Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk literature emerged as last week’s weak signal. Sonya Mann posted The Cyberpunk Sensibility at Venkatesh Rao’s Ribbonfarm blog. William Gibson turned up in the new Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation. Hachette Book Group reissued Amazon Kindle versions of Gibson’s influential novels NeuromancerCount Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

 

Whilst browsing this media I realised that Cyberpunk themes influence some of my post-PhD thesis research. Gibson’s transnational corporations reflect today’s networks, tax havens, and rising powers. Gibson’s databases and computer networks anticipate today’s hedge fund and wealth management platforms. Gibson’s characters foreshadow the sadder ethos of David Foster Wallace’s novels Infinite Jest and The Pale King.

 

This insight exemplifies how literature can inform research programs.

Prisoners of Reason

PrisonersofReason

 

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.

13th February 2012: Dan Drezner on the New Al Qaeda

Foreign Policy‘s Dan Drezner on the new Al Qaeda and threat escalation:

 

That said, I’m going to continue to insist that the United States faces a much less threatening threat environment now than it did fifty years ago.

 

I reached a similar conclusion here using Richard Ned Lebow‘s counterfactual method. As did John Mueller, and Adam Curtis in his documentary The Power of Nightmares (2004). September 11 could have been much worse.

31st December 2011: Trading Books

Market Wizards: Interviews With Top Traders by Jack D. Schwager (Columbia, MD: Marketplace Books, 2006). (TS-3). Schwager’s interviews are frequently at the top of professional traders’ recommended reading lists for their insights into the personalities, backgrounds, decisions and different strategies of traders. Schwager’s follow-up books The New Market Wizards (Columbia, MD: Marketplace Books, 2008) and Stock Market Wizards (Columbia, MD: Marketplace Books, 2008) feature further informative interviews with different groups of traders. Useful for comparison with Brandt, Einhorn, Lewis, and Mallaby below.

 

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (New York: Penguin Books, 2010). (TS-3). Lewis (Liars’ Poker, Moneyball) profiles the Wall Street analysts and hedge fund traders who foresaw the 2007-09 global financial crisis: Steve Eisman, Mike Burry, Greg Lippman, Charlie Ledley, Ben Hocket, John Paulson and others. The Big Short how credit default swaps and other synthetics of financial engineering were created. Lewis exemplifies how ‘contrarian’ traders think and make trading decisions about financial markets: there is enough journalistic reportage in this book to actually model the trading strategies. For details of J.P. Morgan’s creation of collateralised debt obligations see Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold (Little, Brown, New York, 2009). For details of John Paulson’s ‘Soros trade’ see Gregory Zuckerman’s The Greatest Trade Ever (Penguin Books, London, 2009). For the best account of the negotiations behind the 2007-09 global financial crisis, see Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail (Viking, New York, 2009). For further analysis of the business cycle implications, see Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm’s Crisis Economics (The Penguin Press, New York, 2010).

 

More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite by Sebastian Mallaby (London: Bloomsbury PLC, 2010). (TS-3). Mallaby’s history of hedge funds – financial vehicles that enable pooled investors to speculate on stock-markets – has interviews and historical details which are unavailable elsewhere. More Money Than God explores how hedge funds have evolved over the past four decades, from journalist Alfred Winslow to philanthropy. There are interviews with George Soros, Julian Robertson, Bruce Kovner, Paul Tudor Jones, John Paulson, and details of David E. Shaw’s firm D.E. Shaw and James Simons’ Renaissance Technologies: two ultra-secretive quantitative hedge funds. As with Jack D. Schwager’s series on traders, this is an invaluable book for understanding how hedge funds actually work and the motivations of their founders. For some of the best academic research (and influenced by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series) see Andrew Lo’s Hedge Funds: An Analytic Perspective (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2010). For a comparison with ratings agencies, see Timothy J. Sinclair’s The New Masters of Capital (Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 2008).

 

Fooling Some of the People All of the Time: A Long Short (And Now Complete) Story by David Einhorn (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011). (TS-4). In 2002, hedge fund manager David Einhorn gave a speech advising investors to ‘short’ Allied Capital. Einhorn’s talk triggered a criminal investigation and maneuvers between Einhorn and Allied Capital. This book can be read as an investigation of corporate governance issues that foreshadowed the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Its primary value lies in revealing the research methods and decisions that a successful value-oriented fund manager uses; the accounting tricks that firms use; and how Kahneman’s biases and heuristics can influence hostile situations. If you want to understand the basics of corporate finance, valuation and fundamental analysis then see the McKinsey model in Tim Koller, Richard Dobbs, and Bill Huyett’s Value: The Four Cornerstones of Corporate Finance (John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken NJ, 2010).

 

Diary of a Professional Commodity Trader: Lessons from 21 Weeks of Real Trading by Peter L. Brandt (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011). (TS-4). Most trading books feature post facto selections of trade examples and market timing. Brandt’s diaries and technical analysis charts convey how difficult trading actually is; the importance of risk and money management; and the struggles to deal with Kahneman’s biases and heuristics. This book dispels the myths of day-trading success and much of the publishing books that Wiley Finance, McGraw-Hill and other publishers release.

 

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). (TS-1). Kahneman (awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics) and his late colleague Amos Tversky pioneered the study of psychological biases and decision heuristics. Kahneman distinguishes between System 1 (fast, emotional) and System 2 (slower, methodical, logical), and how these different cognitive systems affect us. An excellent primer on how to think, reason, and decide more effectively, which makes accessible over four decades of Nobel Prize-winning research. Effective trading is about making reasoned decisions in a fast, volatile environment. For an example of how event risk and volatility can affect decision-making and financial models, see Roger Lowenstein’s When Genius Failed (Fourth Estate, London, 2002) on the 1998 collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management.

 

Unconventional Success: A Fundamental Approach to Personal Investment by David Swensen (New York: The Free Press, 2005). (TS-3). Swensen is the successful investment manager with Yale University’s endowment fund. Unconventional Success distills his insights on the investment process; how to develop an investment portfolio; the different asset classes; and the role of asset allocation over market timing (trading). Swensen — like John C. Bogle (founder of The Vanguard Group), Burton G. Malkiel (A Random Walk Down Wall Street), and others — recommends that you put most of your money into a low-cost index fund like Vanguard or Dimensional Fund Advisers. Swensen’s companion book Pioneering Portfolio Management (The Free Press, New York, 2009) deals with active managers in an institutional funds context. If you want to understand the institutional money management approach, see Richard C. Grinold and Ronald N. Kahn’s Active Portfolio Management (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1999) for quantitative and risk management processes, and Antii Ilmanen’s Expected Returns (John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken NJ, 2011) for asset allocation decisions.

 

The Predators’ Ball by Connie Bruck (New York: Penguin USA, 1989). (TS-3). In the 1980s high-yield or junk bonds led to a mergers and acquisitions bubble. Bruck profiles junk bonds trader and market creator Michael Milken (now a philanthropist) and the major deals that his firm Drexel Burnham Lambert financially engineered. The Predators’ Ball has substantive insights and journalistic reportage on Milken’s thinking and strategies, similar to Lewis (The Big Short) and Mallaby (More Money Than God). This period is also covered in the Adam Curtis documentary The Mayfair Set (1999). This is a cautionary tale of ethics and power: Milken essentially created and monopolized the junk bond market but acted unethically and was involved in the Ivan Boesky scandal. The epochal RJR Nabisco deal is covered in Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s influential Barbarians At The Gate (Collins Business, London, 2008). For a comparison of Drexel Burnham Lambert with the private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts see George P. Baker and George David Smith’s The New Financial Capitalists (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1998).

 

Inside Job (Sony Classics, 2010). (TS-3). Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award-winning documentary dissects the 2007-09 global financial crisis and its roots in a housing speculative bubble, the failure to regulate derivatives markets, and a ‘winner takes all’ trading culture. Features interviews with George Soros, Nouriel Roubini, Raj Rajaratnam, and others that summarise complex issues.

 

Million Dollar Traders (BBC2, 2009). (TS-3). European hedge fund manager Lex Van Dam and ex-trader Anton Kreil supervise 8 novices who run a hedge fund in London’s Cass Business School for two months. Several weeks into the project, the 2007-09 global financial crisis begins, and each trader reacts in different ways. Interesting for its use of simulation learning, event arbitrage and how the various personalities deal (or don’t) with stressful situations and uncertain decision-making. In one sequence, the cameras reveal that Kreil is having instant chat messages with outsiders using a producer’s account: Van Dam may actually be trading against the novices.

 

The Mayfair Set (BBC, 1999). (TS-3). Adam Curtis (The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace) profiles a group of entrepreneurs associated with London’s Clermont Club, including Jim Slater, James Goldsmith and Tiny Rowland. The Mayfair Set documents their stock-market deals and internecine fighting from the late 1950s to the 1980s mergers and acquisitions bubble in the United States. Curtis links together fears about national sovereignty, business cycles, financial innovation, media battles, and luck. Jim Slater’s Return To Go: My Autobiography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1977) recounts the Slater Walker years whilst Geoffrey Wansell’s Tycoon: The Life of James Goldsmith (Grafton, London, 1987) is an insightful, semi-authorised account of how Goldsmith pioneered mergers and acquisitions raids and asset management techniques.

20th May 2010: On Michael Milken

PredatorsBall.jpg

In November 2009, the Australian cultural policy author Ben Eltham and I published a conference paper and presentation on Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 election crisis. One of our conclusions was that as a social network platform Twitter can be prone to rumours and two dynamics: information cascades (people making the same choices) and rational herds (a form of social learning in which individuals self-organise into groups, usually on the basis of shared affinities, identity or preferences). We cited Christopher Chamley and Mark Schindler‘s work, whilst Cass Sunstein has written important work on how information cascades and rumours spread.

Collectively, these authors observe the tendency for people to forward and filter information without checking the pertinent facts, evaluating the motives of their source, personalising the ‘other’, and also not considering the original, appropriate context.

One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the pre-Twitter career of financier and philanthropist Michael Milken (personal site). In the early 1970s, as a young analyst at the leveraged buyout firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, Milken foresaw a new market in high-risk securities that blue-chip investment firms would not touch: high-yield or ‘junk’ bonds of debt-laden companies. As depicted in Connie Bruck’s excellent book The Predator’s Ball (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), a source for Adam Curtis‘ must-see documentary The Mayfair Set (BBC, 1999), Milken became a major driver of the 1980s private equity boom. Despite being implicated in the Ivan Boesky arbitrage case, and being barred for life from the securities industry, Milken has subsequently reinvented himself through the Milken Institute think-tank and other activities.

The power-users of social networks like Facebook and Twitter may joke about gaining ‘world domination’. As a self-styled ‘Master of the Universe’, Milken actually achieved this goal, if only for a brief time. Consider the strategic dimension of how Milken did so. As a true innovator, he foresaw new markets and macroeconomic trends a decade before others did. He developed powerful, financial innovations in debt securitisation, mergers and acquisitions, and risk arbitrage. He built a loyal and private network, together with the organisational capabilities to leverage deal-flow. He also controlled the public dissemination of market information through conferences and media interviews. He understood the subtle power of crafting and framing a media image around themes which appealed emotionally to people — entrepreneurship, freedom, and being the revolutionary vanguard — which Curtis argues was really a personal agenda to cement Milken’s influence, power and social status. Many of Milken’s strategies tapped the dynamics of rumours, information cascades and rational herds, apparent in the 1980s private equity boom.

Perhaps this is why Milken tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Bruck not to publish her book.