A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

Inside Money: Revenge of the physicists: how nerds turn models into money

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

James Weatherall is the very model of a nerd.

Look at the pasty-faced professor in his old-fashioned glasses, tweed jacket, white shirt and conservative blue-striped tie (is that a windsor knot?).

Weatherall is not starring in any 'Revenge of the Nerds' rethink (although he could be cast) but has a serious job as assistant professor of logic and philosophy of science at University of California Irvine.

He's also the author of double-subtitled book 'The physics of finance -predicting the unpredictable: can science beat the market?', which I had the pleasure of reading over the holidays.

(Warning: not to be confused with the 2001 publication of the same name by Kirill Ilinski, which carries the singular subtitle 'Gauge Modelling in Non-equilibrium Pricing'.)

Also known as 'The physics of Wall St' in Weatherall's home country, the book was sparked by the 2008 market meltdown and press coverage that implied "physicists on Wall St were responsible for the collapse".

Entering the world of money for the first time, Weatherall embarked on a voyage of discovery, unearthing the back-stories of the physicists most influential in financial theory and practice.

And the book functions well as a history, illustrating, for example, how attempts to beat the house at Vegas casinos led a surprisingly high number of poorly-paid physicists to the much-more lucrative field of hedge funds management or as Wall St 'quants'.

But the book is also "about something bigger", according to Weatherall.
"It's about how the quants came to be, and about how to understand the 'complex mathematical models' that have become central to modern finance," he writes.

That works ok, too. I think I learnt something.

However, Weatherall's over-arching ambition with the book is to defend his co-physicists from the charges of financial model abuse and stake a claim for "why we should look to new ideas from physics and related fields to solve the ongoing economic problems faced by countries around the world".

And here, the argument falls apart somewhat, although the sentiment is fine. Weatherall's key piece of evidence is the remarkable successes of two physicist-heavy investment funds - the Prediction Company and Renaissance Technologies - that use sophisticated but secret modelling techniques to produce outrageously good, all-weather returns.

Reviewing the book, Clive Cookson in the Financial Times had the same reaction as me to Weatherall's claim that: "Renaissance shows that mathematical sophistication is the remedy, not the disease."

"Well, possibly," Cookson says, " - though outsiders cannot judge because Renaissance discloses next to nothing about its methods. Nor can we be confident that mathematical sophistication that brings success to a fund will be good for financial markets as a whole."

It is more than likely that if Renaissance et al put their allegedly market-predicting equations on general release they would lose their power. If the physicists at Renaissance have found the formulas for the future, surely they function only by draining wealth off the model-less investors outside the circle of knowledge.

As it is, Renaissance appears to operate as a magic money-making machine for its already extremely wealthy clients and the elite band of top-notch maths and physics geeks who man its models, which sounds like a good plot for the next 'Revenge of the nerds'.

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A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

David is a freelance journalist who has covered the financial services business on both sides of the Tasman for over 15 years. He is the editor of industry website Investment News. David has edited magazines and websites for the financial advice, investment and superannuation industries.

Read more by David Chaplin

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