Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

RICHARD CRAIB IS a 29-year-old South African who runs a hedge fund in San Francisco. Or rather, he doesn’t run it. He leaves that to an artificially intelligent system built by several thousand data scientists whose names he doesn’t know.

Under the banner of a startup called Numerai, Craib and his team have built technology that masks the fund’s trading data before sharing it with a vast community of anonymous data scientists. Using a method similar to homomorphic encryption, this tech works to ensure that the scientists can’t see the details of the company’s proprietary trades, but also organizes the data so that these scientists can build machine learning models that analyze it and, in theory, learn better ways of trading financial securities.

“We give away all our data,” says Craib, who studied mathematics at Cornell University in New York before going to work for an asset management firm in South Africa. “But we convert it into this abstract form where people can build machine learning models for the data without really knowing what they’re doing.”

He doesn’t know these data scientists because he recruits them online and pays them for their trouble in a digital currency that can preserve anonymity. “Anyone can submit predictions back to us,” he says. “If they work, we pay them in bitcoin.”

The company comes across as a Silicon Valley gag. All that’s missing is the virtual reality.

So, to sum up: They aren’t privy to his data. He isn’t privy to them. And because they work from encrypted data, they can’t use their machine learning models on other data—and neither can he. But Craib believes the blind can lead the blind to a better hedge fund.

Numerai’s fund has been trading stocks for a year. Though he declines to say just how successful it has been, due to government regulations around the release of such information, he does say it’s making money. And an increasingly large number of big-name investors have pumped money into the company, including the founder of Renaissances Technologies, an enormously successful “quant” hedge fund driven by data analysis. Craib and company have just completed their first round of venture funding, led by the New York venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. Union Square has invested $3 million in the round, with an additional $3 million coming from others.

Hedge funds have been exploring the use of machine learning algorithms for a while now, including established Wall Street names like Renaissance and Bridgewater Associates as well as tech startups like Sentient Technologies and Aidyia. But Craib’s venture represents new efforts to crowdsource the creation of these algorithms. Others are working on similar projects, including Two Sigma, a second data-centric New York hedge fund. But Numerai is attempting something far more extreme.

On the Edge

The company comes across as some sort of Silicon Valley gag: a tiny startup that seeks to reinvent the financial industry through artificial intelligence, encryption, crowdsourcing, and bitcoin. All that’s missing is the virtual reality. And to be sure, it’s still very early for Numerai. Even one of its investors, Union Square partner Andy Weissman, calls it an “experiment.”

But others are working on similar technology that can help build machine learning models more generally from encrypted data, including researchers at Microsoft. This can help companies like Microsoft better protect all the personal information they gather from customers. Oren Etzioni, the CEO of the Allen Institute for AI, says the approach could be particularly useful for Apple, which is pushing into machine learning while taking a hardline stance on data privacy. But such tech can also lead to the kind of AI crowdsourcing that Craib espouses

Craib dreamed up the idea while working for that financial firm in South Africa. He declines to name the firm, but says it runs an asset management fund spanning $15 billion in assets. He helped build machine learning algorithms that could help run this fund, but these weren’t all that complex. At one point, he wanted to share the company’s data with a friend who was doing more advanced machine learning work with neural networks, and the company forbade him. But its stance gave him an idea. “That’s when I started looking into these new ways of encrypting data—looking for a way of sharing the data with him without him being able to steal it and start his own hedge fund,” he says.

The result was Numerai. Craib put a million dollars of his own money in the fund, and in April, the company announced $1.5 million in funding from Howard Morgan, one of the founders of Renaissance Technologies. Morgan has invested again in the Series A round alongside Union Square and First Round Capital.

It’s an unorthodox play, to be sure. This is obvious just when you visit the company’s website, where Craib describes the company’s mission in a short video. He’s dressed in black-rimmed glasses and a silver racer jacket, and the video cuts him into a visual landscape reminiscent of The Matrix. “When we saw those videos, we thought: ‘this guy thinks differently,’” says Weissman.

As Weissman admits, the question is whether the scheme will work. The trouble with homomorphic encryption is that it can significantly slow down data analysis tasks. “Homomorphic encryption requires a tremendous about of computation time,” says Ameesh Divatia, the CEO of Baffle, a company that building encryption similar to what Craib describes. “How do you get it to run inside a business decision window?” Craib says that Numerai has solved the speed problem with its particular form of encryption, but Divatia warns that this may come at the expense of data privacy.

According to Raphael Bost, a visiting scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who has explored the use of machine learning with encrypted data, Numerai is likely using a method similar to the one described by Microsoft, where the data is encrypted but not in a completely secure way. “You have to be very careful with side-channels on the algorithm that you are running,” he says of anyone who uses this method.

Turning Off the Sound at a Party

In any event, Numerai is ramping up its effort. Three months ago, about 4,500 data scientists had built about 250,000 machine learning models that drove about 7 billion predictions for the fund. Now, about 7,500 data scientists are involved, building a total of 500,000 models that drive about 28 billion predictions. As with the crowdsourced data science marketplace Kaggle, these data scientists compete to build the best models, and they can earn money in the process. For Numerai, part of the trick is that this is done at high volume. Through a statistics and machine learning technique called stacking or ensembling, Numerai can combine the best of myriad algorithms to create a more powerful whole.

Though most of these data scientists are anonymous, a small handful are not, including Phillip Culliton of Buffalo, New York, who also works for a data analysis company called Multimodel Research, which has a grant from the National Science Foundation. He has spent many years competing in data science competitions on Kaggle and sees Numerai as a more attractive option. “Kaggle is lovely and I enjoy competing, but only the top few competitors get paid, and only in some competitions,” he says. “The distribution of funds at Numerai among the top 100 or so competitors, in fairly large amounts at the top of the leaderboard, is quite nice.”

Each week, one hundred scientists earn bitcoin, with the company paying out over $150,000 in the digital currency so far. If the fund reaches a billion dollars under management, Craib says, it would pay out over $1 million each month to its data scientists.

Culliton says it’s more difficult to work with the encrypted data and draw his own conclusions from it, and another Numerai regular, Jim Fleming, who helps run a data science consultancy called the Fomoro Group, says much the same thing. But this isn’t necessarily a problem. After all, machine learning is more about the machine drawing the conclusions.

In many cases, even when working with unencrypted data, Culliton doesn’t know what it actually represents, but he can still use it to build machine learning models. “Encrypted data is like turning off the sound at the party,” Culliton says. “You’re no longer listening in on people’s private conversations, but you can still get very good signal on how close they feel to one other.”

If this works across Numerai’s larger community of data scientists, as Richard Craib hopes it will, Wall Street will be listening more closely, too.


Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

Back in the days of printed newspapers, magazines, and newsletters the acquisition of news and information was easier, or so it seemed.  The reason it seemed easier is that there was much less of it.  Today, with the internet, 24-hour financial media, blogs, and every conceivable method of acquisition, information is overwhelming.  Once I realized that some information was actionable and most of the rest was categorized as observable, then things became greatly simplified.  Hopefully this article will shed some light on how to separate actionable information from the much larger observable information.  As you can see from the Webster definitions below they initially do not seem that different.

Actionable – able to be used as a basis or reason for doing something or capable of being acted on.

Observable – possible to see or notice or deserving of attention; noteworthy.

However, when real money gets involved the difference can be significant.  Let me give you my definition and then follow up with some scenarios.  The world is full of observable information being dispensed as if it is actionable.  All the experts, television pundits, talking heads, economists (especially them), most newsletter writers, most blog authors, in fact most of the stuff you hear in regard to the markets is rarely actionable.  Actionable means that you, upon seeing it, can make a decision to buy, sell, or do nothing – period.

I’ll start by mentioning Japanese candle patterns, a subject I beat to death in this blog over the past few months.  I have never stated anything other than the fact that Japanese candle patterns should never be used in isolation; you should always use them in concert with other technical tools.  Hence, Japanese candle patterns for me are observable information; not actionable.  Only when backed up by Western technical tools can they become actionable.  I demonstrated with in my article Candlestick Analysis – Putting It All Together.

Too often I hear the financial media discussing economic indicators and how they affect the stock market.  Initially it seems they forget the stock market is one of the components of the index of LEADING indicators; in other words, the stock market is better at predicting the economy.  First of all, economics can never be proved right or wrong since it is an art, just like technical analysis.  Economic data is primarily monthly, often quarterly, and occasionally weekly.  It gets rebased periodically and often gets adjusted for seasonal affects and everything else you can think of.  It just cannot reliably provide any valuable information to a trader or investor.  However, boy does it sound really good when someone creates a great story around it and how at one time in the past it occurred at a market top; it is truly difficult to ignore.  Ignore you should!  The beauty of the data generated by the stock market, mainly price, is that it is an instantaneous view of supply and demand.  I have said this a lot on these pages, but it needs to be fully understood.  The action of buyers and sellers making decisions and taking action is determined by price, and price alone.  The analysis of price at least is a first step to obtaining actionable information.  Using technical tools that help you reduce price into information that you can rely upon is where the actionable part surfaces.

I also seriously doubt anyone relies totally upon one technical tool or indicator.  If they do, then probably not for long.  I managed a lot of money using a weight of the evidence approach which means I used a bunch of indicators from price, breadth, and relative strength (called it PBR – see graphic).  Each individual indicator could be classified as observable, but when used in concert with others, THEY became actionable.

I think the point of this entire article is to alert or remind you that there is a giant amount of information out there and that most of it is not actionable; it is only observable.  Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference so just think about putting real money into a trade based upon what you hear or read.  Real money separates a lot of people from making decisions based upon observable information, no matter how convincing it is.

I am really looking forward to speaking at ChartCon 2016.  The schedule shows me on at 10:30am PT where I’ll talk about the marketing of Wall Street disguised as research and show a couple of things about Technical Analysis that annoy me.

Dance with the Actionable Information,

Greg Morris


Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.55.47 PM

At its core, the blockchain is a technology that permanently records transactions in a way that cannot be later erased but can only be sequentially updated, in essence keeping a never-ending historical trail. This seemingly simple functional description has gargantuan implications. It is making us rethink the old ways of creating transactions, storing data, and moving assets, and that’s only the beginning.

The blockchain cannot be described just as a revolution. It is a tsunami-like phenomenon, slowly advancing and gradually enveloping everything along its way by the force of its progression. Plainly, it is the second significant overlay on top of the Internet, just as the Web was that first layer back in 1990. That new layer is mostly about trust, so we could call it the trust layer.

Blockchains are enormous catalysts for change that affect governance, ways of life, traditional corporate models, society and global institutions. Blockchain infiltration will be met with resistance, because it is an extreme change.

Blockchains defy old ideas that have been locked in our minds for decades, if not centuries. Blockchains will challenge governance and centrally controlled ways of enforcing transactions. For example, why pay an escrow to clear a title insurance if the blockchain can automatically check it in an irrefutable way?

Blockchains loosen up trust, which has been in the hands of central institutions (e.g., banks, policy makers, clearinghouses, governments, large corporations), and allows it to evade these old control points. For example, what if counterparty validation can be done on the blockchain, instead of by a clearinghouse?

An analogy would be when, in the 16th century, medieval guilds helped to maintain monopolies on certain crafts against outsiders, by controlling the printing of knowledge that would explain how to copy their work. They accomplished that type of censorship by being in cahoots with the Catholic Church and governments in most European countries that regulated and controlled printing by requiring licenses. That type of central control and monopoly didn’t last too long, and soon enough, knowledge was free to travel after an explosion in printing. To think of printing knowledge as an illegal activity would be unfathomable today. We could think of the traditional holders of central trust as today’s guilds, and we could question why they should continue holding that trust, if technology (the blockchain) performed that function as well or even better.

Blockchains liberate the trust function from outside existing boundaries in the same way as medieval institutions were forced to cede control of printing.

It is deceptive to view the blockchain primarily as a distributed ledger, because it represents only one of its many dimensions. It’s like describing the Internet as a network only, or as just a publishing platform. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions or properties; blockchains are also greater than the sum of their parts.

Blockchain proponents believe that trust should be free, and not in the hands of central forces that tax it, or control it in one form or another (e.g., fees, access rights, or permissions). They believe that trust can be and should be part of peer-to-peer relationships, facilitated by technology that can enforce it. Trust can be coded up, and it can be computed to be true or false by way of mathematically-backed certainty, that is enforced by powerful encryption to cement it. In essence, trust is replaced by cryptographic proofs, and trust is maintained by a network of trusted computers (honest nodes) that ensure its security, as contrasted with single entities who create overhead or unnecessary bureaucracy around it.

If blockchains are a new way to implement trusted transactions without trusted intermediaries, soon we’ll end up with intermediary-less trust. Policy makers who regulated “trusted” institutions like banks will face a dilemma. How can you regulate something that is evaporating? They will need to update their old regulations.

Intermediary-controlled trust came with some friction, but now, with the blockchain, we can have frictionless trust. So, when trust is “free” (even if it still needs to be earned), what happens next? Naturally, trust will follow the path of least resistance, and will become gradually decentralized towards the edges of the network.

Blockchains also enable assets and value to be exchanged, providing a new, speedy rail for moving value of all kinds without unnecessary intermediaries.

As back-end infrastructure, blockchains are metaphorically the ultimate, non-stop computers. Once launched, they never go down, because of the incredible amount of resiliency they offer.

There is no single point of failure unlike how bank systems have gone down, cloud-based services have gone down, but bona fide blockchains keep computing.

The Internet was about replacing some intermediaries. Now the blockchain is about replacing other intermediaries once again. But it’s also about creating new ones. And so was the Web. Current intermediaries will need to figure out how their roles will be affected, while others are angling to take a piece of the new pie in the race to “decentralize everything.”

The world is preoccupied with dissecting, analyzing and prognosticating on the blockchain’s future; technologists, entrepreneurs, and enterprises are wondering if it is to be considered vitamin or poison.

Today, we’re saying blockchain does this or that, but tomorrow blockchains will be rather invisible; we will talk more about what they enable. Just like the Internet or the Web, and just like data-bases, the blockchain brings with it a new language.

From the mid-1950s forward, as IT evolved, we became accustomed to a new language: mainframes, databases, networks, servers, software, operating systems, and programming languages. Since the early 1990s, the Internet ushered in another lexicon: browsing, website, Java, blogging, TCP/IP, SMTP, HTTP, URLs, and HTML. Today, the blockchain brings with it yet another new repertoire: consensus algorithms, smart contracts, distributed ledgers, oracles, digital wallets, and transaction blocks.

Block by block, we will accumulate our own chains of knowledge, and we will learn and understand the blockchain, what it changes, and the implications of such change.

Today, we Google for everything, mostly information or products.

Tomorrow, we will perform the equivalent of “googling” to verify records, identities, authenticity, rights, work done, titles, contracts, and other valuable asset-related processes. There will be digital ownership certificates for everything. Just like we cannot double spend digital money anymore (thanks to Satoshi Nakamoto’s invention), we will not be able to double copy or forge official certificates once they are certified on a blockchain. That was a missing piece of the information revolution, which the blockchain fixes.

I still remember the initial excitement around being able to track a shipped package on the Web when FedEx introduced this capability for the first time in 1994. Today, we take that type of service for granted, but this particular feature was a watershed use case that demonstrated what we could do on the early Web. The underlying message was that a previously enclosed private service could become openly accessible by anyone with Internet access. A whole host of services followed: online banking, filing taxes, buying products, trading stocks, checking on orders, and many others. Just as we access services that search public databases, we will search a new class of services that will check blockchains to confirm the veracity of information. Information access will not be enough. We will also want to ask for truth access, and we will ask if modifications were made to particular records, expecting the utmost transparency from those who hold them. The blockchain promises to serve up and expose transparency in its rawest forms.

The old question “Is it in the database?” will be replaced by “Is it on the blockchain?”

Is the blockchain more complicated than the Web? Most definitely.

The blockchain is part of the history of the Internet. It is at the same level as the World Wide Web in terms of importance, and arguably might give us back the Internet, in the way it was supposed to be: more decentralized, more open, more secure, more private, more equitable, and more accessible. Ironically, many blockchain applications also have a shot at replacing legacy Web applications, at the same time as they will replace legacy businesses that cannot loosen their grips on heavy-handed centrally enforced trust functions.

No matter how it unfolds, the blockchain’s history will continue to be written for a very long time, just as the history of the Web continued to be written well after its initial invention. But here’s what will make the blockchain’s future even more interesting: you are part of it.

Reprinted from The Business Blockchain: Promise, Practice, and Application of the Next Internet Technology by William Mougayar (foreword from Vitalik Buterin) with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Copyright (C) William Mougayar, 2016.


IN THE SEARCH FOR THE NEW and different indexes that will power a new and different ETF, back-testing plays a critical role. Index providers, including S&P, Dow Jones, MSCI, Russell, Zacks and others can index just about anything. You want to rank the companies in the S&P 500 by earnings growth, then take the 50 top firms and weight them equally? Weight them by market capitalization? Go long the top 50 and short the bottom 50? They can build it. And then they back-test it. Indexes that look good in hindsight have a shot to become ETFs. Those that don’t, don’t.

Given our quantitative roots, we are sympathetic to the fact that backtests are often used as an input into making investment decisions. But past returns, as we all know, do not predict the future. And we think backtested results may be particularly problematic today. Very little fundamental data for US equities extends back more than 30 years, but the last 30 years were a period generally accompanied by two related phenomena: increasingly easy monetary policy and falling interest rates. In particular, the wave of liquidity and stimulus provided in the wake of the Tech Bubble coincided with unprecedented levels of credit expansion, rising asset correlations and record earnings volatility.

I think the creator of the chart was not that thorough in his research on the research, but, pretty chart nonetheless.

Statistically, according to this sample, we suck.

Statistics from CXO Research

Are prominent stock market bloggers in aggregate able to predict the market’s direction? The Ticker Sense Blogger Sentiment Poll “is a survey of the web’s most prominent investment bloggers, asking ‘What is your outlook on the U.S. stock market for the next 30 days?'” (bullish, bearish or neutral) on a weekly basis. The site currently lists 20 active prognosticators. Participation has varied over time. Based on results from Guru Grades and other stock market sentiment studies, we hypothesize that blogger sentiment: (1) tends to react to what just happened in the stock market; and, (2) does not predict stock market behavior. Using the 114 aggregate measurements from the poll since inception, we find that…

Because Ticker Sense collects data weekly, we look at weekly measurements and changes in weekly measurements. Because the poll question asks for a 30-day outlook, we test the forecasts against stock market behavior four weeks into the future. We use the S&P 500 index to represent the U.S. stock market. Because polling takes place Thursday-Sunday, we use the coincident Friday close to represent the state of the stock market for each poll. For example, the close of 1239 on Friday, 7/11/08 coincides with poll results for Monday, 7/14/08. We use [% Bullish] minus [% Bearish] as the net sentiment measure for each poll.

The following chart compares the coincident S&P 500 index and net blogger sentiment over the past 118 weeks (there were no surveys for 11/27/06, 1/1/07, 11/19/07 and 7/7/08). Net blogger sentiment is mostly bearish during July 2006-May 2007, mostly bullish during June 2007-April 2008 and mostly bearish since. On these visually comparable scales, blogger sentiment is much more volatile than the stock market. The fairly large week-to-week swings in net blogger sentiment suggest either that the bloggers are very sensitive to changes in market conditions, or that participation in polling varies considerably across weeks. A persistent change in participation could explain switches between mostly bullish and mostly bearish outlooks.

For a more precise test of the relationship, we look at poll-to-poll changes in net blogger sentiment versus associated stock market returns.

The following scatter plot relates poll-to-poll changes in net blogger sentiment to weekly changes in the S&P 500 index for concurrent intervals. If bloggers as a group react to what just happened in the stock market, a best-fit line would run from the lower left to the upper right. Based on 113 poll-to-poll changes, there is some support for this hypothesis. The Pearson correlation for these two series is 0.33. The R-squared statistic for the relationship is 0.11, indicating that the change in the stock market over the past week explains 11% of the change in blogger sentiment during that week.

How well does net blogger sentiment predict future stock returns?

The next scatter plot relates the 4-week future change in the S&P 500 index to net blogger sentiment.

If net blogger sentiment forecasts stock market behavior, a best-fit line would run from the lower left to the upper right.
If net blogger sentiment is a contrary indicator for stock market behavior, a best-fit line would run from the upper left to the lower right.
If net blogger sentiment does not predict stock market behavior at all, the plot would show no pattern and a best-fit line would be flat.
Based on 110 observations, the data indicate that bloggers in aggregate cannot predict the direction of the stock market. The Pearson correlation for the distribution is -0.05, and the R-squared statistic is 0.00. Blogger sentiment explains none of the stock returns over the next month. As sample size has grown, these statistics have varied (generally trending from contrary to non-predictive).

In summary, analysis of Ticker Sense Blogger Sentiment Poll results indicates that aggregate blogger sentiment is non-predictive for future stock market direction.

I haven’t made my daily constitutional over to iBC yet, so the latest soap opera goings on will simply have to wait for later.

However, you are looking for a place to put some money to work, you’d been considering the iBC product launch due to the claims of incredible advances in proprietary algorithms, but now, jeez, you’re just having second thoughts.

Never fear, here is a possibility if you’re are looking for something on the next frontier. Neural nets and intelligent algorithms.

That’s painfully obvious if you look at how our older static MarketSci models (-8.2% month-to-date, click for graph) have handled these blood-thirsty markets compared to our newer adaptive YK Strategy (+20.0% MTD, click for graph). And that’s why we’re moving to adaptive strategies across the board that “learn” from market history as it is changing rather than static models that assume that the market always does what it does.

Then have a look at the returns on this system. https://www.timertrac.com/Private/Research/GraphSignals.asp

Shameless plug: EVERY MarketSci and YK strategy you’ll see discussed on this site is audited by at least one (and sometimes two) independent third parties. MarketSci track records are available at MarketSci.com and YK track records are available by emailing me (until I get my act together and get a proper website built).

Here, at least you can inspect beforehand what you are potentially purchasing. Caveat emptor!

To follow the entire philosophy behind the system vist marketscience on the blogroll. For the interests of full disclosure, I have no interest, financial or otherwise in the product.

Every now and then I stumble across a good idea within the comments section of other peoples blogs. Here is one such.

Neural Networks are getting some big money thrown at them in Wall St as Quantitative Analysis takes the next step in quantitative analysis from historical data into real time data. Neural networks of course actually already exist and can be bought off the shelf by anyone, and with a little ingenuity be utilised in the stockmarket in real time.

From wikipedia;

A naive Bayes classifier is a simple probabilistic classifier based on applying Bayes’ theorem with strong (naive) independence assumptions. A more descriptive term for the underlying probability model would be “independent feature model”.

In simple terms, a naive Bayes classifier assumes that the presence (or lack of presence) of a particular feature of a class is unrelated to the presence (or lack of presence) of any other feature. For example, a fruit may be considered to be an apple if it is red, round, and about 4″ in diameter. Even though these features depend on the existence of the other features, a naive Bayes classifier considers all of these properties to independently contribute to the probability that this fruit is an apple.

Depending on the precise nature of the probability model, naive Bayes classifiers can be trained very efficiently in a supervised learning setting. In many practical applications, parameter estimation for naive Bayes models uses the method of maximum likelihood; in other words, one can work with the naive Bayes model without believing in Bayesian probability or using any Bayesian methods.

In spite of their naive design and apparently over-simplified assumptions, naive Bayes classifiers often work much better in many complex real-world situations than one might expect. Recently, careful analysis of the Bayesian classification problem has shown that there are some theoretical reasons for the apparently unreasonable efficacy of naive Bayes classifiers (Zhang04). An advantage of the naive Bayes classifier is that it requires a small amount of training data to estimate the parameters (means and variances of the variables) necessary for classification. Because independent variables are assumed, only the variances of the variables for each class need to be determined and not the entire covariance matrix.

Spam filters are basic neural networks. Filtering news stories would allow you to identify variables that potentially interest you, and pick up potential trades.

I’ll spare you all the mathematics, but in essence, you take historical data [as training for your neural network] from the news with regards to earnings, or FDA announcements etc, and set up your spam filter on a spam/not spam.

Obviously there are problems to be overcome, limitations, and any number of other barriers that the more technical minded may identify. Yet for all that, it is an intriguing idea for the little guy.

By Vineer Bhansali
Managing Director

The primary concern of financial analysts is to determine, using all tools available, where financial markets are likely to be headed. This is no simple task these days, given the unprecedented leverage and innovation that led to the crisis a year ago, the complex and fast-moving current state of financial markets, and the troubles we have trying to reconcile these states with any historical precedents. Given these challenges, analysts are grasping at the full forecasting toolkit, looking at everything from fundamental and technical factors to monetary and fiscal policy. Each can give us insight into a view of the future, but none can give us suitable clarity. In times like these, we might be well served by looking at a quite unorthodox analog for markets: statistical physics.

Investors like to conveniently divide their view of the world into the cyclical, which lasts from a few months to a few years, and the secular, which lasts from a few years to perhaps decades. In a world where leverage – the “order parameter” (to be defined below) for the derivatives-driven structured markets of the day – has crossed its critical value, the study of natural phenomena perhaps provides us with a framework in which the cyclical and secular become one. Confusing mean-reversion, which works over cycles, and momentum, which works over secular intervals, in such an environment is a guarantee for loss of portfolio wealth. No degree of timing and forecasting ability would mitigate getting this characteristic wrong, especially when markets are volatile.1

Phase Transition
We can start by examining physical phenomena that might aid our view of the financial world. In the physical sciences, a phase is a set of states for a macroscopic system that exhibit relatively uniform composition and physical properties, such as density, crystal structure, conductivity, etc. A phase transition is an abrupt transition between states with different physical properties.

First-order or discontinuous phase transitions involve a change in the state of matter with a release or absorption of latent heat. During such a transition, a system either absorbs or releases a fixed (and typically large) amount of energy, proportional to the mass of the matter being transformed. Because energy cannot be instantaneously transferred between the system and its environment, first-order transitions involve “mixed-phase regimes” in which some parts of the system have completed the transition and others have not. This phenomenon is familiar from boiling a pot of water: the water does not instantly turn into gas but instead forms a turbulent mixture of water and water vapor. Mixed-phase systems are extremely difficult to study, because their dynamics are violent and hard to control. Changing either the pressure or the temperature allows one to transform between the solid, liquid and gaseous phases. At the so-called triple point all three phases can coexist, while beyond the critical point, only the gaseous phase exists. Typically the gaseous phase also has the highest degree of disorder, or entropy.

Because the phase of water can always be determined by knowing both its temperature and pressure, these factors are known as water’s “order parameters.” Similarly, by looking at two important order parameters for financial markets – leverage and risk appetite – we can tell a lot about the state of the markets. The following charts illustrate this:

Closely related to phase transitions is a concept in modern physics called “spontaneous symmetry breaking.” During this phase transition process a system typically switches from a given symmetry to a regime of a different symmetry. A ball balanced on top of a sombrero provides an analogy2. At the top of the crown, there is symmetry in that all directions appear to be the same to the ball. However, this state is not a stable state – any disturbance moves the ball off the top. When the ball lands in the brim, there is a new kind of equilibrium – a symmetry around the center – which replaces the original symmetry. The system exhibits an unstable equilibrium phase at the top of the hat, and a more stable, albeit different phase at the bottom in the brim. The switch from one to the other is a rapid phase transition – similar to the one we think we are currently observing in global financial markets. The breaking of symmetries in the physical world is usually signaled by anomalies – observations that are inconsistent with symmetry principles. Far from being aberrations, these anomalies are signals of deeper physical principles. In his new book, my PIMCO colleague Mohamed El-Erian has written about the signals within the noise that caused numerous new global financial puzzles over recent years. Paying attention to anomalies has led to significant new developments in quantum physics, my own field of specialty before I turned to finance almost two decades ago, and perhaps gives interesting insights into the turbulent, anomaly-filled markets of the day.

With the Sombrero analogy in mind, think of the global financial markets as a locally stable, but globally unstable system, which was sitting on top of the hat before June 2007 (PIMCO has called it a “stable disequilibrium”), and is now rapidly on its way to the brim. The ball was sitting atop an ever-narrowing crown, while becoming increasingly exposed to the destabilizing order parameter relevant for market regimes – leverage. As the leverage in the system crossed a critical point the balance tipped the other way – and the tendency for the markets in these cases is to unwind the leverage. While this might not be forecastable with any degree of precision, the frequency of deleveraging episodes makes it possible to anticipate that the odds have begun to tilt.3

Under a market phase transition, mean-reversion is replaced by trends and momentum re-emerges as an investment factor:
As cyclical changes become larger in amplitude and frequency, big trends occur, because this is the only way one equilibrium can get resolved into another new equilibrium. This is accompanied by momentum emerging as an investment factor, because a number of markets have to simultaneously readjust. In a world of sticky prices, inventories, and a resistance of participants to adapt to new realities, change takes time. When the ball is rolling from the top of the hat to the new equilibrium state at the bottom, trends in markets are the most obvious symptom of a system heading to a new place. Large macro markets become the ultimate shock absorbers of the residual risks. In this environment, trend-following funds and macro investors tend to do well.5 Price movements and trends are likely to be better predictors of asset class returns than arguments based on relative valuation and fundamentals calibrated to recent generational experience alone. Purely mean-reverting bets become less likely to succeed. Further, the momentum factor is a natural diversifier against fat tails, since it allows for the possibility of markets to overshoot.

Monetary policy has little effect, and simply aggravates the situation by transforming one problem into another:
The hallmark of phase transitions is that the noise and disturbance that causes the ball to roll down from the top of the hat is exogenous. Once it rolls down toward the brim, it cannot climb back up, unless there is a large external force that exceeds the ball’s natural tendency to follow gravity. Monetary policy authorities are attempting to extend the umbrella of protection by inventing new mechanisms — the Treasury Auction Facility, the Term Securities Lending Facility, not to mention taking broker capital — whose abbreviations, TAF, TSLF, bear a remarkable mirror-symmetry to the abbreviations that symbolized the abuse of financing through constant proportion debt obligations, structured investment vehicles and collateralized debt obligations, or CPDOs, SIVs and CDOs, but are not able to stop the systemic risk from spreading. As recent work done with PIMCO colleague Bob Gingrich and UCLA Professor Francis Longstaff shows, it is no surprise that despite the Fed’s best efforts, liquidity risk is once again turning up across asset classes, and is nowhere more obvious than in the broker sector, which has now been explicitly brought under the Fed’s umbrella.6 Anecdotally, the asymmetric monetary policy approach under the rubric of “risk-management” that the Fed has been talking about is perhaps no more than a realization that once disequilibrium-causing forces are put into motion, there is no way to adhere to symmetric monetary policy rules.

So if the Fed has effectively precluded itself from sticking to symmetric policy rules, it follows that no amount of policy action or regulation will solve the underlying problems. To move the ball back to the top of the sombrero requires risk-taking desire and ability which, in the evolving structure of the world economy, can only come from investors who were either lucky enough or prescient enough to stay away from indiscriminate leverage, or savers and the sovereign wealth funds who are in a position to do so. The only other alternative is to wait until the current generation of investors has retired, been fired, or moved on to other jobs and the current fiasco, like past ones, has been erased from the collective memory. While policy currently is operating with one variable (leverage), it has little or no control over the second important variable, the risk-aversion of the masses. Just as in the phase diagram for the three phases of water, where we need both pressure and temperature to be at their proper values to have a stable phase, we need the proper amount of leverage and risk-aversion to have locally stable markets.

After the system has gone through a phase change, old benchmarks become irreversibly irrelevant:
It is perhaps only a coincidence that the emergence of LIBOR as a benchmark for derivatives from 1986 accompanied the years of Greenspan at the Fed, a period of secular deflation and the emergence of what Paul McCulley has called the Shadow Banking System. In the last few months, LIBOR has lost much of its luster as a benchmark for measurement of banks’ credit risk. As the monetary authorities transform the credit problem into an inflation problem, the use of short-term reference rates as an investment benchmark will also come into question. For asset allocation exercises, I expect the clock to turn back 20 years in time: investors will explicitly recognize that emerging term-premiums that result from emerging inflation risks will make short-term reference rates increasingly irrelevant. A benchmark is only relevant if it provides a suitable measurement unit. When high and variable risk premiums and high volatility regimes become the norm rather than the exception, there is really no justification for using the technology of short-term building blocks (the instantaneous forward rate) to infer the whole yield curve.

Fluctuations simultaneously occur at all scales:
The hallmark of a system near a critical point is that fluctuations can happen on all scales simultaneously. Thus what might appear as a fluctuation at the firm level is replicated at the sector level and perhaps also at an economy-wide level. This paints a pessimistic picture of the potential for success of short-term regulatory solutions to the problem. Unless the solution is designed to address all scales simultaneously, it is almost certain to fail. It is no wonder that despite the plethora of solutions that the authorities have suggested for the banking and brokerage sector over the last few months, there is really no resolution of the liquidity crisis in sight. What they are doing is addressing the small scale fluctuations – the brokers and banks are simply the circuit breakers in a levered economy; solving their problems is hardly a guarantee that the whole load can be removed from the U.S. economy. If you don’t fix the short in the electrical system, putting in a circuit breaker with bigger tolerance becomes more likely to cause a system meltdown sooner or later. An investor exposed to market fluctuations at all scales can improve the odds of success by insulating portfolios against macro and systemic downside risks, or “left tails,” which, surprisingly, it is still cheap enough to hedge against.

Arbitrage bounds cease to hold:
The rationale behind arbitrage trading is the relative mispricing of closely related markets, such as the gap between prices for cash corporate bonds and their derivative counterparts. In the current environment, this gap – known as the “basis” – is trading at historically wide levels, with cash bonds approximately 40-50 basis points cheaper than the equivalent credit derivatives (see chart below). This phenomenon is widely observed in other markets (mortgages, treasury futures etc.), and reflects a fundamental repricing of arbitrage bounds. A fundamental characteristic of the spontaneous symmetry breaking we talked about earlier is that the system at higher temperature has a more symmetric state than at the lower temperature. At low temperature, the system can get stuck in asymmetric equilibrium. If leverage is the order parameter for the current financial system, it could be a while before the basis reverts and stays in symmetric, bounded ranges.

Predicting the future for financial markets is never simple, particularly when markets are undergoing fast-moving and profound changes. There are many established methods of economic and financial analysis, but none is guaranteed to pinpoint the future with any accuracy. At times like these, it may be beneficial to think outside of the box.

What I have done above is to draw upon some analogies from the world of statistical physics to illustrate possible dynamics and outcomes for the financial world. Undoubtedly other physicists and investors can and should critique this; however, some might want to push it even further by leaning on the lessons of the natural world, which though idealized, do provide much in terms of frameworks and predictability for the conundrum filled world of modern finance near critical points.

Next Page »