|My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance|
|publisher||John Wiley & Sons, Inc.|
|summary||Autobiography of a theoretical physicist turned serious programmer, turned Wall Street quantitative finance wizard|
A complete understanding of Derman's work as physicist, or as finance theoretician, is of course beyond the scope of a memoir. This reviewer studied quantum mechanics in college and took an MBA at UCLA (more about this later) -- adding to my interest in the memoir's technical discussion -- but Derman reasonably pitches his discussion toward a lay audience with many helpful visuals to describe less obvious mathematical relationships. Do not let the perceived arcana of Derman's work keep you away from this memoir.
Emanuel Derman came to New York City in 1966 from Cape Town, South Africa. He started a Ph.D in theoretical physics at Columbia, somewhat in awe to be studying among a cluster of Nobel Laureates. As a teenager, Derman had hopes of being another Einstein if he stayed with physics. But as he notes, time decay happens to ambition. Seven years after earning his Ph.D, he was happy to be an employed postdoc, sharecropping his knowledge of particle physics to willing bidders.
The job market for theoretical physicists continued south. Family responsibilities, his wife's career as a biologist, and iffy prospects for a tenured teaching position --these all added up to Derman abandoning his love of physics, and going to work for money at Bell Labs.
There, Derman fell in love with programming (lex and yacc being two favorite tools). During five years, he built compilers and designed a nonprocedural language, HEQS (Hiearchical EQuation Solver), a precursor to Visicalc. But he never quite adjusted to the politics of Bell Labs, and by 1985, Wall Street was beckoning.
Executive recruiters sought out high-value programmers like Derman. He took a position with Goldman, Sachs in the Financial Strategies Group and began modeling options. It was a good fit. He found himself using sophisticated modeling techniques comparable to "doing physics." Moreover, he soon would collaborate with another Goldman, Sachs employee, one of the most influential theoreticians around: Fischer Black, whose Black-Scholes option pricing model (1973) is a benchmark in the field.
But My Life as a Quant is more than technical discussion; it's also a human interest narrative. The chapter "Easy Travel to Other Planets," about Fischer Black, is worth the price of this book. With compassion and honesty, Derman evocatively portrays his genius mentor. Derman shrewdly assesses what the arc of his life has meant. He shares vulnerabilities, decisions made from the weakness of loneliness, for example. Or, in a self-deprecatory vein, faux pas he committed. He's around Nobel Laureates in both physics and economics, and while noting such illustrious company can at times seem self-serving, the overall effect remains an engaging, complex self-portrait.
One idea about the world of quants Derman dispels is that derivative securities are wholly computer-driven. Despite more computing power on Wall Street, Derman asserts human imagination still leads the way. It takes a Fischer Black to intuit the qualitative to set up the quantitative model. Modern computational tools, however, aid the visualization such creative work thrives on.
As an example of the foregoing, and on a personal note, this reviewer remembers derivative security analysis circa 1969. While pursuing an MBA at UCLA, I did grunt work for a private hedge fund, run out of a Westwood apartment. Technology then was a time-sharing computer terminal and a telephone. The fund strategy was to short warrants and go long on the underlying common stock, where arbitraging opportunities were identified, a strategy borrowed from earlier work by Edward Thorp and Sheen Kassouf. My job was simple: I charted historical price data on clear acetate sheets in colored inks for all outstanding warrants against the underlying stock.
I drew hundreds of graphs, assisted in part by an Israeli graduate student (who had fought in the 1967 Six-Day War). I can't recall his name, but remember that when I'd drop by with more price data, ready to take away graphs, he invariably offered toast and coffee. One morning, I brought yet another roll of graphs to the Fund manager's apartment/office. Steve met me outside, saying he'd just got off the phone with Paul Samuelson at MIT, who wanted to know what our graphs looked like. Samuelson had written an article on warrant pricing, Steve added, which was why he was interested in what we turned up. I knew Samuelson as the author of an economics textbook I'd used a few years earlier.
Another morning, when I motorcycled over to drop off charts, Steve again was outside. He said, "Shelton and Markowitz are here." Professor John Shelton had hired me, of course, but I had no idea who Markowitz was -- he evidently did unspecified work with Shelton. Inside, I was quickly introduced to Harry Markowitz, who unrolled my graphs, becoming immediately absorbed. "Let me get a gestalt on this," was all he said. I didn't know then I was in the same room with the inventor of Modern Portfolio Theory. Now I can say he would see something that maybe a Fischer Black, or, these years later, an Emanuel Derman, might see. When he looked up, he said I did good graphs. I never saw him again.
Years later, I felt honored the low-tech grunt work my Israeli colleague and I labored over had interested those two men, Samuelson and Markowitz. They both received the Nobel Laureate in Economics (1970 and 1990, respectively). My point being -- and I'm sure Derman agrees -- it's not great computers that make breakthroughs in the financial theory. It's great imagination plus the tools at hand! (Obviously, though, computers have changed much of the grunt work.)
For me, My Life as a Quant summoned personal memories, but the odyssey of Emanuel Derman from South Africa to Wall Street is a rewarding memoir for anyone with even a casual interest about how the world of finance is being re-imagined. Emanuel Derman didn't really go to Wall Street to get rich. This memoir is a testament to his true passion in life, whether in theoretical physics, in software programming, or in the modeling of derivative securities. He always wanted interesting problems to work on.
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