Matt Levine: Ethics, Quants and Cold-Calling

There are two massive areas of job opportunity for data scientists: They can build models that help hedge funds trade stocks and bonds, or they can build models that help internet companies sell advertisements on web pages. Oh or they can build models that help cure cancer or whatever, but compared to financial trading and internet advertising that is a small and unprofitable niche. One of the most incredible feats of marketing of our century is that the internet companies have convinced a lot of people that selling advertisements on web pages is basically the same as curing cancer, while buying stocks and bonds is evil:

“At tech companies, the permeating value is that they’re about trying to make the world a better place, whereas at hedge funds it’s about making more money,” Mr. Epstein said.

That’s from a Wall Street Journal article — in its series on quants — about the talent battle between Wall Street and Silicon Valley. As far as I can tell, the pitch for data scientists from Silicon Valley is: “Come work here, you can build advertising models and pretend that you’re saving the world,” while the pitch for data scientists from Wall Street is: “Come work here, you can build trading models and not have to pretend that you’re saving the world.” I actually think that is a useful sorting metric, and I know which one I would take.

From: Ethics, Quants and Cold-Calling – Bloomberg

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25 thoughts on “Matt Levine: Ethics, Quants and Cold-Calling

  1. There are two massive areas of job opportunity for data scientists:

    There used to be third, but then the Cambridge Analytic guys, who everyone thought was a scam, actually won, the guy that wasn’t 100% certain was dismissed as an alarmist clickbaiter, and someone else had to eat an insect.

    Eta good link, and the link within the link by dsquared on oranges and markets is definitely worth reading too.

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  2. From what I understand, quants rarely make partner as well because they are too mathy/nerdy.

    The issue I suppose is that money makes the world go around and saving the world often comes at a high personal cost especially if one goes the NGO route. So Wall Street and Tech are able to get a lot of really smart people to work for them because they can offer salaries and benefits.

    The other issue that as government money for research dries up, there is going to be less of areas where a PhD can go work besides Wall Street and Tech.

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    • I don’t know how many quants would care about making partner. It’s kinda like a PI hired by a law firm. They are probably making great money but there is no way they are gonna make partner. And if they wanted that, they would have gone into a different aspect of the business.

      And anyone who does research for the gov’t is subject to the whims of budgets and politics. That is the nature of the beast, everything the gov’t does is a line item.

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      • Well a PI can’t make partner because they don’t have a law degree or a bar license and there are rules about that.

        There are no similar rules dictating whether Quants can make partner to my knowledge

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            • I… did not know that was the case. I know several engineering firms where the office manager is a partner, so I assumed that was the case here.

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          • @aaron-david

            Lawyers are not allowed to share profits with non-lawyers* according to the rules of professional conduct, so yes.

            You are allowed to pay your staff, you are allowed to pay them well. Bigger law firms have C-Suite positions to do all the business stuff and these people are not lawyers.

            But yes, you need a law license to have an ownership stake in a law firm. Also an overwhelming majority of the partners at law firms do practice law because they have the legal skills that attract the clients.

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            • an overwhelming majority of the partners at law firms do practice law because they have the legal skills that attract the clients.

              Or, in the alternative, they have the social connections. I used to know a lawyer who started as a paralegal. In one of her jobs as a senior paralegal her assigned role was to keep watch on one of the senior partners, who was an idiot but from the right family. She was there to tip off one of the other partners if this guy was about to do something disastrously stupid.

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          • DC allows non-lawyers to have ownership stakes in firms but every other jurisdiction requires everybody with an ownership stake to be a lawyer in order to prohibit the unauthorized practice of law or from having lawyers being ordered to do something that might violate the CPR.

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  3. “Come work here, you can build trading models and not have to pretend that you’re saving the world.”

    No idea why I even would entertain the idea that my actions were “saving” the world with ads. Right.

    “Grinding oppression of the masses is the only policy that pay dividends!”

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    • No idea why I even would entertain the idea that my actions were “saving” the world with ads.

      The progression seems pretty straightforward. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when people were working in their garages inventing personal computers, the idea that this was changing the world was entirely true. That it was changing the world for the better was mostly true. That it was saving the world was hyperbole, but understandable enthusiasm.

      Fast forward a few decades. Electronics are mostly being improved only incrementally. People working in tech are either trying to figure out new ways to use electronics (but mostly failing, since all the good ways were long since taken: hence Juicero) or working on new applications for electronics (with much the same problem. Better ways to sell ads falls into the second category, and is a popular field because it has a lot of potential to bring money in.

      The industry’s self-image is based on the early days–that they are changing the world for the better, which we will claim is actually saving the world–even when they are actually glorified marketing firms.

      This, I suspect, explains much of the enthusiasm for driverless cars. I am skeptical of them in the short term, but the claims for world-changing potential are plausible. I can understand why someone who wants to work in a world-changing field would be attracted to it. See also: The Apollo Program.

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        • I would be happy to give up speeding for being able to read/sleep/fornicate rather than drive. Reading, sleeping, and fornicating are three of my favorite ways to spend time. It makes no difference to me if I am in a moving car at the same time.

          But seriously, the exception would be cross-country trips–the sort where the difference between 65 and 80 mph significantly affects how long the trip takes. This makes me wonder: Are there still high plains states with no speed limit? How would a driverless car handle that?

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    • Google and Amazon are ad-serving companies with loss-leader promotional activities centered around web search and home delivery of artisinal toilet paper, respectively.

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