE: 2.78%. Held by 144 mutual funds.
  • ASX Ltd (ASX: ASX): 7.04% of UniSuper’s equities portfolio. P/E: 19.05%. ROE: 10.71%. Held by 510 mutual funds and 4 pension funds.


UniSuper Equities Portfolio: Analysis

  • The concentration on Australian stocks means that the UniSuper equities portfolio may be susceptible to home country bias.
  • The Financials sector concentration is actually in Real Estate Investment Trusts (regional shopping centres and office / retail space).
  • The international holdings emphasise established Anglo companies rather than emerging / frontier markets.
  • The equities portfolio’s construction reflects UniSuper’s emphasis on a Defined Benefit plan component for older employees: SYD, APA, VCX, and GPT as safe, income-generating stocks that are mid- to upper-middle in their sector peer group. The Accumulation plan component is focused on Australian growth stocks (e.g. ASX:JBH) and income generating stocks (e.g. ASX:VLW), and on international stocks that are predominantly on the London Stock Exchange Group (LSE:L).
  • The equities portfolio uses order book / market microstructure techniques to manage its Industrials sector / dominant holding in SYD – similar to how mutual funds and hedge funds accumulate large positions over an extended period of time.
  • The equities portfolio is also constructed around two pairs trades that hedge company/market risk using a market-neutral strategy: (1) APA and DUE in the Energy sector; and (2) VCX and GPT in the Financials / REIT sector. APA and VCX are the respective dominant stocks whilst DUE and GPT diversify the market beta exposure in each sector. The pair trades are 25.29% and 28.72% of UniSuper’s equities portfolio.
  • The SYD concentrated holding (Industrials sector) and the two pairs trades (Energy and Financials / REIT sectors) account for 84.26% of UniSuper’s equities portfolio. There may be anchoring, confirmation, and disposition biases in investment manager decision-making because of this concentration of portfolio holdings.
  • It is not clear that the UniSuper fund uses sector rotation to update its holdings in response to macroeconomic conditions.
  • UniSuper offers a range of investment options — including Socially Responsible Investing — which deflects attention from the fact that its portfolio is very concentrated.
  • Peer / Sector group analysis using relative strength momentum may identify different investment opportunities.
  • UniSuper’s order flow in dominant stocks such as SYD, APA, VCX, GPT, and DUE may be predicted in advance due to the timing of superannuation fund in-flows from universities. This means that UniSuper’s electronic execution services could potentially be ‘gamed’ by high-frequency trading firms that use VWAP (volume weighted average price), TWAP (time weighted average price), accumulation, and momentum ignition algorithms.


Data Source: ThomsonReuters Eikon.

Islamic State as Hypermodern, Momentum Traders

Professor Tyler Cowen (Average Is Over; The Great Stagnation) has posted at his Marginal Revolution blog an email I wrote him about the parallels between Islamic State and the momentum investment strategy in response to an earlier post.


The comments got trolled with posters misunderstanding how momentum strategies actually work; describing strategic culture as a folk theory; and critiquing my graduate school experience via Leo Strauss and the Sokal affair.


There are several parallels between Islamic State and momentum investing:


1. Islamic State has grown rapidly in terms of its mujahideen membership; control of parts of northern Iraq and Syria; and its power projection.

2. Islamic State has outperformed its peer jihadist groups in terms of the impact of its terrorist campaign.

3. Islamic State has persisted over time despite efforts by Iraq, Turkey, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, Australia, and France to end it.

4. Islamic State has exploited weaknesses in its enemies through a sophisticated psychological warfare strategy.

5. The Obama Administration may have initially underreacted to Islamic State as a national security threat.


Rapid growth; persistence over time; outperformance of peers; and arbitrage of behavioural biases is observable in momentum strategies for equity stocks.


I thank Tyler for posting my comment and also Gary Antonacci (Dual Momentum Investing) for his insight that momentum strategies rely in part on behavioural biases that are ubiquitous.

Reading Pile

What I’m currently reading:


Abu Bakr Naji’s Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which The Umma Will Pass (2004) translated by William McCants (translation funding provided by Harvard University’s John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies): an eye-opening manifesto on the Islamist jihadist plan to re-establish a Caliphate.


William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2015). There are a bunch of quick primers around on Islamic State. McCants is familiar with the source material. He has the language / political science background to understand Islamic State’s ideological vision.


Oliver Morin’s How Traditions Live and Die (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Morin posits a new framework for understanding cultural transmission as due to cognitive preferences rather than imitation. Provides theory-building to understand Abu Bakr Naji’s strategic vision and William McCants’ analysis of Islamic State.

Monash SPS Symposium Presentation on Islamic State

Yesterday, I gave a presentation on in-progress thesis research about Islamic State to the annual SPS Symposium at Australia’s Monash University. For the past several years I have used the SPS Symposium to gain feedback on thesis chapters as I am drafting them. This year, I had about 25 minutes of great questions from fellow Monash graduate students and researchers. Thanks to the SPS Symposium committee for a great event.

PhD Mid-Candidature Review Panel Presentation Slides

On 26th October 2015, I will present my in-progress PhD research on strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations to a Mid-Candidature Review Panel at Australia’s Monash University. The MCR presentation slides are here.


My thanks to MCR Review Panel members Professor Jude McCulloch (coauthor of Pre-Crime: Pre-emption, Precaution and the Future), Associate Professor Pete Lentini (author of Neojihadism: Towards a New Understanding of Terrorism and Extremism?), and Dr Narelle Miragliotta (coeditor of Contemporary Australian Political Party Organisations).

Future Research: Profiling Vladimir Putin

For several months I’ve been thinking about how Jack Snyder’s original research on strategic culture might be applied to Putin era Russia. John Ehrman’s review of two books from 2012 on Putin suggests: (1) the existence of several organisational subcultures in the KGB; and (2) the existence of folklore and glamour in Russia in the 1960s which may have influenced Putin’s socialisation as a KGB officer in the Andropov era. I see a possible integration of Snyder’s area studies with Jerrold M. Post’s work on the psychological profiling of political and terrorist leaders. Noted for future research.

Metis Alpha

I’ve started a TinyLetter account about “Resilience strategies for living in an antifragile world.”


Metis Alpha will feature excerpts from my reflective trading diary; on-going PhD work; a reassessment of Masters work in futures studies and strategic foresight; and things I find during personal therapeutic work using cognitive behavioural therapy. The title refers to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012).


The first entry is on the Kovner Effect.

PhD Mid-Candidature Review Talk on Islamic State

As part of my PhD mid-candidature review I’m giving the following talk at Monash University in October (date TBC):


Islamic State: Insights from Strategic Subcultures Theory and Combatting Terrorist Propaganda

Strategic subcultures theory examines why and how certain terrorist groups persist over time and grow despite counterterrorism measures. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State has gained control of parts of northern Iraq and Syria. Islamic State also poses a current national security threat to Australia in terms of terrorist propaganda (including social media campaigns) and the possible radicalisation of Australian recruits. This presentation evaluates Islamic State as a potential strategic subculture and considers Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley’s guidance in How Propaganda Works (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015) about how to strengthen democratic nation-states like Australia – and countering violent extremism – through combatting terrorist propaganda.