The Gateway to Algorithmic and Automated Trading

What do we know?

Published in Automated Trader Magazine Issue 11 Q4 2008

You couldn’t make it up – or could you? Maybe it’s time to stop thinking outside the box and start watching it instead.

Let's get straight to the point. Election season in the US gives us all a chance to reflect on the near-certainties of the macro-political cycle. And they are near-certainties. There's volatility in the run-up, triggered partly by the incumbent's enfeebled response to whatever happens in the world, partly by the candidates' speeches, gaffes and poll ratings. Then, after however much argument, a winner emerges. Cue the upswing. The new president has a shiny new four-year mandate, which translates into roughly two years of being able to make things happen. We're all confident again because somebody's in charge. That lasts until the new president does something. The news channels pull both sides back into the studio, and we're back to disagreement as usual.

peak aheadPredictability is useful, even if it only serves as a reference point while events go off in another direction entirely. There are also underlying predictabilities in the unpredictable: however bumpy the path to the White House, an incoming first-term president will have political clout of a kind that the previous incumbent hasn't had for years. Right or wrong, the new Commander in Chief can be relied upon to be decisively right or wrong.

Yeah, but this is the year in which investment banks collapsed and western capitalist governments pretty much nationalised whole sectors of the finance industry. This is the year in which we found out that nobody, not even the teams brought in to quantify the rescue packages - that is to say, nobody, absolutely nobody, could claim to understand the "complex derivatives" holding up the world economy like dry rot holds up a house.

And this is the year, the inglorious year, in which the FT's immediate reaction to the short-selling ban was to run an FT Weekend Magazine story on a new hedge-fund strategy: bankrolling poker players. Poker, it seems, might be "the new frontier of financial trading". Just as the cold-war acronym MAD (mutually assured destruction) tipped us off that this might not be the sanest way to run a world, so the late-September profusion of articles explaining the term "naked short selling" might have represented a hint that the emperor had chosen an unseasonally lightweight fabric for his winter wardrobe.

And this is the year in which similarities between this year's real presidential race and that of 2006 between "Matthew Santos" and "Arnold Vinick" in the TV show The West Wing were finally explained: Santos had been based on a junior Democratic Senator called Obama, while the older, white-haired Republican, Vinick, had been invented as the obvious candidate to run against him. You might remember the [nuclear] melt-down that disrupted the late stages of the Vinick campaign. Vinick had just gone on record claiming that the finan- er, the nuclear industry was sound, when Lehm- er, the "San Andreo nuclear reactor" went down.

It's an obvious move, given all that, to publish this end-of-year review in mid-November. But the thing that doesn't work is the conclusion. The point about the political cycle was that there's such a thing as predictable uncertainty, and market reactions to unexpected events might usefully be put into that category. But let's give ourselves a break from the cerebral stuff. As banks collapse and whole financial systems crumble around us, open your copy of William Goldman's 1983 book "Adventures in the Screen Trade". Writing about Hollywood, Goldman reached a conclusion that fits today's events even better than The West Wing does.

What single statement most reliably sums up the state of the world today? Peek Ahead's award goes to Goldman, for this simple but wonderfully apt punchline.

"Nobody knows anything."