Monday, March 12, 2012

The Philosophy of the Ultra Wealthy

At the MIT Conference last Friday, our lunchtime keynote address was from Donald Sussman, the founder and chairman of Paloma Partners. He's a very rich guy and surely has made many savvy business decisions. For example, he mentioned that around 1992 he was invited with about 200 businessmen to hear a pitch by the Chinese government on investing in China. He not only paid his own way unlike everyone else, he stayed in a nice hotel rather than the free (but very modest) accommodations provided. The government was so impressed, they presented him with a unique opportunity that turned out to be quite profitable. Clearly, this was fortuitous signalling.

Another interesting point he made was that it is useful to exit a trader when he's had a super year, and a super amount of investor inflows. Invariably, these people are going to discover their limits of scale, and it will end badly.

On the other hand, Sussman was pretty bad at articulating some unified set of principles, and spent a lot of time discussing his childhood, which is pretty narcissistic and extremely boring. It reminded me a bit of Bridgewater Capital billionaire Ray Dalio's manifesto, which set a new standard. He first lays out 210(!) principles--be extremely open, don't tolerate dishonesty--and then notes: "What follows is the Meat..." and then 200 more (eg, 'don't try to please everyone'). The earnestness and lack of focus reminded me of my childhood, when visiting my grandparents in a small town and I was forced to listen to very unpersuasive didactic Lutheran sermons.

I think it's admirable for people to try to articulate their philosophy on life, but they should be aware that being very successful at business or politics in no way implies they can explain that success. As Michael Gazzaniga has shown, the part of the brain (usually on the left hemisphere) that narrates our thoughts in our own head does not have access to all the reasons why we feel the way we do, or why we did some things, and it is engaged in post hoc rationalization all the time (this is why you should switch your date's decaf with a a caffeinated coffee, or take her to a scary not sleepy movie, because when her heart races her interpretative left-brain will put some more weight on the possible explanation that her right-brain must find you attractive for some reason). We know a lot more than what we can say. I don't presume that having a redundant and trite Weltanschauung means these people aren't good investors or managers, merely, their ability to pontificate on a general life-strategy is not the core of their alpha.

Stick to what you know. And don't talk about your childhood to a captive audience.


Ely M. Spears said...

Having attended this conference and listened to the same lunchtime keynote speaker, I agree very strongly with this summary. Being very successful in no way implies that you can give a coherent account of why you were successful. I think more people need to understand this, because young people should be basing their life plans on base rate amounts of success, to avoid planning fallacy, not chasing the rationalizing specifics of a randomly successful elder. The ways in which people are non-randomly successful are generally pretty obvious and not usually worth belaboring anymore. Stick to any specialist knowledge you might have. But above all, you shouldn't believe that your own generic life experience should be respected for yielding widely applicable life lessons. It almost surely doesn't.

Unanimous said...

Interesting observations, but what are the implications? If successful people don't know why they are successful, why do they deserve hundreds of times more money than other equivalently skilled and hard working people?

How does the large amount of money incentivise good behaviour if the people it goes to can't even say what it is that they did differently to deserve it? Surely an incentive has to involve a choice - do thing A and receive the corresponding benefit, or do thing B and receive a different benefit. If there is no concious choice, then how does the reward cause the rewarded behaviour? If the money doesn't cause the behaviour, then from an economics point of view it is wasted and counterproductive, isn't it?

B. A. said...

LOL nice one. Somehow related, star players don't necessarily make good coaches. Some actually make lousy couaches. I guess people knew about it for some time.

@ Unanimous

I don't think there are any moralistic implications at all.

Anonymous said...

A self-made billionaire explained to me years ago that one of the principal benefits -- indeed possibly the premier benefit -- of great wealth was ready access to audiences of hangers-on and favor-seekers who would at least feign interest in one's ramblings and pontifications.

Anonymous said...

Submitted by @4:50 without a hint of irony.

Pretty sure that 9:09's point is that the randomization of outcomes above standard middle or perhaps upper middle class status suggests that low taxes on the very wealthy are pointless, I.e. progressive taxation of the very wealthy is potentially sound public policy. Not really a moral argument.

B. A. said...

@ anonymous

the 9:09 comment asks the question whether the rich deserve to be rich (implying that some unspecified criteria exist according to which some people deserve to be rich and some don't - that's moral).

also says that rich people's inability to put together convincing theories about the causes of their own success is a proof that they don't deserve to be rich. it's like saying that top athletes don't deserve their medals unless they can show phd level knowledge of the physics involved in the sport they play.

Anonymous said...

"Deserves," according to whom? "Whether the rich deserve to be rich..." implies the existence of morally superior beings, cut from finer cloth than mere businessmen, empowered to decree from on high who "deserves" what.

Unanimous said...

@11:44 good point. If there is no way to say who deserves what, then why do people deserve hundreds of times what other equivalently skilled and hard working people get? It's another way to ask the question.

@B.A. and 7:02 There is both a moral question of who deserves what, and an ecomomics question of what is the economic point of randomised rewards without any influence over concious choices.

With regard to athletes needing a PhD to deserve a gold medal, I think that while most athletes don't have a PhD degree of understanding, they do have quite a fair bit of knowledge of what they are doing, and they also know that they were born with certain attributes that helped them along. Also, weather they deserve a medal or not is quite different from the economic question of how much money it is worth paying them as an incentive to get them to perform better.

B. A. said...

@ anonymous

let me refine the example with the athletes a little. there is this tennis player (I can't remember his name - maybe somebody can help - let's call him player A) who said that the secret of his success was maintaining extended period of sexual abstinence. whenever he failed to do so, the level of his game dropped and he would lose the tournament. his theory of success doesn't sound that convincing to me. I know of this other former tennis player (ilie nastase) who boasts of having had sex with more than 3,000 women during his "career". that doesn't seem to have stopped him from winning the wimbledon.

player A may well be totally confused as to the causes of his own success, but that in no way proves that his success was… random (!!??). it doesn't mean his prize money should be taken away by the government and split between people like you and me, or that money didn't motivate him to achieve success. there is some randomness in the resyult of every game, but a player's ability to theorize about the causes of success and failure is in no way helping anybody make that distinction between skill and luck.

Unanimous said...

B.A. I also remember Ilie Nastase, but not player A. I guess player A wasn't very memorable, and maybe that has something to do with his lack of sex.

But I don't think player A (or Ilie Nastase probably) is representative, nor that his superstition overroad (overrided?) or prevented him from also making many sensible choices in his career such as choosing to train, getting a coach, eating well, showing up to play in tournaments all over the world. I'm sure he knew that doing these things were also necessary for success. Could he have imagined that he could win Wimbledon without entering it just by abstaining from sex? I would have won Wimbledon in my younger days if that was the case.

There's always a degree of randomness, and a small degree doesn't matter so long as there is still a clear link in most participant's minds between many of the choices and the success and reward. If the link between most of the choices and the reward isn't clear for most participants, then I would expect that the reward would be fairly ineffective as an incentive. Eric was talking about a much greater degree of confusion about success than a few individuals adding a superstition to an otherwise sensable set of choices.