Slate has a superb interview with Victor Niederhoffer, who I think is one of the most interesting people in finance (or elsewhere, for that matter). A friend gave me his book The Education of a Speculator when I was about 19. It’s a wonderful window into an eclectic, humble intellect, and a great read. Slate introduces Niederhoffer thus:
Niederhoffer is a hedge fund manager, a former partner of George Soros, a five-time U.S. Nationals squash champion, and the best-selling author of The Education of a Speculator and Practical Speculation. Those successes notwithstanding, Niederhoffer is best known for two spectacular financial blow-ups. In 1997, a risky investment in Thai bank stocks combined with a dramatic one-day drop in the Dow Jones to permanently close the doors of Niederhoffer Investments. Ten years later, having recouped his losses, Niederhoffer saw his Matador Fund, buffeted by the 2007 credit crunch, self-destruct.
Niederhoffer’s e-mails suggested a man already obsessed with wrongness. In them, he referenced the statistical concept of path dependence; shared a series of proverbs about the game of checkers (of 5,000 such proverbs, he hazarded, about 250 concerned error); meditated on the difference between Type One mistakes (excessive credulity) and Type Two mistakes (excessive skepticism) (he himself is much more prone to Type One, he says: “I’m tremendously gullible”); observed that “one should be careful of multitasking or multiromancing”; sent me the citations for hoodoo in the Oxford English Dictionary (a hoodoo is something or someone that brings bad luck); and noted that the harpooner in Moby Dick would have made a great interview subject for this series. Finally, he pointed out that the word error has no antonym. “In retrospect,” he wrote, “I know much too much about errors and much too little about the opposite, whatever it is.”
Here Niederhoffer comments on the rumor that Soros, among others, cautioned him on his Thai investment:
Why didn’t you listen to the naysayers?
Well, Soros would be the first to tell you that his predictions are completely random. He never says anything that doesn’t jibe with his current position or his hoped-for outcome. And he’s chronically bearish. He’s chronically thinking that the world needs a central planner to put it to rights and that the market itself is too prone to disaster.
I think a much better view is that the stock market never rises unless there’s a wall of fear it has to climb. When the public is most frightened, only the strong are left, and that’s when the market is in the best possible hands. I call it taking out the canes. Whenever disaster strikes, the very sagacious wealthy people take their canes, and they hobble down from their stately mansions on Fifth Avenue, and they buy stocks to the extent of their bank balances, and then a week or two later, the market rises, they deposit the overplus in their accounts, invest it in blue-chip real estate, and retire back to their stately mansions. That’s probably the best way of making money, to be a specialist in panics. Whenever there’s panic hanging in the air, that’s a great time to invest.
And discussing Soros’s attitude to wives, and, presumably, speculation:
One last thing from your e-mails: I love this checkers saying, “The popular player loses without an alibi.” I think most people are pretty bad at that. It’s like, “Well, if it hadn’t been for X, I would’ve won.”
I hope you don’t feel like I’ve alibi-ed too much. But a person likes to have a certain amount of self-respect even after disasters. Still, it’s terrible to be a bad loser. I like Soros’s proverb that you should never marry a woman you wouldn’t want to divorce.