Marks, Howard - Mastering the Market Cycle

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018 [Finance] Grade 4

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The holy grail of investing is market timing and its realization is about as elusive. This is a guide on how to master the financial market cycle, which is something in a way related to market timing, but still very, very, very different. The master (that word again…) corporate bond investor and investment writer Howard Marks at Oaktree Capital Management is among those whom I admire most in financial markets and his first book The Most Important Thing ranks among my top five all time investment books. In a way this is a slight problem when it comes to Mastering the Market Cycle. A classical advice to companies reporting their financials is to “under-promise and over-deliver” – the thing is that Marks’ first book drives up expectations for this one to a level it cannot fully live up to. But it’s still a really inspiring book on an important and under-discussed area that I will put to good use immediately.

A fundamental cornerstone for the author is that financial markets cannot be predicted with any practically usable precision in the short to medium term. This doesn’t mean that all market outcomes are equally probable at all times. By looking to current conditions and by this forming an opinion on where we are in the market cycle an investor, according to Marks, can tilt his portfolio to take advantage of what is more likely to happen in the years ahead. It’s both about what one thinks will happen depending on where one is and about the probability of this happening compared to other scenarios. If an investor is good at this game it should pay off in the long run and he tilts the odds for success in his favor. Prepare, don’t predict. I think he is totally spot-on in this respect.

Another key basis in mastering the cycle is to understand that things don’t just happen one thing after another in – unfortunately irregular – cyclical patterns. What happens in one stage of a market cycle is instead causing it to move on to the next stage. Cycles are chains of cause-and-effect relationships. After a pair of introductory chapters the main part of the book is devoted to describing a large set of interrelated and parallel such cycles: the economic cycle, the profit cycle, the risk attitude cycle, the credit cycle and so on. Underlying all these is the cyclical patterns in investor psychology – a topic clearly nearest to Marks’ heart. To a large extent Marks reads various psychological markers and positions himself in the cycle by these. Next comes one chapter that tries to assemble all the above cycle inputs into the full mosaic of the market cycle. The book finishes with a few concluding more practical chapters and a needlessly cut-and-paste type of summary.

It is honestly a luxury to have 50 years of hard won experience condensed in such a graspable format. Marks is a simply superb writer. Much like Warren Buffet the language can be deceptively simple, causing fairly complex issues to sound like child’s play. Make no mistake – this is investment thinking on the highest level. Still, compared to the high standards set by the author’s investment letters some passages of the book are a bit repetitive with their long and recurring chains of cause-and-effects and some newly written chapters that don’t build on previous investment letters, but are required to make an coherent story, are perhaps slightly less inspired than the others.

There are clearly others who have made contributions to the understanding of market cycles such as Hyman Minsky, various Austrian economists, the books from Marathon Asset Managed edited by Edward Chancellor plus many others. However, since Marks is so focused on reading non-fundamental and non-economic signposts I think the most complementary book might be Big Debt Crisis by the more Borg-ish Ray Dalio with his “economic machine”-concept, who obviously mostly zeros in on the central bank dominated cycle of monetary policy.

When it comes to books on market cycles this is a must read – but it could have been even better.

Mats Larsson, December 15, 2018

Gunter, Max - The Zurich Axioms

Harriman House Ltd, 1972 [Finance] Grade 4

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At its core this is a book containing 12 rules – or axioms - for speculation in financial markets in the same vein as previous learning’s about risk, reward and human behavior that have been passed on by the likes of Jesse Livermore, Gerald Loeb and Bernard Baruch, i.e. the notorious financial speculators of the early part of the twentieth century. It is the investment philosophy of a former group of Swiss bankers.

The Zurich Axioms also comes with a quite fascinating background story. Max Gunter is a journalist, an author and the son of Franz Heinrich – in the US called Frank Henry. The author’s father was during a long period the US head of what is today UBS and also a core member of an unofficial network of Swiss expats on Wall Street that met irregularly at the bars around where they worked, starting in the mid 1940s all the way until the early 1970s. The topic for discussion was always the currently available investment opportunities – or speculative opportunities, as they would have put it themselves. Thus, the author grew up with a father that socialized with Jesse Livermore, Gerald Loeb etc. and that often invested in stocks or commodities side by side with them. The book came about when Max Gunter one time, when being advised by his father to make an investment, asked him what the basis was for the advice, what Frank Henry and his Swiss acquaintances actually based their decisions on. The thought process that followed in the Swiss network in trying to formulate their rules for speculation resulted in this book, first published in 1972.

The axioms advocate taking large stakes in a few meaningful opportunities at the time, to set targets for when to take profit and to immediately get out if a position is turning sour – and never try to average down or get in again on a loosing position. Positions are based on the judgment of the speculator regarding what is happening now and not on forecasts or other people’s opinions. The time horizon is short to medium term (months, rarely years) and even if the author never uses the old saying “let your profits run and cut losses short” the thinking is very much aligned with this. Overall, the philosophy of Frank Henry and his fellow Swiss bankers is based on trading psychology that much later formed parts of what is today know as behavioral finance. Much, like the advice to disregard the consensus as it probably is wrong or the distrust in forecasts, should resonate well with more long-term fundamental investors. Other advice will not and the last “minor axiom” from Max Gunter reads, “Shun long-term investments”. We will post the full list of axioms of the website separately.

The odd axiom out is number eight, On Religion and the Occult, that is not only a plea to keep superstitions out of one’s speculations (but not necessarily ones life) but also discussions on why it is inadvisable to base positions on the statements of fortune tellers and the use of tarot cards – but if you do, don’t bet too much on the positions advocated. It might just be me, but I surely hope this axiom is a bit dated.

Interestingly the axioms for speculating in financial markets also tie in to a parallel view on how to live one’s life. To make any gains in life something – money, time, love etc. - has to be placed at risk – nothing ventured, nothing gained. And even if this in the end means that now and then a person loses money, wastes his time or gets his heart crushed, this is still better than never having dared to live life to the fullest. Life should be an adventure. The Zurich Axioms are about calculated and intelligent risk taking in all straights of life.

The Zurich Axioms is a charming short and lively book with a pedigree that it is very easy to feel sympathetic about. And even if it perhaps doesn’t add that much new to trading philosophy it fits well on the shelf beside Reminiscences of a Stock Operator or The Battle for Investment Survival.

Mats Larsson, September 27 2018

Lo, Andrew - Adaptive Markets

Princeton University Press, 2017, [Finance] Grade 4

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Due to the immense influence of Paul Samuelson economics in the mid twentieth century adopted much of the mathematical and statistical methodology of physics. The economic theories became all-explaining, exact and mathematically beautiful - but wrong. Starting in the 1980s a bunch of half-economists and half-psychologists emerged and formed the sub-discipline behavioral economics and were rude enough to point to the inaccuracies. Still, these new guys had no real alternative economic system to offer. They could tear down what was foul but had little ability to build anew. “It takes a theory to beat a theory” to speak with Milton Friedman. Then the Hong Kong born Andrew Lo, one of the more free-thinking economists of our age, a Professor at MIT and chairman of the hedge fund AlphaSimplex, launched a theory that it might actually be concepts from biology that will fit both traditional economics and behavioral economics into one unifying grand scheme. The framework became known as the adaptive market hypothesis (AMH) and it is the topic of this important book.

Broadly the book is structured so that chapters 1 through 5 give the reader background knowledge of the efficient market hypothesis of traditional finance, behavioral economics, neurofinance and biology’s evolutionary theory. Then chapters 6 to 8 present and exemplify the AMH. Finally, the last 4 chapters try to show that financial crises could be understood through the AMH and how we by this could form regulation and practices to if not prevent a crisis, at least stop it from escalating into something more severe.

Lo is a very good storyteller with a fair dose of humor. My only big complaint of Adaptive Markets is that it’s too comprehensive and thorough. The first 175 pages give necessary pieces of the puzzle so that the reader can understand Lo’s theory, but the reader probably hasn’t bought the book to read exactly these long sections on the basics and history of economics, psychology, biology etc. – we want the juicy stuff; the AMH. Then in chapter 9 there are another 30 pages giving a basic context behind the recent financial crisis. All in all these background stories are long enough to fill a normal length book by themselves. Although they clearly show the broad scholarship and knowledge of the author these sections should probably be cut in half for the second edition.

According to Lo price formation in markets follows the principles of evolution with its competition, adaptation and natural selection – or death - of spices in an ever changing environment. The spices in question are different groups of market participants that in a “satisficing” manner apply varying strategies and heuristics to compete for market profits. The choice of strategies are decided by an innovative (mutational) is interactive trial-and-error process, where the market feedback reinforces the use of some and deters the practice of other in an ever ongoing feedback loop towards refinement. A strategy that doesn’t fit the current environment would be deemed irrational by the traditional economist but is simply not adapted to the surroundings in an evolutionary meaning.

Now, unfortunately the environment isn’t static but depends on both external forces and the behavior of the competing spices. When too many populate the same habitat, i.e. uses the same strategies, the potential for profits is exhausted and a strategy that was well adopted becomes unprofitable, leading to a flight from the habitat. Eventually this exodus might restore the potential for returns and we get an ever oscillating market environment. An efficient market is simply a model of an unchanging market, something that only exists for so long. Interestingly, some “irrational” behaviors discovered by behavioral finance look to be unconsciously designed to spread one’s bets in case of change.

Anyone with an intention to have an edge in financial markets should really have read Adaptive Markets – because their competitors will have.

Mats Larsson, July 24, 2018

Ang, Andrew - Asset Management

Oxford University Press, 2014, [Finance] Grade 5

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This is something as scarce as a readable textbook. The subtitle is A Systematic Approach to Factor Investing but the bulk of the book is really a broad, comprehensive and accessible primer on asset management that combines the basics of financial academic theory with the latest academic findings and a fair amount of real life examples and practical applications. The author Andrew Ang, currently at BlackRock and previously a celebrated finance Professor at Columbia, advises the reader to view the field through the lens of underlying factors but with the book being so broad this almost becomes a side story. First and foremost Ang wants to see better practices in institutional asset management over all.

Asset Management provides an introduction into the character of asset classes, investment strategies and factor premias. The book provides a step-by-step guide in traditional portfolio theory without expanding too much into the underlying math. Then Ang goes further and discusses new findings, extensions and critique of the established models in a good-tempered and easy-going style. Each chapter starts with an illuminating story from real world asset management, then the academic theory is presented and in the end Ang takes the – now more knowledgeable – reader back to the introductory story to discuss it in a new light. The book in a way resembles Antti Ilmanen’s Expected Returns in its breadth and in that it gives the reader a good insight into the latest thinking in finance and portfolio theory.

The book largely substitutes equations for well thought out illustrations which will make the subject more comprehensible for a larger audience. It is quite an impressive trait of the author to be able to make discussions on, for example, the use of utility functions in mean-variance optimization models this understandable and interesting. It is also symptomatic that the author during his career has been able to switch back and forth between consulting for various asset managers and having a successful career in academia.

Thus, although it sometimes shines through that Ang isn’t an experienced asset manager, he still skillfully merges academia with practical advice. Where academia often make too many unrealistic assumptions and almost have a fetish for explaining market movements with information, practical asset management can on the other hand at times be dominated by a lazy continuation of old obsolete practices and self interests.

The last quarter of the book called Delegated Portfolio Management is essentially concentrated on agency problems and discusses mutual funds, hedge funds and private equity. Ang is extremely critical towards hedge funds and private equity specifically, showing that they generally underperform risk-adjusted benchmarks composed of the factors that build up their return streams. His advice is to “walk away”. Still, this categorical statement saves Ang from engaging in a discussion that is vitally important for most portfolios; how to best construct a portfolio that combines liquid and illiquid assets, where the latter renders most of the standard risk and reward measures useless. Also, one minor irritation – how hard can it be to spell Warren Buffett’s surname with two “t’s”? Often it is too hard for the author apparently!

Andrew Ang clearly champions liquid securities and factor investing as the latter gives a deeper analytical insight into what drives the risk/reward in the portfolio. All factor returns give compensation for enduring various types of bad times. Ang wisely advices the reader to figure out which of these “bad times” that he can endure better than others because this is where his portfolio will have a competitive edge.

Asset Management will be a cornerstone of the reading list for asset management classes for years to come. For anyone wanting to gain a thorough understanding of the current best practice in institutional multi-asset, portfolio management this is the place to start.

Mats Larsson, April 15, 2018

Abbink, John B. - Alternative Assets and Strategic Allocation

Bloomberg, 2010, [Finance] Grade 3

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This is an odd book. The author is hugely knowledgeable of the core functionality, the risks and rewards of alternative assets such as hedge funds, private equity, real estate etc. and presents them – to use a phrase true to the genre – in a slightly idiosyncratic, but good, way. On the other hand the text never really goes anywhere – it’s almost like a number of short stories on different aspects of alternative assets, sometimes related to asset allocation but mostly not. The target audience is seen as plan sponsors, trustees, fund-of-fund managers, i.e. “asset owners” as opposed to asset managers.

John Abbink is an analyst and banker with decades of experience from Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and the likes. It is obvious that he has seen many types of markets as he has a good grip of how various assets react in times of stress. Topics like changes in price volatility, convergence of correlations and also skew and kurtosis might sound obscure and academic but in a crisis they become anything but – then they present a hit on the head with a blunt object. Without knowing, I would guess that Abbink during his days often has worked with derivatives, judging from how he dissects different sources of risk and return for the assets and his knowledge of financial theory and statistics.

The book has four different sections. At first Abbink presents how he views the World of alternative assets, divides them into the three main segments directional, cash flow and arbitrage and shows how the alternative set of assets share most of their traits with the traditional ones; secondly Abbink goes through a large number of alternative assets and strategies used in this space applying his above segmentation. In the third section he dives deeper into some of the themes that have come up previously, i.e. the same alternative assets are viewed from the traits they share or don’t share. Finally, a number of practical aspects of including alternative assets in a portfolio of alternative and more traditional assets are discussed.

The book is too long. The first two sections are mainly there to set the stage for the latter two. The problem is that this means that the book doesn’t really start until page 237. The language is well versed but since Abbink hardly economizes with words the text is much too winded. If the first two sections were cut down by two thirds and the latter two by one third, this would be an interesting 240-page book. On the surface the language is quite simple and the writing is without the hyperbole often associated with alternative assets, and it is even humorous – for the genre. The simplicity is a bit misleading since the author is in the habit of using concepts in a slightly different way than they usually are. Hence the reader mustn’t miss the definitions or the text could be confusing.

This quirkiness is also a positive trait since it means Abbink often sees issues from a fresh angle that adds insights to the topic. The topics in question can be the optionality of strategies, their trade capacity, the liquidity of assets, the effects of portfolio liquidity in a crisis and the potential liquidity premium, tactical allocation, the ebb and flow of opportunity and crowding in market niches, the changing faces of risk, investment time horizons and much more – all very important and often forgotten themes. The author is very partial to the thoughts of David Swensen, Andrew Lo and Richard Bookstaber – not a bad set of influences. Although I like the segmentation into directional, cash flow and arbitrage, it is still hardly unique and the author could have spent more time building his case for using these segments instead of traditional asset classes. This feels symptomatic as the book in the end mostly results in some interesting discussions rather than any firm advice.

Read the last two sections for their offbeat insights into central and less discussed issues in institutional asset management.

Mats Larsson, February 11, 2018

Faber, Meb - The Best Investment Writing, vol. 1

Harriman House, 2017, [Finance] Grade 4

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In a world overflowing with material, the trick is no longer obtaining information but to select what is relevant and screen out what is not. As the CIO of Cambria Investment Management and author of several best selling investment books Meb Faber is perfectly positioned to help out with this task in the investment arena. Faber has taken on himself to select what he thinks to be a collection of the best writings from high quality investment thinkers.

As many collections of short stories these are loosely arranged under broad headlines. Some contributions – unknowingly - argue against each other, for example with regards to the efficacy of the CAPE-ratio. By this they provide the reader with the pros and cons of the topic. Some of the writings are better than the others but the scale is rather from good to excellent. Some of the writings are shorter than others and some are simpler than others but none is too advanced for the lay reader. This has no bearing on the importance of the texts. What is said in a simple way is often the most essential.

Presenting a number of authors in a format like this gives the reader a splendid chance of finding new favorite writers that he or she could follow more closely online. Still, given that authors with quite different vantage points write the texts, not all of them will fit all readers. For me the writings on personal finance that conclude the book feels a bit misplaced since the target audiences for most of the preceding texts are probably professional investors.

Which are my favorites? The introductory text where Jason Zweig draws investment lessons from his antiques hunting as a youth is superbly written. Jason Hsu and John West touch on the partiality for complex solutions in finance - which is one of my pet topics. Wesley Gray discusses the well-known but underappreciated problem of randomness in investment track-records in a very punchy text called Even God Would Get Fired as an Active Investor.

Dave Nadig presented some genuinely new scary insights for me discussing the discrepancy in liquidity of bond ETFs and the underlying securities. It will be crowded by the exit door when the fire alarm rings for that market! The best text in my opinion is Todd Tresidder’s Five “Must Ask” Due Diligence Questions Before Making Any Investment. What is really presented is the framework for building a strong personal investment process.

The book would have benefited from one more editing session. Copying and pasting digital material sent in can prove troublesome as fonts etc. have a tendency to change. Just a pair of examples; in one text two paragraphs are included twice and in another a missing hyphen brings the percentages of 80-90% up to a staggering figure of 8090%. The pictures are in black and white although printing them in their original color often would have improved the understanding of their message greatly. That the text is sometimes bordering on microscopic doesn’t help. It is obviously a publishing budget issue but still.

Whether you like the format with a collection of short texts is rather personal. I do like it and I always have with the books from Michael Mauboussin and James Montier as personal favorites. It is very effortless to continue to read one text after another. Naturally some readers will find the overall impression of such a book somewhat too fragmented.

I very much enjoyed the reading. So, this is volume 1? Where can I sign up for a subscription?

Mats Larsson, September 27, 2017

Bookstaber, Richard - The End of Theory

Princeton University Press, 2017, [Finance] Grade 4

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This is a text on financial theory and the author advocates a switch from the use of a rigid neoclassical theory based on a number of unrealistic assumptions to a fluent, messy but flexible use of so-called agent based modeling (ABM). Epistemology is the type of philosophy that concerns itself with the theory of knowledge, the nature and rationality of belief. Bookstaber wants to challenge how we understand and think about economics and uses the occurrences of financial crisis as the test environment for his endeavor. The author is the Chief Risk Officer at the pension fund University of California Board of Regents. Earlier he has been both a PM and a risk manager at numerous hedge funds and investment banks. Few have longer experience of financial risk than Bookstaber.

In his 2007 bestselling book A Demon of Our Own Design the author reviews his dramatic experiences from the investment bank and hedge fund world and how liquidity, leverage, crowding and tight coupling – the speedy interconnectedness of events – are key parameters in causing cascading that leads to a full blown financial crisis. He also begins to discuss the topic of complexity. The End of Theory could be seen as a freestanding appendix to the first book. By now the author has had the time to better develop a theory around what he had experienced first hand and he also offers a practical tool to use. Since the theory is so vastly different from conventional economics the book becomes a crusade against how economic theory address crises currently (if it does at all).

The financial system is described using 4 building blocks: 1) computational irreducibility – a system without mathematical shortcuts to describe it, 2) emergent phenomena – that the overall effect is different from the sum of the individuals actions, 3) non-ergodicity – the concept that actions of one agent depend on and are shaped by history, context and the actions of other agents and 4) radical uncertainty – the fact that the system cannot be modeled by using historical events. The really important future developments will be unprecedented. All this creates a financial system that I have come to call a complex adaptive system. It is full of self-enforcing loops; developments are non-linear and unpredictable. Then the author goes on and offers the computer modeling technique ABM as a tool to understand and handle the complexity. ABM tries to simulate system effects by the actions and interactions of autonomous agents with separate decision heuristics. Chapters 11 through 13 model the financial system using the method. The exercise is thought provoking and I especially liked the description of the multi-layering within banks.

Nothing of all this is new and Bookstaber never claims that it is. The notion of complex adaptive systems amongst others builds on George Soros’ concept of reflexivity as described in his 1987 book The Alchemy of Finance, on complexity theory popularized by the Santa Fe Institute and on Andrew Lo’s concept of adaptive markets. The merit of this book is rather the compilation of the many parts into a whole and especially the application on special situations – financial crises. The author doesn’t really take the knowledge about complex adaptive markets further, but he improves our crises-knowledge.

The writing and language is relatively accessible for a text on financial theory, the boundaries of human knowledge and the intricacies of the plumbing in the financial system. The author takes the time to explain and exemplify. At first this is a positive but during the course of reading the book the notion is reversed. What starts out as illuminating turns into being repetitive. In an attempt to win the reader over to the author’s point of view too much is said too many times. The book would benefit greatly from being slimmed down some 40-50 pages.

The End of Theory will advance your thinking on financial calamities but it isn’t always fun to read.

Mats Larsson, August 16, 2017

Bookstaber, Richard - A Demon of Our Own Design

John Wiley & Sons, 2007, [Finance] Grade 4

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Why did I wait 10 years to read this book? It is a joy to read. Richard Bookstaber has had a long career in the financial markets. Today he is the Chief Risk Officer at the pension fund University of California Board of Regents and a senior advisor at the US Treasury’s Financial Stability Oversight Council. When he wrote this book he was a hedge fund portfolio manager and prior to that he was in charge of risk management at both Morgan Stanley and Salomon that later turned into Citigroup. The reason for not picking the book out of the bookshelf was that the subtitle “Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation” gave me the impression that it was a sensationalist, hedge fund-bashing book written by an outsider. This is obviously completely wrong. Few are more qualified than the author to discuss financial risk.

There are three parts to this book although they aren’t presented chronologically. There is one extremely interesting theoretical part comprising of chapter 1, 8 and the conclusion; there is a brilliant autobiographical part covering Bookstaber’s Wall Street career (chapter 2-7) and then chapters 9 through 11 present a somewhat less vivid, semi-theoretical, discussion around hedge funds and much more. For me the chapter on the 1987 crisis was a revelation. Why are researchers still debating what triggered the downturn? Here it’s written out in black and white from someone who had the benefit of both a front row seat and the oversight and understanding to make sense of the event. In short it was a combination of investor psychology, a mismatch in liquidity between the futures market and the cash equities market to act as a trigger and the widespread usage of portfolio insurance that created a self-enforcing negative loop of selling.

In the Wall Street section the author describes the full palette of financial mishaps that he experienced at the investment banks - including the debacle of LTCM, which was closely affiliated to Salomon. In general too many think that only what has recently happened is likely to happen next or that things that seldom happen, will not happen – at least not on their watch. Combine this with the non-linear effects of a constant stream of newly invented derivatives plus complex organizations with plenty of politics and you have an accident waiting to happen. Time after time new financial products are launched without the understanding of unintended consequences. Sometimes the risks are even deliberately ignored as the gains will fall to the banks’ personnel but they will not face the losses.

The theoretical part and especially the chapter “Complexity, Tight Coupling, and Normal Accidents” should be required reading to be eligible for employment at financial regulators. A combination of complexity and tight coupling creates unforeseen events that often cascade through the financial system as a crisis. The complexity arises as the agents in the system change their behavior depending on others behavior and events are often triggered by the use of derivatives – and this is written before the 2007/08 crash. Due to the constant need for liquidity when using derivatives - and the often high leverage - agents in the financial system are critically interdependent and the speed of the market gives little room for error or time for adjustment when things go wrong. That accidents occur in such a system is according to the author to be expected – they are so-called normal accidents that arise by the design. The need for liquidity, not new information, is the main driver of short-term price movements. Less leverage and an incubation period for financial innovation is suggested to tame the system.

The text is colorful, quick-witted and written with a self-irony that adds to the readability. Bookstaber is a quant with a splendid way with words! At this point the book merits a 5-star rating. Unfortunately the hedge fund part isn’t fully up to par. It’s untidy, a bit defensive about hedge funds, searching, and the author doesn’t seem to have fully completed his thoughts. In contrast to earlier parts, no colorful interior from the hedge fund world is offered - pity. In all, if you are to understand financial calamities you should have read this book.

Mats Larsson, August 11, 2017

Thorp, Edward O. - A Man For All Markets

Random House, 2017, [Finance] Grade 3

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Ed Thorp is to quantitative investors what Ben Graham is to value investors – the founding father. Thorp, a mathematics professor and overall science genius, has an incredible investment track record. From 1969 to 1988 the two Princeton Newport Partnership funds showed an annual return of 19.1% and 15.1% vs. a return of 10.2% for S&P 500. Further, between 1992 and 2002 Thorp's statistical arbitrage portfolio returned 18.2% per year with 6.7% annualized volatility compared with 7.8% and 15.1% respectively for S&P 500. Still, this isn’t as much a book on investing as it is an autobiography plus – unfortunately – a strangely added on mix of chapters with personal finance advice and contemplations on financial markets.

There are 4 sections in the book. First we learn about Thorp’s modest upbringing with a reclusive father and a mother who ran off with another man and Thorp’s college money. The young Thorp uses knowledge and reasoning as his way forward in life. Since he is largely self-taught he is motivated to think differently and empirically test theories. When Thorp as a young academic asks world famous physicist Richard Feynman if it is possible to beat the game of roulette and receives a negative answer, he is encouraged – if Feynman thinks it is impossible then there will be no competition. The first part of the book is a bit flat and the text makes it obvious how important it was for the underdog Thorp to be smart. The book comes to life in the next two sections.

Thorp uses his unusual combination of mathematical knowledge and practical bent to first figure out ways to tilt the odds in the favor of the gambler in Black Jack and then does the same with roulette. In both cases he validates his systems by heading to the casinos and making some serious big bucks. In beating the game of roulette he uses the first handheld computer, constructed together with Claude Shannon, the father of information theory. After being banned, cheated on and threatened by the casinos, Thorp survives a murder attempt and re-focuses on Wall Street.

What Thorp brings is the notion of the necessity of a combination of an edge and risk management to stay in the game. For Thorp the edge is found in the budding derivatives markets. He first comes up with a groundbreaking method of better valuing options and designs a strategy of buying undervalued options and selling overvalued ones. After a lunch and a game of bridge with Warren Buffett Thorp launches the Princeton Newton Partnership, using the same model as Buffett’s partnership. Sometime later Fisher Black and Myron Scholes launch their Black-Sholes Model of valuing options, the same model that Thorp has been using for a while. What follows is a period when Thorp plays cat and mouse with the academic establishment, coming up with ways to price derivatives and then trading on this knowledge until similar academic findings are published. In 1988 he, after a regulatory scandal unrelated to Thorp, closes the partnership. After two decades the academics pretty much have caught up. Instead a Thorp switch to statistical arbitrage and for another decade continues his investment success. In 2002 he finally closes down to spend more time with his family as the influx of hedge funds is starting to eat away his edge.

The final part of the book is a strange jumble of 10 chapters with fairly ordinary texts, ranging from compound interest to the 2009 financial crisis, that in my view only clouds the structure of the book. I think they should have been edited away. Surely there would be nothing wrong with publishing a book of “only” 250 pages?

As the author explains, when he thinks about problems he does it in words, numbers, images and in models – combine this versatile thinking with curiosity and drive, and great things are achieved. Thorp is a remarkable man with an astonishing career but this is not a remarkable book.

Mats Larsson, June 26, 2017

Sing Bachher, Jagdeep et. al. - The New Frontier Investors

Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, [Finance] Grade 3

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This is a book on managing financial assets mostly suited to the niche audience of CEOs, CIOs, strategists, asset allocators and the likes at institutional asset owners, i.e. pension funds, endowments, sovereign wealth funds, insurance companies and such other institutions. The text discusses developments and choices with regards to which organizational forms and processes that best favor the management of institutional money, a topic presumably close to heart to Jagdeep Singh Bachher who apart from serving on World Economic Forums’ Global Agenda Council on the future of investing, is the CIO of the endowment at University of California.

The thesis is that as the asset managers that the asset owners engage to manage the money often are situated in international finance centers like London or New York and by this influenced by the culture in these places the asset managers’ process is more short-sighted and risk seeking than what is appropriate for the functioning of the financial markets and not very suited to the long time horizons of the asset owners. It would be better if the asset owners – who are often not situated in international finance centers – brought home the money and managed these in a more sustainable way internally.

The problem is that the financial infrastructure and the mass of financial talent are focused to these centers. This gives them a type of oligopoly that allows them to charge a price premium that comes out of the returns for the end-consumer. Hence, the faulty process of managing the capital of our societies is hard to escape. Still, the authors give their proposals to how it could be done. In my view the book almost takes the form of a collection of essays – selected and not totally aligned short texts on organizational aspects in institutional asset management to alleviate the above-mentioned problem.

There are some creative ideas presented but nothing to change the face of finance. Thoughts that I found useful were a) that since the aim of the asset owner’s processes is more long-term there might not be a need to compete for the expensive top financial talent from the financial centers but it is instead more reasonable to employ staff more closely related to the type of assets they are meant to manage – agri-professionals to handle the farmland assets and so on, b) that cooperations with other asset owners in various types of club structures and the likes might create the necessary resources to invest internally-ish in say, venture capital or private equity and c) I really liked the concepts of a governance budget (since it points to the finite amount of time and resources) and of having an in-house R&D-department as investing is a creative activity and it is those that are early into an asset or a trend that reap the largest benefits.

It is a fairly short book, the language is probably well suited to the audience of CIOs with a somewhat academic tone and at times I found the long lists a but cumbersome. I wonder if the authors don’t place a too heavy burden on the relatively small organizations of institutional asset owners, as they are to save capitalism from the shortsightedness of asset managers and markets. Further, it is almost mandatory of asset owners to claim a competitive edge through having a longer time horizon. The question is if they all can have it as they in aggregate constitute a huge part of financial markets and they might not all be equally equipped to exploit this time-arbitrage.

The best part of the book is the ending that in a way takes the form of an appendix where Sing Bachher to the text adds University of California’s ten “pillars of success” that came out of a work on the organization’s investment beliefs. To me they display a great balance between well-considered structure and creativity. Especially the last part is not usual, yet critical. Overall there are some good thoughts from a set of clearly intelligent and able authors but as a whole I found it a bit too thin.

Mats Larsson, June 04, 2017

Carlson, Ben - Organizational Alpha

2017, [Finance] Grade 4

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Institutional asset managers create value by taking risk, that is by making investments. The two dominating investment processes are asset allocation and the pursuit of alpha generation within asset classes. However, neither of these activities exists in a vacuum. Instead there is a supporting framework around them and this can add to investment returns or it can detract from it. The topic of Ben Carlson’s short 80-page book is how to make smart choices when constructing this framework.

Apart from being the Director of Institutional Asset Management at Ritholtz Wealth Management, Carlson is an author of books and runs the perhaps most popular blog on asset allocation there is. He is certainly a very gifted writer who blends astute psychological wisdom, an ability to explain the complicated in plain words with a seemingly genuine interest for the wellbeing of his readers’ money. The combination is all too unusual.

The stated aim of the book is to help the 99%, i.e. the many small institutional investors that lack the resources of a PIMCO or a Yale Endowment. The author stresses the importance of not joining the hype of the “latest black” in the asset management business, that almost certainly is a rather complex construction with high fees. Nor should the small institution focus too much of its time on searching for alpha in securities selection.

To a large extent I agree in the quest of avoiding complexity. It results in fewer unintended consequences and frees up time to both focus on the long-term big issues and the attention to perfect the things that the organization actually has chosen to do. At the same time it is a balance where one shouldn’t entirely close one’s eyes for the fact that the knowledge of asset management is progressing. The trick is understanding the institutional hype cycle as asset managers are surprisingly fashion prone in how they work. To talk with Warren Buffet “What the wise man does in the beginning, fools do in the end”.

The book is choke full with intelligent and sensible opinions. You can sometimes judge the quality of a book by the amount of underlinings and scribbles in the margin. In this book it was hard since all text pretty much got underlined. My main objection is the structure – I don’t see it. The definition of organizational alpha seams to be very broad; basically anything in institutional asset management that isn’t the actual investment choices. Yet, some things that could be considered “organizational” like human resource management get little or no attention. Without a visible structure the book simply becomes too much a list of a few things that are good to think about if you are one of “the 99%”.

Also, chapter six is something of an outlier. The other chapters concern topics like the concept of fiduciary duty, the goals of the asset management, decision-making, developing an investment philosophy, the investment process and the use of consultants and external advisors. Chapter six is about alternative investments, or mainly about some pros and lots of cons of hedge funds and private equity. The thing is, alternative investments is one of many asset classes and admittingly it is diverse and important to discuss given its trendiness, but it still begs the question why there isn’t a chapter on commodities, bonds or equities?

Overall however this is a book that should be read. Ben Carlson shows a level-headedness that is atypical and hugely important when it comes to the area of asset management where too many intelligent people imitates strategies that, as the author puts it, won the last war.

Mats Larsson, April 15, 2017

Eldred, Gary W. PhD - Investing in Real Estate

John Wiley & Sons, 2012 (7th edition), [Finance] Grade 3

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This book is a good resource for the small-scale real estate owner with one or a few smaller apartment houses or for the person who would want to enter the business. Partially, the logic and advice applies to the operations of larger real estate companies. The author Gary Eldred is a real estate investor who has written several books on the subject and who is a sought after public speaker on investing in property.

A number of areas are covered that all aim to increase the returns from the property ownership. Eldred discusses how to gain from price appreciation by purchasing real estate at the right time in the cycle and using appropriate amounts of leverage to magnify the gains from the hopefully increasing prices and the rental income. With increasing prices and cash flows from the operations, the landlord can pay back loans and increase his equity that will allow him to refinance to better interest rates as the risk goes down. Alternatively he can keep the loan-to-value ratio constant and use his now more valuable property as collateral for new purchases.

The real estate management also gets a chapter and over his real estate investing career the author has gradually come to appreciate that it is actually more profitable to keep the properties clean and well maintained. It will lead tenants to care for the houses and even accept reasonable rent increases.

Eldred dedicates several chapters to the many types of projects that could be undertaken to increase the value of the real estate such as converting it to the use that generates the most income (from commercial to residential or vice versa etc.) and utilize various untapped opportunities for the buildings or the site or alternatively sell the development rights so that others can use them. He even discusses how to improve the location of the property. By joining forces with other nearby landlords and engage tenants, municipalities and shop keepers, areas can be transformed and made much more pleasant, i.e. a location that didn’t use to be seen as especially favorable can improve by time.

An important insight from the book is how non-standardized the market is. Those who are creative developers of properties, savvy negotiators and have good industry contacts can buy and sell properties at prices that differ from current market prices. In the equity or bond market everybody gets the same price quote at any given time.

Eldred manages to strike a fair balance between being a real estate bull and keeping a sound and healthy attitude with regards to the booms and busts of the sector. The text is directed to the non-professional so it’s light reading. For a 7th edition you could perhaps have expected the text to be a bit tighter and more distinct.

I liked the fact that Eldred spares no punches when it comes to the many snake oil salesmen that promise quick riches with minimal effort from investing in real estate. The tone is spirited, opinionated and the approach taken is generally quite practical and focused on execution but at times it could also be a bit too generic.

Personally I didn’t really do my due diligence before buying Investing in Real Estate and I had expected a book covering how to invest in listed real estate stocks. Hence, when I started to read the book I wasn’t too pleased. But then it grew on me and I don’t at all regret purchasing it.

Buy it for inspiration on how to get started in small scale real estate investing or, as a landlord, for gaining insights on how to revitalize and get more out of your existing business.

Mats Larsson, March 19, 2017

Lussier, Jaqcues - Successful Investing Is a Process

Bloomberg Press, 2013, [Finance] Grade 4

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Jacques Lussier, the CIO of the Canadian asset Manager Dejardins Asset Management, has written an essential book on asset allocation for the serious investor. The topic at hand is not the tactical type of asset allocation that investment banks try to advice you on but the strategic asset allocation – the base setting, the important stuff – plus the practices around the SAA.

The text is organized in 4 parts and a number of chapters. According to the author the book is aimed for institutional investors, asset managers and sophisticated individual investors. I would skip the last of these. This is rather a book written by a CIO for other CIOs, asset allocators or strategists at pension funds, endowments, sovereign wealth funds or insurance companies. Although the writing is surprisingly fluent and there are very few equations, the technical and detailed nature of the topics and the academic bent of the writer make this a book less suited for the individual investor.

Considering this knowledgeable target audience I found Part I of the book largely superfluous (and also the chapter on tax effects – nearly all institutional investors are tax exempt). The author in chapters 1 through 3 pretty much covers the standard understanding of any institutional investor that has some notion of what is the knowledge du jour of intuitional asset management. Then things pick up considerably. The chapter on the effects of volatility on long-term wealth might even be the most illuminating I’ve read and I liked the breakup into the determinants of equity returns.

What is Lussier trying to convey? A number of things, but in my opinion the most important are: 1) an asset manager should formulate a logic process that he believes in and sticks to and because of this has time to perfect, 2) there is still more benefits to be had from good honest portfolio diversification using liquid securities and rebalancing using objective functions, so there is less need to lock the money up in endowment-style solutions that will make rebalancing difficult and deprive the asset manager the chance to buy cheaply after large drawdowns, 3) improve the functionality of the underlying asset class portfolios by using cheap non-market cap based constructions that are rebalanced, don’t waste time searching for alpha and look to long horizons and 4) preferably use volatility based solutions for allocation and rebalancing.

By making many small right choices the author claims the combined effect over time of this “evidence based portfolio management” could be higher Sharpe-ratios and an annual return increase of 1.5-2%. Even better than the books excellent and very true title is Lussier’s notion that “[o]ur objective is not so much to outperform the market, but let the market underperform”. Overall, Lussier has written a very impressive and voluminous text combining insights from academic research, from external product suppliers like Bridgewater, Research Affiliates etc. and from a fair amount of his own research.

Why not give the book full marks then? I can’t shake the “conventional” feeling that I picked up from start. Since the GFC all everybody has talked about is to lower the risk contribution of equities, volatility based solutions are everywhere etc. I’m a bit afraid that the last 30 years’ bull market for bonds has affected what we see as the cutting edge knowledge in more ways than we realize. We may just have switched one set of risks for another. For example, volatility based allocation or rebalancing implies selling equities as they become more volatile before a presumed downturn. This is okay as long as not everybody does it at the same time. Further, there is no discussion on the difference between risk factors/style factors that have offered a return premium without repricing and those that have just become expensive.

For the serious investor engaged in strategic asset allocation this book is an absolute must. For the non-CIO there are more suitable alternatives.

Mats Larsson, Jan 24, 2017

Madden, Bartley J. - Value Creation Thinking

LearningWhatWorks, 2016, [Finance] Grade 4

Most finance and investing books are easy to review. This one was not. Most books keep within a sub-genre where they recycle and mix the usual concepts within the area. This book forced me to think about the philosophy of the firm in ways I hadn’t before. The first sentence of the preface... Further reading... Link to Amazon...

Faber, Meb - Global Asset Allocation

The Idea Farm, 2015, [Finance] Grade 3

Meb Faber has written a short and accessible study over some of the more prevailing strategic asset allocation (SAA) strategies used by institutional investors. SAA is the method for setting long-term target allocations for various assets that is included in an investment portfolio. Mr... Further reading... Link to Amazon...

Taghizadegan, Rahim et. al. - Austrian School for Investors, 2015, [Finance] Grade 3

Macroeconomic equilibrium models – be they classical or Keynesian – often feel unnatural for investors who have to cope with a world that rarely shows any signs of stable equilibriums. Because of this the Austrian School of Economics has long attracted certain types of investors.... Further reading... Link to Amazon...

Carlson, Ben - A Wealth of Common Sense

John Wiley & Sons, 2015, [Finance] Grade 4

Financial markets are immensely complex. They are not rocket science, they are much more complex than that since they incorporate feedback loops of people’s ever changing and often irrational emotions. It’s easy to think that to succeed in such an environment the strategy to... Further reading... Link to Amazon...

Antonacci, Gary - Dual Momentum Investing

McGraw-Hill, 2015, [Finance] Grade 4

This is not a text on stock picking strategies as I mistakenly assumed; it’s a book on asset allocation using momentum strategies. Gary Antonacci with a background in as diverse areas as the US Military, Harvard Business School and touring as a comedy magician, is a pioneer in... Further reading... Link to Amazon...

Luyendijk, Joris - Swimming With Sharks

Guardian Books, 2015, [Finance] Grade 4

“How can these people live with themselves?” Joris Luyendijk is a Dutch journalist with a degree in anthropology and with a prior post in the Middle East. Luyendijk, without any prior knowledge, was assigned by the Guardian to try to understand the people that populate the City. After... Further reading... Link to Amazon...

Pedersen, Lasse Heje - Efficiently Inefficient

Princeton University Press, 2015, [Finance] Grade 4

This text is an unusual hybrid of a description of hedge fund investment styles, investor interviews and a finance textbook. The book’s promise is to be a mix of Antti Ilmanen’s Expected Returns (an AQR colleague) and Jack Swager’s “wizard-series”. Efficiently Inefficient doesn’t... Further reading... Link to Amazon...