Ed Thorp: The Man Who Beat Las Vegas and Wall Street

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I just finished Ed Thorp‘s new book, A Man for All Markets, and give it a strong recommendation. Ed Thorp is a genius who mastered card counting, built the first wearable computer to beat roulette and created the first market neutral hedge fund. The book takes the reader on a fascinating adventure through Thorp’s Depression-era childhood, his academic career in mathematics, his successful assault on Las Vegas and his wildly successful career in the financial markets.

Lifelong Learning

One of the things that struck me about Edward Thorp was his enduring lifelong love of learning, which fueled much of his success. Edward Thorp didn’t have a one-dimensional interest in mathematics. He was constantly fascinated by new ideas which likely led him to study unconventional subjects such as gambling. In his childhood he experimented with radio, attempted to win mathematics competitions, conducted funny experiments (such as attempting to create a hot air balloon and playing a prank on a local swimming pool with red dye that turned the entire pool blood-red). These funny pranks and interests show a deeply inquisitive mind willing to learn new things. While few of us are anywhere near the intellect of Ed Thorp, that’s an important lesson to take away. Remaining curious and developing a lifelong love of learning is a positive attribute that we should all strive to achieve.

The Original Black Scholes

I never knew that Thorp developed the original black scholes model, but he developed this and used it to make money for himself in the 1960s. He wrote about it in a 1967 book about it along with other arbitrage strategies, Beat the Market . Thorp was looking for a way to successfully invest his money that he accrued through his gambling activities and best-selling book Beat the DealerHe tried stock picking and wasn’t pleased with it, looking instead for something more precise and scientific. He ended up employing his own brand of convertible arbitrage and his own version of the Black Scholes model, before Fisher Black and Myron Scholes wrote their 1973 paper about it. In 1997, Myron was awarded the Nobel prize for an insight that Thorp discovered first. While Fisher Black and Myron Scholes appeared to have engaged in outright theft of Thorp’s ideas, he is surprisingly cool and level-headed about it. I suppose the lesson of this is that it doesn’t pay to hold grudges and needlessly create enemies. In fact, Thorp maintained a good relationship with them and was pleased that they were able to prove his idea. In any case, Thorp put the ideas to work in the world’s first market neutral hedge fund, Princeton Newport Partners.

A Unique Perspective

Something I thoroughly enjoyed about the book was reading Ed Thorp’s outlook on financial and political issues. What was fascinating to me was how non-ideological Thorp’s approach is. It’s hard to pin him down as a conservative or liberal. He does not subscribe to any kind of orthodoxy. Thorp’s approach is pragmatic and relies primarily on logic.

For instance, when discussing welfare, Thorp isn’t opposed to welfare as would be standard conservative orthodoxy but he also doesn’t subscribe to the standard liberal worldview. Thorp’s attitude is that welfare and unemployment benefits are necessary, but believes that these individuals should be put to work as occurred during the Great Depression’s Works Progress Administration.

Thorp is certainly no friend of Wall Street and takes a critical eye towards the actions of investment banks. A standard liberal response would be to load up Wall Street with as many regulations as possible. A standard conservative response would be that laws created by Washington, DC (such as the community reinvestment act) forced the banks to take unnecessary risks and that they therefore are not directly responsible for the outcome of the crisis. Thorp acknowledges the bad behavior of banks and believes in sensible regulation, but thinks that we would do much better off by enabling shareholders to better combat bad behavior by the management of public companies rather than pursuing excessive regulation.

Thorp also has a very unique perspective on the 1980s junk bond boom. While acknowledging that Michael Milken was responsible for illegally enabling insider trading, he believes that Milken was not a target solely for his illegal acts. Milken’s illegal activity was magnified and pursued by the authorities because Milken financed an assault against the established corporate order. The established corporate order was far more entrenched politically and pleaded with politicians to shut him down. Thorp also has an unfavorable attitude towards Rudy Giuliani, whom he believes pursued these scandals less out of a sense of justice and more for political gain.

He’s also quite critical of the hedge fund industry, arguing accurately that hedge funds rarely deliver returns that justify their high expense ratios. This is quite ironic because Thorp launched one of the first modern hedge funds.

A Wild Trade

One of my favorite stories in the book involves an amazing trade that Thorp came across in 2000 at the height of the internet bubble. It is a story that could come straight out of Joel Greenblatt’s You Can Be a Stock Market Genius. It also gives insight into the level of financial insanity that fueled the internet bubble.

Back in March 2000, 3COM owned Palm Pilot. 3COM spun off 6% of its interest in Palm in an IPO. Due to the mania that was consuming market participants at the time, every technology or internet oriented IPO would immediately be bid up to an insane valuation on the first day of trading. Palm was no exception, but the level it was bid up to was truly absurd. After the first day of trading, the market valued the Palm IPO at $53.4 billion but valued the parent company (that owned the other 94% of Palm) at only $28 billion! In other words, the 6% share of Palm was valued more than the other 94% owned by 3COM plus all of 3COM’s other business interests. Thorp shorted Palm and went long in 3COM, in an incredible trade that would never have been possible if markets were efficient.

Investment Ideas

Thorp is a strong advocate for buying index funds, but he also offers a couple interesting ideas for investors to make above average returns.

The first fascinating idea is taking advantage of Savings & Loans that issue new equity. Thorp will open up a deposit account in a savings & loan that he suspects will eventually take a new equity offering public. Because depositors get a share of any new equity issue, Thorp then applies for a position in the new equity offer which typically sells for nearly double of the original price that Thorp paid for it. If he feels the savings & loan is well-managed, Thorp will hold onto the position for much longer periods of time. Thorp opens up multiple deposits in S&L’s throughout the country and then patiently waits for an equity offer. This was immensely profitable in the run up to the S&L crisis when S&L’s were hungry for new capital. The game has slowed down in recent years, but it sounds like those opportunities can still be identified.

The second idea is buying closed end funds at a discount and shorting closed end funds at a premium. This was an idea I was previously familiar with (Graham was an advocate of the strategy, at least the long portion of it). Closed end funds are publicly traded investment vehicles that can only be redeemed through trading activity. There are fixed number of shares and market participants determine the price. However, like a standard mutual fund, you can easily assign a net asset value to the shares. Unlike a mutual fund, you can’t redeem your investment at NAV, you have to sell it to someone in the open market at whatever they’re willing to pay.

In other words, there is no guesswork involved in determining the value of a closed end fund, but the shares trade openly and the price relative to the NAV frequently changes. Shares of closed end funds frequently trade at a significant discount or premium to their NAV. Efficient market types will say that these price discrepancies occur because the market is speculating on the riskiness or promise of the assets that the closed end fund owns. However, during the financial crisis, Thorp was able to acquire closed end funds that owned nothing but treasuries (an essentially risk free asset) at a substantial discount. Barron’s maintains a nice list of closed end fund NAVs and premium/discount that investors can take advantage of.

Bernie Madoff

A particularly fascinating passage in the book is one in which Thorp uncovers the Madoff scandal all the way back in 1990. While auditing investments for another firm, Thorp investigated Madoff because the firm had investments with Madoff. Thorp at first suspected that Madoff’s slow and steady returns every month (Madoff “earned” 1-2% every single month and never lost) might be fraudulent. Thorp confirmed this suspicion when, after checking with the exchanges, he confirmed that none of Madoff’s alleged trades actually happened. Thorp could have alerted the authorities back then, but he suspects they wouldn’t have done anything about it, so it wasn’t worth getting into the weeds. He’s right, of course. Harry Markopolos came to a similar conclusion and tried to alert the authorities about it and no one would listen (in fact, the SEC investigated and cleared Madoff of wrongdoing), and Harry spent years worrying that Madoff would try to take him out in some way. It sounds like Thorp made the prudent choice without making a big splash: advise his client to get out and lay low about the finding.

Conclusion

Edward Thorp is a living, breathing refutation of the efficient market hypothesis. He’s an iconoclast who refused to accept the conventional wisdom about markets or casinos. He had a lifelong love of learning which he allowed to pursue a fun (and profitable) adventure. His journey is a fascinating one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I recommend the book to anyone interested in a great story about a unique genius.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.

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