Accessible if sometimes-turbulent portrait of “arguably the most successful trader in the history of modern finance.”
James Simons, a math professor, founded Renaissance Technologies in 1982 and has since leveraged a battery of other mathematicians and machines to earn more than $7 billion per year in market gains—a sum that, Wall Street Journal writer Zuckerman (The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters, 2013, etc.) notes, is greater than the annual revenue of Levi Strauss and Hyatt Hotels. The firm does this with a staff that’s markedly smaller than the usual investment house, all of them “quants” devoted to a scientific approach to playing the market. Whereas investors such as Warren Buffett followed a “value” strategy that, as the textbooks have it, “recommended buying when prices cheapened and taking money off the table when prices richened,” Simons—who had earned his wings developing algorithms to break Soviet codes in the Cold War—followed trends closely, amassing historical price information and hiring people devoted to “foraging and cleaning data the rest of the world cared little about." Data can be cooked, of course; Zuckerman writes that Simons was impressed by the figures a rising investment manager named Bernard Madoff was posting, though he pulled his funds when he came to suspect them well before Madoff’s vast Ponzi scheme was exposed. Simons’ devotion to numbers and algorithms did not rule out gut instincts, as with the near-ruinous market crash of 1987, though, as Zuckerman notes, the quants did better than their nonquant counterparts—one reason why the quants now rule the market. Of more than passing interest are the liberal Simons’ dealings with partner Robert Mercer, who applied quant methods to politics and came up with the likes of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, a decision that brought enough heat on the house to force Mercer’s resignation.
Worthwhile reading for budding plutocrats and numerate investors alike.