The Black Swan

The Book of the Week is “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2010. In this book, the author explains his theory about rare, unexpected events, “Black Swans”– unexpected by those affected, because human traits and uncertain situations cause people to draw the wrong conclusions, formulate the wrong predictions, and make the wrong decisions. “Black Swan events are largely caused by people using measures way over their heads, instilling false confidence based on bogus results.” The author applies his ideas mostly to “experts” who manipulate the financial markets.

While Taleb makes some good points, this blogger suspects that very few readers of this book will come away fully understanding what a Black Swan is. Taleb tries to provide several examples; his illustrations are unclear as to why one event is a Black Swan and why another is not.

One example consists of five trading managers at a European-owned financial institution who wrote a five-year plan. Having neglected to consider all possible adverse future events, they were done in by “the Black Swan of the Russian financial default of 1998 and the accompanying meltdown of the values of Latin American debt markets.” Yet, Taleb writes that the 2008 financial crisis was not a Black Swan. He says such a cluster screw-up will happen again. A Black Swan is a negative or more rarely, a positive occurrence that in general, has never happened before.

One human trait people have is that they are reluctant to attribute events to randomness. But Taleb thinks randomness plays a part in all sorts of events, including long winning streaks of investors. He even generated a computer simulation showing how it would be impossible not to have money managers who beat the market year after year– he says they did so simply by luck alone. Another reason these investors are overrated is that people hear more often about winners rather than losers.

Taleb writes, “We want to be told stories, and there is nothing wrong with that– except that we should check more thoroughly whether the story provides consequential distortions of reality… Just consider that the newspapers try to get impeccable facts, but weave them into a narrative in such a way as to convey the impression of causality (and knowledge).”

Leg the Spread

The Book of the Week is “Leg the Spread” by Cari Lynn, published in 2004.  The author interviewed several current and former commodities-futures traders, providing detailed descriptions of their days at the market in Chicago.

Some traders, employees of a broker-dealer, actually stood on the trading floor, yelling and waving paper from the time the market opened at 8am until mid-afternoon.  Others traded online.  They had good days and bad days.

One female who formerly made a large amount of money on the trading floor before becoming burnt out, had many bad days, both because the job itself was stressful, and because the vast majority of people around her– practically all men– were sexist.  In many cases, the way for a female to get ahead besides having super luck, quick math skills and keen intuition about human behavior, was to sleep with one’s (male) boss.

Read the book to get a comprehensive, entertaining picture of the American commodities-futures market in the mid-single-digit 2000’s.

God Is My Broker

The Book of the Week is “God Is My Broker” by Brother Ty, with Christopher Buckley and John Tierney.  It is a very funny satire.  The story starts with a man who made sufficient money on “Wall Street” to retire at a young age.  However, a mid-life crisis caused him to try the lifestyle of a Trappist Monk.

While swearing off material possessions at the monastery, “Brother Ty” still had the urge to gamble.  So he let a line of text in a religious tract dictate his course of action in the stock market.   The way Brother Ty interpreted the text turned out to be contrarian to most other traders’ advice and actions, but turned out to be extremely lucrative for him.

The humor of this book emerges when the monastery and the monastery’s abbot are revealed to be just as dishonest as Wall Street.   The monastery raised money through selling wine that was falsely advertised, and the abbot built himself an entertainment center with the ill-gotten gains. Read the book to vicariously experience the hilarity that ensues.