Monday, January 25, 2010

The Quant's

On Wall Street, they were all known as "quants," traders and financial engineers who used brain-twisting math and superpowered computers to pluck billions in fleeting dollars out of the market. Instead of looking at individual companies and their performance, management and competitors, they use math formulas to make bets on which stocks were going up or down. By the early 2000s, such tech-savvy investors had come to dominate Wall Street, helped by theoretical breakthroughs in the application of mathematics to financial markets, advances that had earned their discoverers several shelves of Nobel Prizes. PDT, one of the most secretive quant funds around, was now a global powerhouse, with offices in London and Tokyo and about $6 billion in assets (the amount could change daily depending on how much money Morgan funneled its way). It was a well-oiled machine that did little but print money, day after day. That week, however, PDT wouldn't print money—it would destroy it like an industrial shredder. The unusual behavior of stocks that PDT tracked had begun sometime in mid-July and had gotten worse in the first days of August. The previous Friday, about half a dozen of the biggest gainers on the Nasdaq were stocks that PDT had sold short, expecting them to decline, and several of the biggest losers were stocks PDT had bought, expecting them to rise. It was Bizarro World for quants. Up was down, down was up. The models were operating in reverse. The market moves PDT and other quant funds started to see early that week defied logic. The fine-tuned models, the bell curves and random walks, the calibrated correlations—all the math and science that had propelled the quants to the pinnacle of Wall Street—couldn't capture what was happening. At the time, few quants realized what was happening, but over the next few days a theory would emerge: The U.S. housing market was unraveling, leading to big losses in the mortgage portfolios of banks and hedge funds. One or more of those hedge funds needed to raise cash quickly to make up for the losses, and needed to sell assets quickly to do so. And the easiest-to-sell assets of all were stocks, those held in portfolios highly similar to quant funds across Wall Street.

Wall Street Journal

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