# Is finance career sustainable?

1. Sep 26, 2011

### Iforgot

I have some time and flexibility in my current postdoc position to go about developing skill sets that will make me more employable. I have a choice of projects that are more programming, computational,theoretical, EE, or clean room (photo-lith, PVD,etc...) related. And I have enough free time to go about studying for finance positions.

My question: Are the profits from the finance and banking sectors sustainable? I do want to make a decent living, but I have this nagging suspicion that most of Wall st is a giant scam. I.e. a "stable" and decent living would require developing skills that allow me to produce something as opposed to moving money around.

2. Sep 26, 2011

### Monte_Carlo

I understand your point, and I'd say the problem with most advanced economies is excessive speculation. Sometimes people forget what they're speculating on. Actually, Paul Wilmott shared the same view in documentary on Quants.

3. Sep 26, 2011

### twofish-quant

I think they are, but I've been wrong before.

However, one thing that I've found that is true is that if the financial system craters, so does everything else. If it's impossible for a bank to make a profit, then our entire economic, social, and political system just won't work, and maybe it won't.

The thing that you have to understand about Wall Street is that it's not just a few rich bankers at a table. It's everything. If you go to the physical Wall Street, there's nothing there. Just some computers and a few apartments. Wall Street is in cyberspace. It's everywhere. and asking whether Wall Street is sustainable is like asking whether our entire economic and social system is sustainable. I don't know. So what I do, is ask myself, what do I do if it is, and what do I do if it isn't?

That seems to be a good reason to go there and see for yourself. If you go into the system and are totally morally disgusted, you are in a much better position to blow up the system than if you are on the outside.

Now as far as what I've seen....

The way I think about this is this way. Suppose you shut off Wall Street tomorrow. Turn the computers off, and everyone goes home. At that point the ATM's stop working, and the world falls apart. So seen from a "what happens if you shut down the financial markets" point of view, it's useful.

Now there is a another question. Is the way that we are doing things the best way of running a society. Could we have a society in which capital is allocated without financial markets. I'm pretty sure that there are better ways of doing what we are trying to do. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what they are. OK now what?

I have the same nagging suspicion that Wall Street is a scam, but I also have the nagging suspicion that our entire economic and social system is a scam. One thing that I've figured out is that Wall Street is *less* of a scam than academia is.

The problem here is that the people that make the decisions about what skills are needed are the people that move money around. One reason I ended up in finance was that I was working in a nice comfortable job and suddenly that job marched off overseas. The people that make the decisions are the people that move money, and I'll be damned if I let other people run my life if there is something that I can do about it.

There is part of me that thinks that in an ideal world, I wouldn't be on Wall Street, but rather I'd be working at some research university somewhere or working on rockets to Mars.

But we don't live in an ideal world, and no one other than Wall Street has given me those things. Yes, we can change the world, but standing in the unemployment line is not a good place from which you can do it.

The other thing way of thinking about it is that I wanted to spend my entire life learning new stuff. At one point, I figured that money is important, so I figured that it would be good for me to learn about money and how it works. Ironically, I ended up where I am not because I wanted to get out of academia, but because academia slammed a door in my face, and I needed to figure out where else I could be an academic.

There are a lot of ways to make a decent living, but at one point, I had this horrible, horrible image of me being 90-years old, near death, and someone is asking me what did you do with your life, and what did you see and do while you were alive. The way that I'd like to answer that question is that I thought about the important issues of the day, that I did some small things that made the world better than if I didn't do them, and if nothing else, I saw some really exciting things with some cool stories to tell.

Just one story..........

When I'm in the office, I can feel the earth turning. I'm sitting in front of the computer screen, and as the earth turns, you can see markets open and close. You listen to the chatter and it increases when a market opens.

The Doctor: Do you know like we were saying, about the earth revolving? It's like when you're a kid, the first time they tell you that the world is turning and you just can't quite believe it 'cause everything looks like it's standing still. I can feel it...
[he takes her hand]
- the turn of the earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty seven thousand miles an hour. And I can feel it. We're falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world. And, if we let go..

4. Sep 27, 2011

### chiro

Hey twofish-quant.

I am interested if you would kindly elaborate on that that quote of yours. I'm going to graduate soon and I value your opinion since you have quite a lot of experiences that myself (and probably others) find valuable.

5. Sep 27, 2011

### twofish-quant

Here is an example of a typical scam. You have ten places and one job. You tell everyone that if they work really hard they'll get that one job. Ten people work, but you only pay for one person, and you can tell the other nine that they didn't work hard enough. So you end up getting lots of stuff for little money. If everything falls apart before you can collect, you end up with nothing.

You might say "but wait no one told you to do this." That's the beauty of it. One clever thing that happens is that money and wealth moves from person A to person B, and you can't pin the blame on person B. Person B doesn't even have to feel guilty. If you can make person A feel guilty, then you really, really win big.

The problem with this system is that it encourages people in it not to think. If you think, you might feel guilty. Just do your job and collect the money, and don't think too much where it comes from. Except this is silly if you are in a field in which you are getting paid to think.

Wall Street people are typically "show me the money" types of people. If you want me to work, you have to put the cash in my bank account right now. Cash stops coming, I stop working. If everything blows up, I might not get anything more in the future, but I still have the cash in my checking account.

There is also a lot less hypocrisy on Wall Street. When you talk to someone, it's clear that they are trying to make money from you. How they are trying to make money from you may be good or bad, but no one is pretending that what they are doing is out of charity, and in a lot of situations, no one is pretending too hard that the advice they are giving is ultimately for your own good.

It's refreshing. I get paid, because someone thinks that by giving me money, they make money. The millisecond that's no longer true, I get kicked out. Cool.

So I like the environment better.

This is also why I don't think you should put *NOT* too much effort into going into finance. As it is I think that a newly graduated Ph.D. can get a job on Wall Street with six months of effort and some outside reading. If you have to start giving up other things, then you are starting to take on risk.

Suppose I'm wrong, and those jobs don't exist. Then you've just wasted six months of effort, which isn't a bad thing if you are looking for work in other things, and the math is pretty cool as it is. Now if someone starts telling you that you should give them several tens of thousands of dollars in order to land a finance job, at that point don't do it. If they really think that you are guaranteed a job, then they can absorb the risk and take the money after you get the job (which is how headhunters get paid).

Also to be fair, physics is less of a scam than other parts of academia. One thing that is nice is that physics Ph.D.'s end up with minimal debt. That's not true of other parts of the system.

6. Sep 27, 2011

### boomtrain

in light of Efficient Market Hypothesis, and the fact that most of finance seems to have more to do with sales and marketing than technical capital allocation, it does look like a scam.

On the other hand, wall street was still hiring physicists post-crash, so unless something really bad happens it's probably sustainable.

7. Sep 27, 2011

### twofish-quant

The "efficient market hypothesis" is one of those things that no one I know in the industry takes seriously. The fact that you have academics that will spend their decades debating something that anyone that has spent two days on the trading floor thinks is total non-sense is why people that are actually working in markets have a strong (and I think healthy disrespect) for people in academic finance.

It's also why IB's hire physics Ph.d.'s rather than finance Ph.D.'s for modelling. Finance Ph.D.'s have this annoying habit of ignoring reality if it contradicts the way that they think the world ought to work. Part of it is that if you say stupid things in academia, nothing bad happens to you. If you ignore reality on the trading floor, you lose a ton of money and your job.

For one thing capital allocation is all about sales and marketing. Bonds and vacuum cleaners don't sell themselves, and you have to put someone in your face to push them. Now there are honest salesmen and dishonest salesmen, but you need salesmen to make the system work, and the fact that some academics ignore this says something bad about academics. Our theories would work if it weren't for those pesky people.

For another thing, it misses what professors actually do. If you go up to Congress and say "pass this law because it will make me more money" then they are going to laugh at you. Now if you go up to Congress and say "pass this law because professor X says that it's a good thing for the economy if you do it" then they might listen to you. Now it happens that the law will make you a ton of money, but Professor X has come up with an economic theory that says that this is a good thing. If Professor X won't do this, then you put forward Professor Y.

You may ask if this biases business and finance departments to come up with theories that just say what the people with money want them to say, and I think it does.

In fact there was a burst of hiring for physicists after the crash. You see the government (and everyone else) is interested in not having the world blow up again, so you have a ton of people that where hired in modelling risk.

8. Sep 27, 2011

### twofish-quant

One other thing to consider.....

If you are in a situation where you have a choice of a decent physics career in manufacturing and a decent physics career in finance, and you think that manufacturing is more socially useful, then by all means go for the career in manufacturing.

The problem is that this was never the choice that I had to make. My choice was between a career in finance that might or might not blow up in a decade versus a dead-end job that was going to get outsourced to a third world country pretty soon in a company run by clueless managers.

Some types of finance jobs are easy to move overseas, but a lot of them aren't for psychological reasons. Imagine you have a suitcase full of $200,000 in cash. If you want to deposit that money, you *will* insist that you physically look at the person that you hand the suitcase to, and that you get their business card. Conversely, if you have$200,000 in cash to deposit, the bank *will* insist that they look at you face to face so that they can ask you some detailed questions about where you got the money, so that they can make sure that the money is clean.

The fact is that manufacturing jobs are moving to the third world, and I couldn't find anything viable for me as a theorist. You may have better luck, and if you do then please let me know. Now whether or not it is a bad thing that these jobs are going overseas is an interesting question, but as far as "what do I do to put food on the table" it's an irrelevant one.

Refusing to take a job that exists and hoping for one that doesn't isn't going to make the second job appear. Our decisions *do* have consequences, but I don't see how starving myself is going to fix whatever economic problems there are.

On this note, let me point out one thing that I find scary. I am a US citizen, and I love the United States so if I make any decisions, they will be biased toward the United States. So if someone talks about moving US jobs to India, then I'm going to do what I can do slow or stop it. *However* it turns out that the I'm often the only American in the room. The people in the meeting from India are going to fight for the jobs, and a lot of the people are people from France or UK or one of a dozen other countries, and they don't have an interest in keeping US jobs in the US. So it boils down to dollars and rupees and its cheaper to do what needs to be done in India.

This is scary and frightening and it means that the US economy has basically got to restructure itself, and no one I think fully figures out how and to what. This is the sort of thing that I spend a lot of time thinking about, but it's hard/impossible to do this if you are in the unemployment line, and you have to think about your next meal rather than the general state of the world economy.

9. Sep 27, 2011

### boomtrain

I'm sure people who make their living trying to beat the market are convinced that they can beat the market. But what does the data say? When you plot the performance of mutual funds, they form a Gaussian curve, with the middle near the S&P 500 (the average underperforms the S&P 500 when you factor in fees and expenses). Maybe some mutual fund managers really are better and some really are worse, but it's not clear that trying to pick winning managers is a better strategy than an index fund. (data from https://www.amazon.com/Random-Walk-Down-Street-Seventh/dp/0393320405/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top")

Also, a higher return isn't necessarily proof of genius investing strategy. Leverage will amplify gains and losses. It's important to look at the risk adjusted performance.

financial planners are fantastic salesmen. The problem is (in my personal experience), they're lousy at providing data if you ask for it.

I think the government has some economists who can see through the lies on staff. Also, there are lots of competing economics departments with lots of competing theories. It's not clear that Just publish whatever rich guys on wall street want to hear is a winning strategy (at least, it's nowhere near universally followed).

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10. Sep 28, 2011

### boomtrain

I don't think it's a direct question of social utility. It's a question of sustainability (the two are related in some people's minds)

If you're a physicist working on battery research, it's clear that you're adding value to the world. Your job will continue to exist as long as there's demand for better batteries. (not actually how the world works, but that's how the thinking goes)

If you're a physicist creating successful financial models for a hedge fund to create a new trading strategy, its harder to see the societal gain. Your hedge fund might get richer from the trading, but short term trading is pretty close to a zero sum game. (Again, not totally true, a well functioning financial system creates liquid markets and efficiently sets asset prices). If there isn't enough value created to justify the high salary, the job will evaporate (assuming a world without bailouts).

American politicians have to create a business environment conducive to job creation (more productive workers, lower taxes, simpler regulation). Profitable manufacturing does happen in rich countries (Germany), but they have a more competitive business environment for those jobs at the moment.

11. Sep 28, 2011

### twofish-quant

You don't make money beating the market. For the most part, you make money by *being* the market.

Also only amateurs think that they can beat the market. Professionals don't bother "beating the market." You just make money from the market.

Any time you buy and sell a mutual fund, you give a fee to the fund manager, and that fund manager then goes to a prime broker that buys and sells the stock. Each person in the chain makes some money, and that's market inefficiency. The transaction fee is pretty small (on the order of 1%).

Also mutual funds aren't the only thing out there. Equity markets in the developed world are rather liquid at time scales of days to months, so it's very difficult to find an arbitrage. That's not true for things like real estate. So if you want to argue that some markets are efficient and some aren't, that's fine, but that's like saying that all cars are black except for the one's that aren't.

One thing that you will find is that different investments have wildly different statistical properties. The other thing is that there is a massive selection bias in EMH. EMH people like to present data for extremely liquid markets. However, the fact that this data exists makes the market efficient. If you want to look at the S&P 500, then everyone has data and so you are likely to have efficient markets. If you look at the Baghdad Stock Exchange, that's less likely to be true because the data isn't available.

The other thing is time scale. What is wildly efficient at the time scale of minutes can be wildly inefficient at the time scale of seconds or milliseconds. If you look at closing prices for the S&P 500, then I'm pretty sure you won't see too many statistical anomalies. If you have data at the millisecond level, I'm pretty sure you will, and the reason you will is that not everyone has access to S&P 500 data at the millisecond level.

For small investors in the United States, your goal is to minimize transaction fees, and index funds are good. You get killed by transaction fees. Transaction fees are good for me. They are bad for you.

But there is a big jump from saying that because mutual funds in the United States work in one way, that this is true for everywhere and everything. In some countries, there isn't a mutual fund industry. If you want to invest in US equities, then mutual funds are a good idea. But what do you do if you want to put money in North Elbonia which has no index.

At the same time, one problem with putting money into index funds is "which index?"

Also if you have $500,000 to invest, then you can put it into an index fund. But what do you do if you are someone like Microsoft and you have$50 billion in cash to invest? What do you do if you are the Chinese government and you have $2 trillion to invest? You can't put it all in a mutual fund. The other thing is that if you want to sell$100,000 in stock, no problem. However, it takes a *LOT* of skill if you want to sell $10 million in stock. If you are a big mutual fund company or the Republic of North Elbonia and you want to sell$10 million in stock, then doing it in a way that doesn't get you eaten alive is non-trivial.

Yup. But how to you measure risk? One of the big mistakes that I think people are making is that they shouldn't talk about "measuring risk." They should be talking about "measuring volatility"

The thing about US markets is that you can get data from pretty much everywhere. Go online to google. This is true for the US. It's not necessarily true for North Elbonia.

Also Scott Adams, the writer of Dilbert wrote a one page guide to finance that is good enough for pretty much every individual household out there. However, if you are a Fortune 500 company with $10 billion in pension funds or a major sovereign wealth fund with$500 billion in assets, "put it into an index fund" just won't work.

The other thing is that the people that are really, really good at financial planning really aren't selling mutual funds to households. They are offering investment advice to help a major company or government figure out what to do with their $50 billion nest egg. The problem is that it's not a lie if you really believe what you are saying. If Professor X really believes that no regulation is the best policy, that's not a lie. Also just because someone is self-interested doesn't mean that they are wrong. Maybe, Professor X is *right*. The other problem is that there is a revolving door between government and industry. The problem is not bribery and corruption. It's that once you've spent time in a place, you develop blind spots. There really aren't. A winning strategy for what? If your goal is to get consulting jobs and get money and power in academia, it works. If your goal is to make the world a better place, then it might not be that great. 12. Sep 28, 2011 ### twofish-quant That's a good argument if you are choosing between a job doing battery research and a job making financial models. Unfortunately no one has offered me a job doing battery research. If someone *did* knock on my door asking if I'd be interested in doing battery research because it would save the world, then great!!!! I'm interested!!!! Except that never happened, and comparing non-existent jobs with ones that actually exist doesn't seem to be that useful. Now you could argue that maybe as a society we should be funding more battery research. I agree. Now what? Lobby Congress for more money for physics research! Great!!! Except that's not a high priority when you are unemployed. Convince the people with money that there is money to be made funding basic science? Absolutely!!!! But funny thing is that you are in a better position to do that when you work for an investment bank than if you are unemployed. Also it's not clear that it is a social gain. If you come up with great battery technology, but you can't get the social, political, financial, and business barriers out of the way, then it's useless. Batteries don't sell themselves, and you'll need a ton of battery salesman to sell your new batteries. Demand doesn't create itself. You have to create demand. There is a difference between "close to a zero sum game" and a "zero sum game." The spread that you make by trading in liquid markets is tiny which is why you have to trade vast sums of money to make a decent amount of profit. There are billions of dollars between traded every single second, and a tiny, tiny fraction of that is enough to keep people well paid. The other thing is that it's pretty easy for me to come up with a social gain to short term trading. I'm a Fortune 500 company. I have$5 billion in commercial paper that I need to liquidate tomorrow so that I can pay my workers on Friday. If you don't have people that can buy and sell that paper in an orderly way, those workers don't get paid.

If you want to buy or sell stocks, you can go online to any broker and do that. Try to do that with your house or with your car or with your computer. You can't snap your fingers and buy and sell houses or cars or computers. The fact that you can do that with stocks and bonds is because you have a huge set of human infrastructure that lets you do that.

Also there are a dozen other games that you can play. Part of what frustrates me is that the financial system works well enough so that people think that it's magic. People go and deposit checks, get cash from ATM's, pay bills, and it all seems to happen by magic. So people start assuming that it happens by magic, and then they assume that the people that make all this stuff work are useless. You write a check and it just works. You buy or sell a mutual fund, and it just works. Because of this magic, people then assume that people that make it work are useless.

If you assume that the world is flat, then you can conclude anything that you want. Also this is an illustration of the principle that economics Ph.D.'s tend to fix the world to their models rather than the models to the world.

Last edited: Sep 28, 2011
13. Sep 28, 2011

### twofish-quant

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14. Oct 3, 2011

### boomtrain

Transaction fees add up. This is why there's a measurable difference between passive index funds (that don't trade very often) and actively managed funds (that churn their assets periodically).

is it inaccurate to say that a market's efficiency is proportional to its liquidity? (stocks -> very liquid, priced efficiently. Houses -> lots of transaction costs/subjective value, priced inefficiently)

good points, hadn't thought of those.

Leverage and volatility are pretty good measuring sticks. The more leveraged an organization is, the more likely it is that small asset price drops will bury them. the more volatile an investment portfolio, the more likely that big price swings will occur.

do fancy hedge funds outperform the market (on average)?

ok. doesn't government have academics on staff without severe biases who can see through the lies and/or delusions? (I'm thinking of people like Greg Mankiw, former head of the council of economic advisers).

are deficit-happy keynsians really similar to the libertarian chicago school? are monetarists really similar to gold-standard austrian economists? economics is a field famous for its lack of agreement among experts.

15. Oct 3, 2011

### boomtrain

How about if you were in your PhD, wondering what sort of career to prepare for? No one can give you a perfect answer, but people can give you their wisdom and help you avoid a landmine (like depending on a career in academia). maybe the skills involved in preparing for an industrial career are different then a financial career. It makes good sense to think about the long-term sustainability of both industries. For what its worth, you've convinced me that finance is sustainable, and that manufacturing might be on the downward slide.

I was kind of cheating by picking batteries as a counterexample (the holy grail of green technologies).

everyday banking that people benefit from seems to be sort of disconnected from the complex high finance that brought about an economic meltdown. One seems a lot more sustainable. there used to be an official separation between the two (glass-Steagall act). Maybe that's the way forward?

I thought it was sort of uncontroversial that unproductive people drawing huge salaries wouldn't last long unless there was some sort of not-so-obvious benefit to their work. http://www.amazon.ca/Bailout-Nation-Corrupted-Street-Economy/dp/0470520388"

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16. Oct 3, 2011

### twofish-quant

For the most part, they aren't. I should point out here that financial is the third industry that I've worked in (oil-gas, logistics), and there were surprisingly few things that I had to relearn to switch.

The one area in which it probably does make a difference is the choice of topic. Experimental Ph.D.'s in something like semiconductors is more directly applicable to industry than astrophysics, but for me, I got hooked into astrophysics in elementary school.

The problem is that in the end, you come up with some basic limits on how much you can predict the future. One problem is that there is this free will/determinism thing. Ultimately there are limits to how much you can predict the future because the future is determined by decisions that people make. Who wins the 2012 US Presidential election is going to have a major impact in what the world looks like in 2020, and a lot of those influences are unpredictable.

That's interesting, because I haven't convinced myself of that. What I do think is that it's not insane for me to go to work. However, it's possible that the world economy will blow up in six months, and I'll be selling apples on street corners. It's also possible that I'll be working here for the next twenty years. I have plans in place for either of those two scenarios.

The one thing that I have managed to convince myself is that finance is the "top of the mountain." I can think of a lot of scenarios in which finance blows up. I can't think of any scenarios in which finance blows up, and nothing else does. If finance blows up, the manufacturing, biotech, and ever other job also goes poof. One way of thinking about it is that finance is the nervous system of the world economy, if you destroy the nervous system, then anything else matters.

That's a big problem, because it isn't. Most people get annoyed at "bank bailouts" without realizing that they were the ones that got bailed out. It's the "simple stuff" that turns out to be insanely complicated. Most people don't realize how incredibly complex money market accounts, checking accounts, and 30-year mortgages are. It just works, and because it just works, most people aren't that curious as to how it works.

Probably not practical. One problem is that we are in a global financial system, and the separation between commercial and investment banks is a US thing that other countries (notably Germany) have never had. You might be able to convince Congress to pass laws separating investment and commercial banking. I don't see how you can convince the Budestag to do that, since Germany has *never* had this sort of separation.

One thing about modern banking is that it's global, which means to get anything done you have to get the US, EU, China, Japan, India, Russia, and Brazil to agree on something, which does happen from time to time (Basel III).

It's not true. Google for the term "rent seeking".

Also looking for "obvious benefit" is a bad thing. One big problem that let the crisis is that it is "obvious" that a trader is making money. It's not "obvious" what good a risk manager does.

17. Apr 7, 2013

### Iforgot

response

Here is an example of a typical scam. You have ten places and one job. You tell everyone that if they work really hard they'll get that one job. Ten people work, but you only pay for one person, and you can tell the other nine that they didn't work hard enough. So you end up getting lots of stuff for little money. If everything falls apart before you can collect, you end up with nothing.

You might say "but wait no one told you to do this." That's the beauty of it. One clever thing that happens is that money and wealth moves from person A to person B, and you can't pin the blame on person B. Person B doesn't even have to feel guilty. If you can make person A feel guilty, then you really, really win big.

.......

If finance blows up, the manufacturing, biotech, and ever other job also goes poof. One way of thinking about it is that finance is the nervous system of the world economy, if you destroy the nervous system, then anything else matters

I was just thinking about how guilt motivates our economy. Very eloquently stated.

The fact that finance is the equivalent of the nervous system sounds very..... insert very negative word. What is manufacturing and labor then? The muscle cells? This analogy makes me feel like our economy is engaging in something similar to slavery. Except coercion is enabled by guilt and shame as opposed to whips. I can say from personal experience that the effectiveness of shame and guilt based coercion is comparable with physical coercion.

18. Apr 7, 2013

### jesse73

I for one am happy we have a functional banking system even if it has its flaws. I really prefer this instead of having to make a Kiva profile so that I could get money from people living in a country with a functional banking system .

19. Apr 7, 2013

### Iforgot

Sounds like some one has a stable job ;-)

20. Apr 10, 2013

### NegativeDept

Replace "ten" with "five hundred," and this is exactly how the music industry works. (It's also a scam.) Morrissey mockingly paraphrased it as You just haven't earned it yet, baby.

I hate to scare any more people away from physics, but my experience and my colleagues' has so far failed to reject twofish-quant's hypothesis. Right now, I'm seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by part-time adjunct lecture assignments with no access to medical care.