Occupying Wall Street

The Wall Street Journal's Scott Patterson recounts how a group of quantitative traders took the financial markets by storm

Published 4 years ago on Jul 09, 2017 3 minutes Read

Regardless of which signature trade each man favoured, they had something far more powerful in common: an epic quest for an elusive, ethereal quality the quants sometimes referred to in hushed, reverent tones as the Truth.

The Truth was a universal secret about the way the market worked that could only be discovered through mathematics. Revealed through the study of obscure patterns in the market, the Truth was the key to unlocking billions in profits. The quants built giant machines — turbocharged computers linked to financial markets around the globe — to search for the Truth, and to deploy it in their quest to make untold fortunes. The bigger the machine, the more Truth they knew, and the more Truth they knew, the more they could bet. And from that, they reasoned, the richer they’d be. Think of white-coated scientists building ever more powerful devices to replicate conditions at the moment of the Big Bang to understand the forces at the root of creation. It was about money, of course, but it was also about proof. Each added dollar was another tiny step toward proving they had fulfilled their academic promise and uncovered the Truth.

The quants created a name for the Truth, a name that smacked of cabalistic studies of magical formulas: alpha. Alpha is a code word for an elusive skill certain individuals are endowed with that gives them the ability to consistently beat the market. It is used in contrast with another Greek term, beta, which is shorthand for plain-vanilla market returns anyone with half a brain can achieve.

To the quants, beta is bad, alpha is good. Alpha is the Truth. If you have it, you can be rich beyond your wildest dreams.

The notion of alpha, and its ephemeral promise of vast riches, was everywhere in the hedge fund world. The trade magazine of choice for hedge funds was called Alpha. A popular website frequented by the hedge fund community was called Seeking Alpha. Several of the quants in the room had already laid claim, in some form or another, to the possession of alpha. Asness named his first hedge fund, hatched inside Goldman in the mid-1990s, Global Alpha. Before moving on to Morgan in 1992, Muller had helped construct a computerised investing system called Alphabuilder for a quant farm in Berkeley called BARRA. An old poster from a 1960s film noir by Jean-Luc Godard called Alphaville hung on the walls of PDT’s office in Morgan’s midtown Manhattan headquarters.

But there was always a worry haunting the beauty of the quants’ algorithms. Perhaps their successes weren’t due to skill at all. Perhaps it was all just dumb luck, fool’s gold, a good run that could come to an end on any given day. What if the markets weren’t predictable? What if their computer models didn’t always work? What if the truth wasn’t knowable? Worse, what if there wasn’t any Truth?