Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Humans and Computers in the Hedge Fund

Matt Levine has a hilarious little essay about rivalries at Bridgewater, the world's largest hedge fund. Levine takes a tour through the completely inane internal conflicts at the organization, including one between the founder and the current CEO that seems to concern whether somebody said something wrong about the other while being videotaped. The two executives have demanded a vote of the board over who is right, but nobody can say what the result would be:
And the consequences could be ... nothing? Dalio and Jensen "have called for votes on each other’s conduct." But "the potential impact of the votes isn’t clear." It's just ... a vote? "The vote results and each person’s individual votes will be made available to the rest of Bridgewater."
So this is about prestige; the winner of the vote will be a winner, and the loser will be a loser, and that will matter in the ridiculous but profound way that such things always matter. Levine:
I never understood how Bridgewater gets any investing done, but of course there's a computer that does the investing. ("After honing ideas through debate and discussion, Bridgewater employees write trading algorithms that buy and sell investments automatically, with some oversight.") One stylized model for thinking about Bridgewater is that it is run by the computer with absolute logic and efficiency; in this model, the computer's main problem is keeping the 1,500 human employees busy so that they don't interfere with its perfect rationality. This model might predict that the computer would create a series of distractions for the humans; the distractions would keep the humans busy, but if you examined them closely, there would be telltale signs that the intelligence that designed them was not completely human. "In an iPad app called 'Dot Collector,' employees weigh in on the direction of conversations while they are happening." "Any meeting of at least three people is expected to hold at least one poll." "One former Bridgewater employee recalls debating with other employees for as long as an hour whether a misused apostrophe in one of Mr. Dalio’s research reports was intentional or not." Good ones, computer!
My experience of the corporate world has in many ways been quite similar to this. All sorts of inane things happen, often without anyone being able to specify who, exactly, made them happen. People rise and fall in status for nebulous reasons; whenever anyone can offer a concrete reason why someone is in or out, it seems to me absurdly petty. At Bridgewater, the company has developed a whole arcana of ways to measure status, from the votes and the "Dot Collector" to something called the "Believability Index."
I'm pretty sure that, if I worked at Bridgewater, I would spend the entire two weeks of my career there alternately resentful and terrified. I am not alone: "About 25% of new hires leave Bridgewater within the first 18 months." A "core tenet" of the firm is "Pain + Reflection = Progress," and I gather that a lot of pain goes into the progress. But a key goal of the firm is to get employees to abstract away from their natural human reactions to these status-assigning decisions. "How do you separate yourself from the discussion about you?" asks an employee in a "Culture Video" on Bridgewater's website.
Sometimes you have to wonder how anything ever gets done.

1 comment:

Susi said...

This idiocy feeds our politics... and perhaps reflects our current world-view.