Eugene Linden
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Lastest Musing
OUR CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES

            The Darwin Award confers mock recognition on individuals killed by their own stupidity, thereby improving the gene pool by removing themselves from it. If there existed such an award at the national level, the U.S. of today would be ...

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Featured Book

The Ragged Edge of the World
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endangered animals
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Don't Bother Me Honey, I'm Working!


Don't Bother Me Honey, I'm Working! by Eugene Linden It used to be so easy for a husband to justify his working life. He went off in the morning and then returned that evening. What he did during the day constituted "work." While wives, who took care of the house and family, might fairly ask who had the harder job, most arguments remained low in intensity so long as "work" paid the bills. The potential for conflict has risen in recent decades since many wives now work at jobs during the week and still do most of the housework. When the working wife is a lawyer, however, and the husband is a writer, the potential for conflict rises to infinity. To begin with lawyers are not known for shying from an argument, and then with a New York lawyer for a wife there is always the issue of how much money a writer's "work" brings in. As for the balance of power? In an argument about what constitutes a hard days work, a lawyer wife is the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and the writer is Costa Rica, which gave up its armed forces decades ago. Or so it would appear. May I humbly submit, however, that perception is not always reality. An outsider (or wife) observes a writer at work and sees a guy slumped in front of a screen for a few hours a day between long breaks for lunch, golf/tennis/windsurfing, and other activities more suited to the leisure class. This is an understandable misunderstanding, but the great preponderance of those activities that the lawyer wife sees as procrastination or outright laziness are actually vital parts of the writer's work. For instance: Lying in bed in the morning. To the lawyer wife the snoozing writer-husband appears to be nothing more than the embodiment of sloth, but for the writer this period between sleep and waking is the most precious part of the day and should be prolonged as much as possible. The virtues of the so-called "alpha state" between waking and consciousness have been well documented. During this period the barriers between the unconscious and conscious mind are porous, and the brain, which has been working throughout the writer's vital nine hours of sleep, presents metaphors, solutions to writing problems and other ideas as a gift to the new day. Try and use this valuable work time, however, when you have two babies and three cats marauding on the bed and the only other creature in the room who speaks English is your wife exhorting you to get up! The two hour lunch. Writing is a solitary profession, but it is critically dependent that the writer be in touch with mercurial shifts in the zeitgeist as well as be aware of the constant reshuffling of editors at publishing houses and magazines. The lawyer, grabbing a sandwich at her desk, might dismiss a writer's lunch as little more than gossip, griping, backbiting, and complaints about money, but initiates to the ritualized dialogue of publishing, recognize a rich tapestry of New Business Development, Forward Planning, Strategic Positioning, Marketing, and a host of other productive activities. No wonder the lunch takes a chunk out of the day! In a corporation, any one of these functions would require an entire department to fulfill, but the writer can adeptly dispense with all of them during the course of one meal. The break for tennis. Just because lawyers cannot bill time spent on the courts, they tend to look down upon those who take a couple of hours in the afternoon to clear their heads and restore their hearts. The British, a group who understand the vital importance of non-traditional work activities, have long recognized that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain, invigorating renewed creative activity, and, it bears mentioning, it also helps reduce the lingering effects of drinks imbibed during the earlier sessions of New Business Development, Forward Planning, and Marketing. The weekly poker game. Admittedly, the work aspects of poker are not intuitively obvious, but keep in mind that poker is as much as about wit and badinage as it is about winning (or perhaps losing) money. Poker thus serves to condition the writer's most important "muscle." I could go on but let me instead confront head-on the billable hours mentality that has so stigmatized writers and others who opt off the treadmill. Leisure, not necessity, is the mother of invention. Christophe Boesch, a Swiss field biologist who has studied chimpanzees in the Tai forest in the Ivory Coast, has argued that the most innovative groups of chimpanzees are the ones with the richest diet, and hence, the most free time. Freed from the constant search for food, they have the leisure to test new ape ideas, and the well-nourished Tai chimps have shown ingenuity in developing nut cracking and monkey hunting techniques. Applied to humans, this suggests a solution to the impasse over what constitutes work: lawyers should keep writers well-nourished so they can explore new directions, an arrangement that in essence leverages the optimum skills of both writer/husband and lawyer/wife.

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Short Take

I’ve just read Black Edge, by Sheelah Kolhatkar, which is about the huge insider trading scam that characterized Steve Cohen’s SAC Capital at the height of its power. I’m going to offer the thoughts it prompted in two parts. The first will delve into the trade itself, and the second will explore the fallout from this insider trading scandal and subsequent events in the market.

Part One:

A good part of Black Edge focuses on one specific instance of insider trading at SAC Capital: Mathew Martoma’s quest for advance knowledge of the results of trials on the efficacy of Elan Pharmaceutical’s experimental drug to halt Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, bapineuzumab, was designed to attack the amyloid plaques that Elan’s scientists viewed as the cause of cognitive decline. In his quest for “black edge” (illegal inside information) Martoma and his compatriots compromised the integrity of the procedures for drug trials and ruined the life and reputation of a distinguished scientist.  Even that wasn’t enough for them. SAC also had access to vast amounts of biotech expertise, both from PhDs on their payroll, and the expert networks they paid handsomely to give them access to researchers with direct access to the studies and trials.

 

In the short run, this inside information paid off for SAC as Martoma’s advance knowledge of the results allowed the hedge fund to reverse a billion dollar position and make a profit of over $180 million versus certain losses of hundreds of millions had they not gotten advance information on a disappointing field trial. In the long run, while Steve Cohen skated, the insider cases led to $1.8 billion in fines, the dissolution of SAC, and jail time for Martoma.

 

In retrospect, it was all so stupid. SAC could have come to the conclusion that Elan’s drug was not going to work without resorting to anything illegal.

 

Instead of deploying all this massive intellectual firepower on getting advance word on the results of the trials, the analysts might have started by asking how solid were the assumptions on which the therapy was based: namely, whether attacking the plaques would halt or reverse the progress of the disease.

 

Even in 2008 and 2009, there were a number of researchers at distinguished universities who questioned that basic assumption. The alternate theory was that the plaques were not the cause of the disease, but rather an analogue of scabbing, the result of the body’s attempt to protect the brain from infection.

 

 In subsequent years, this alternate view has gained some traction, with some now arguing that Alzheimer’s is akin to an autoimmune disease in the sense that as the environment in developed countries has become more antiseptic, protective devices in the brain have turned on the brain itself as the infections they evolved to fight have disappeared. In any events a drumbeat of failed trials with drugs attacking amyloids has discredited this approach. As Tara Spires-Jones, of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems put it in an interview with Britain’s Independent, “Most of the trials have been based on the assumption that amyloid is important in causing Alzherimer’s diseas, as opposed to something that happens alongside it. That assumption, I think, is probably wrong…”

 

Even in 2007, SAC’s analysts should have known that many attempts to fight Alzheimer’s by fighting the formation of plaques had failed. Given all the time the fund spent analyzing the drug and trials it must occurred to someone to ask whether Elan was barking up the wrong tree. Maybe someone there did just that, but there’s no indication that the decision makers ever questioned the assumptions upon which the drug was built.

 

Maybe that wouldn’t have mattered. SAC wanted certainty. Clearly, detailed advance knowledge of the results of a field trial is more compelling than a dissenting theory on the nature of the disease. Had SAC questioned the assumptions of the study, they never would have amassed a position in Elan, and they probably wouldn’t have had sufficient certainty to short the stock prior to the results being announced.

 

What can be drawn from this? There are implications about the pressures of the markets – SAC employees felt that had to cheat to maintain performance – but there are also implications about the culture of world of investing.  Alzheimer’s is a horrifying disease, but the book makes a strong case that neither Cohen, nor anyone else at SAC, gave a rat’s ass whether the drug worked or not; they only cared about knowing the results before anyone else and about how other traders would view the data when it came out.  The same probably applied to every other fund playing Elan.

 

It isn’t news that the markets are amoral, but this amorality has real world consequences. The punishment the market meted out to Elan (and other companies with failed trials) makes all but the largest companies risk averse about investing in therapies for difficult diseases. There is a short-term logic to this from an investor’s point of view, but, increasingly, the market sets research priorities, and the market’s priorities – controlling costs and maximizing short-term profits – may not serve the needs of society. Researchers know that breakthroughs often come from learning from failed previous attempts.  So where will breakthroughs come from as fewer and fewer companies risk failure?

 

Part Two:

 

Further thoughts on Black Edge by Sheelah Kolhatkar

The insider trading scandal at SAC confirmed a widely held suspicion among ordinary investors that Wall Street is a rigged game where powerful players can cheat with impunity.  Regardless of the truth of that suspicion, the widely held perception that this is the case has had its own reverberations. In a delicious irony, one of the derivative effects of the market crash and subsequent insider trading scandals has been to make more likely a future in which black edge is less useful.

 

Bear with me.

 

What happened with Elan revealed a contradiction at the heart of the markets. SAC was driven to seeking black edge by the ruthless competition of the markets. In the minds of their analysts and portfolio managers, access to publicly available information wasn’t enough because competing funds had their own PhDs pouring over the same information. Moreover, competing funds also had access to the same expert networks (which might be viewed as “grey edge”) as did SAC.

 

In such a situation, we’d expect that different analysts would take different perspectives on the prospects of the drug and the trials. I would have expected that at least some analysts would question whether the assumptions behind the drug were correct. The market says that wasn’t the case. Rather the hedge fund world was massively longs before the release of the trial results, and Elan’s subsequent 66% price drop suggests that the herd mentality applied on the way down too.

 

So market efficiency drove SAC and some others to seek black edge, while the subsequent drop exposed a herd mentality and deep inefficiency that made the market anything but a black box that continuously adjusts prices for all information.

 

The result for the markets is analogous to the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium: markets will proceed smoothly until some event produces rapid change. Because, as the crash of 2008 demonstrated, the big price-change inducing event can come from any number of directions inside or outside the economy, many investors are giving up on analysis of individual stocks and moving to passive investment funds and ETFs. The size of this shift is staggering. The amount of managed money in passive strategies has risen from an estimated 6% in 2006 to as much as 40% today (these figures vary depending on definitions of what a constitutes passive strategy).

 

That latter figure may be larger given the relationship between value investing and money moved by algorithms and quantitative strategies.

 

Quantitative types try to beat their peers by focusing on changes in pricing or volatility, and/or seeking an edge through speed and data crunching, rapidly identifying anomalies, and then trading at warp speed. Many hundreds of billions of dollars now take this route into the markets. And results have proven that this approach can work; some of these funds have done fabulously well.

 

So, stepping back, it becomes clear that the trillions of dollars invested through passive strategies and ETFs basically piggybacks on the decisions of active managers relying on traditional analysis of individual companies and sectors. Moreover, the hundreds of billions of dollars of money invested in quantitative, momentum, derivative, and volatility strategies, also piggybacks and even amplifies, the decisions made by traditional investors as those decisions become evident in price movements.

 

So the response to the pain inflicted by past booms and busts and insider trading scandals has created a situation today where the huge amounts of money moves in sync with an ever smaller base of active managers. Value investing based on analysis of individual companies has become an ever-smaller tail wagging an ever larger dog.

 

Perversely, this, in turn, has created a situation where in the next crash, Steve Cohen, the quant and momentum funds, and even the Warren Buffets will ultimately have no edge. All it will take to set the next crash in motion is for a fair number of investors to say, “gee I think I should shift more to cash.” Then the passive investment funds will be forced to sell, and they will sell regardless of the merits of any individual stock. This will cause volatility to rise and the billions of dollars of investments tied to volatility will also start selling, and as this is happening, the algorithmic traders, the momo guys and the others looking for direction to exploit will jump in juicing the sell off.  The trigger might be some external event, or something as banal as a simple change in mood, but no insider will have any better insight as to when this occurs than anyone with access to a newspaper.

 

As a coda, it’s worth noting that Steve Cohen has now been cleared to manage other people’s money. At the end of Black Edge the author quotes a savvy market player as saying that the day Cohen could do that, money would come pouring in. Well, according to the New York Times, that day is here and money is not pouring in. Maybe this is because his fees are too high, or because the insider trading scandal has made him tainted goods. Or maybe, it’s because investors doubt that he can achieve his former results without black edge.



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