Quants Haven't Made Human Investors Obsolete Just Yet

We are already unquestionably living in the era of the quantitative fund: Not only are quant funds receiving a larger percentage of new investor money than their discretionary peers, but as JPM Morgan’s head quant noted earlier this month, passive and quantitative funds now account for about 60% of equity assets, compared with less than 30% a decade ago.

Indeed, the chart below confirms what JPM already revealed: "for now, systematic traders are the dominating force in markets."

But while the asset-management space is increasingly looking like a “quant’s world”, with carbon-based traders looking increasingly anachronistic, a handful of fund managers are aggressively pushing back against the notion that human investors are headed toward obsolescence.

At least that’s what a quartet of money managers have posited in recent weeks, according to Bloomberg.

“Winton, a $30.6 billion hedge fund that’s used algorithms to trade for two decades, told clients that people must still make the big decisions. Michael Hintze, who runs another major fund, said computer models can spot market anomalies but rarely provide answers. Jordi Visser, investment chief at a third firm, said humans still have the upper hand when it comes to recognizing patterns. Billionaire bond manager Jeffrey Gundlach said he’s betting people will prevail."

“Despite the immense power of modern computing, it is neither advisable -- nor even possible -- to dispense with humans entirely,” Winton, founded by David Harding, who earned a degree in theoretical physics before going into finance, wrote in its letter to clients this month.”

These fund managers are not alone in their belief in the essentiality of human reasoning: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that he isn’t worried about artificial intelligence taking American’s jobs. Never mind that his remarks arrived on the same day as a PWC report which showed that more than a third of U.S. jobs could be at "high risk" of automation by the early 2030s, a percentage that’s greater than in Britain, Germany and Japan.

Not to mention what Bloomberg described as “a crescendo of warnings from the likes of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and software billionaire Bill Gates that big data and machine learning may unleash a wave of automation on the US.”

Doubleline Capital’s Gundlach said he doesn’t believe in machine’s taking over finance. His advice for beating them? “Work hard.”

Jeff Gundlach

Winton said that while some tasks, like recurring calculations for assessing risk and vetting trading algorithms for anomalies, might be outsourced to computers. Most investment decisions at the fund will still need to be vetted by humans.

“Winton wrote in its letter, there are big tasks at hedge funds ripe for automation, such as performing large-scale, recurring calculations for assessing risk across portfolios. But according to the firm, whose 450 employees include astrophysicists and other scientists, computers are far from ready to make investing decisions independently. Instead, people will be running software at every stage of the process.

 

Winton managers design and choose algorithms that are ultimately approved or rejected by its investment board. And while computers are better suited to handle early stages of checking data, once anomalies are flagged, humans are better at cross-referencing the irregularities against other sources to draw conclusions, the London-based firm said.”

 

“The notion that human involvement in investment management should, or even could, be fully automated is wide of the mark,” Winton, which returned 1.3 percent this year through May on its main fund, wrote in the letter.”

To be sure, none of this will stop the biggest banks – and at least one fund - from trying to automate as many tasks as possible, from aspects of underwriting, to asset management, to legal tasks.

“Billionaire trader Steven Cohen is experimenting with ways to automate his best money managers. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is developing systems to eliminate hundreds of hours of human labor in initial public offerings. JPMorgan Chase & Co. is using machine-learning techniques to take over work from lawyers. (Its CEO, Jamie Dimon, said in an interview published Monday that people are massively overreacting to the threat of technology.)”

But even the automation of low-level tasks could threaten at least one crucial aspect of the hedge-fund industry: The exorbitant fees charged by most managers.

“Hedge fund managers, for example, traditionally charged clients 2 percent of assets and 20 percent of profits. It’s harder to justify if automated platforms can achieve decent results without a big bite. Such has been the case with index funds.”

Some fund managers are also skeptical of backtesting – the process of trying to determine the efficacy of a trading algorithm by checking it against historical data. Successful traders will find ways to incorporate technology into their processes without relying on it alone to drive investment decisions, one fund manager said.

“The industry’s survivors will be the ones who imbibe technology into their processes, Visser said. The trick is to use a combination of human judgment and models, “while artificial intelligence tries to catch up to the power of the brain,” he said.”

And while some quant-driven strategies have certainly proven successful at sniffing out market anomalies, successful investors still need to grasp the basics.

"Hintze at CQS, a $14 billion hedge fund based in London, concedes that quant-driven strategies are here to stay, and that they’re good at taking advantage of anomalies in markets. While engineering and mathematics are intriguing, successful investing is based on an understanding of fundamentals, technicals and investor sentiment, he said."