Saturday, May 30, 2009

I finished a book!!! (entertainment, stock)

Over the week that I took off (should have taken more time off as I am still the market's whipping boy), I started and finished "A Demon of our own Design" by Richard Bookstaber.

Bookstaber was an insider and high level risk manager during the heydays of Salomon, LTCM and the big hedge fund boom. The book mixes anecdotes about some of the biggest moments in finance with technical information about trading, risk, and market crises.

I really enjoyed the book. I thought it was clear he was an academic (he began his career teaching) based on the examples he used and his knack for repeating himself every now and again. The anecdotes were great with just enough name-dropping to allow the reader to understand where the author stood in the food chain. I think it is unfair to compare the anecdotal parts to "Liar's Poker", as Michael Lewis ended up being one of the more respected writers of his generation.

The technical stuff was actually more interesting for me. It explained many trading styles, approaches, and instruments instead of just giving them names. If you asked the people on the floor that I'm trading on what stat arb is, I would assume most of them didn't know, even though they are essentially doing the same thing on a smaller scale. Bookstaber's explanations were simple enough that I think even someone without much trading knowledge would be able to understand. He also provided insight into possible reasons for certain market crises of the last 3 decades.

The more complex stuff actually came from the examples he used from other fields to describe certain phenomena, which seemed more in line with the way a well-rounded academic thinks. He seemed especially caught up on cockroach behavior. While I appreciated the examples and how they compared to real life finance, I'm not sure they'd be everyone's cup of tea.

In all, I highly recommend the book, and I took away two main things from it. First, the market in the short term is always liquidity driven. Price is useful in as much as a way for a large liquidity demander to acquire the liquidity he seeks. Second, humans tend to focus on reducing known risks, sometimes at the cost of and even being the cause of unknown risks that we can't deal with, such as certain financial crises.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More great food (food)

Had lunch at Eleven Madison Park last week and it was fantastic, as expected. They do a 2 course prix fixe (app, entree) for $28 during lunch and the most impressive dish for me was the suckling pig. Everyone does suckling pig and pork belly nowadays, but this dish was just a great example of a chef who knows what he's doing. At too many places, they just give you some variation of pork belly, and the fattiness is usually all the flavor anyone gets. But here, you get a piece of extremely flavorful and tender pork loin, a square of confit, as well as a piece of pork belly. There is real pork flavor to every bite, and it's not just eating a mass of fat. I also had the 11 course gourmand tasting menu for dinner here a couple months back, and it was the best meal I had in about a year and a half. I didn't blog about that meal but I hope to go back and try it again and I promise to write about it then. Eleven Madison Park is right now on the top of my list for top end places to bring someone to impress. I, along with many foodie forum people, am still astonished that it doesn't even have one Michelin star.

Also fantastic was the ramen lunch special at Tsushima in midtown. This probably is the best ramen I've had in NYC. The noodles are thin but springy, unlike the thin and limp ones at Ippudo. The pork has the best meat to fat ratio I've seen from any of the ramen places, and they even toss in a whole scallop in the bowl (no shell). It is a shio ramen, so the best comparison is with Setagaya and not with Ippudo. Again, Ippudo does have an amazing porky broth, but like I wrote in the above paragraph, anybody can get flavor out of pork fat. The broth at Tsushima was better than at Setagaya in my opinion. It wasn't salty at all, and there was just enough of the hint of the scallop that I think it was simmered in the broth (I wish it came out more clearly though). The best part is the price. For the $13.50 set, I had the bowl of ramen and a side bowl of rice topped with ikura (salmon roe). And not just a tiny spoonful, there was a good amount of it. From what I've read online, they used to only make like 30 portions of this ramen and would sell out quickly. Nowadays I think they make more. The ramen lunch special is only available on Wednesdays, but they have very good lunch deals throughout the week, and their normal bento-like lunch special also caught my eye. One maki, one appetizer, one entree, and one dish of tempura with rice and salad for $16.

When the weather gets warm, street fairs are very common in NYC. Usually held almost every weekend, they close down about 10 blocks on one avenue (locations change) and many stalls are set up with different ethnic foods, fair foods, and even crappy game stalls with crappy stuffed animal prizes. Last weekend, I went to the ninth avenue international food festival, which is essentially a big street fair out in the Hell's Kitchen area. This one is better than most normal street fairs because there are more restaurants on ninth avenue that operate food stalls to give you a sample of their food.

Among the usual suspects in terms of food cultures were the italians (italian sausage, zeppoles), the fried foods (fried oreos, they even had a stall that did a bloomin' onion, and of course, the worst food in the world, funnel cake), the latin americans (colombian steak, tacos, tamales), the west indians (oxtail, goat curry), the indians, the thai (satay, pad thai), and desserts (pies, italian ices). In terms of stalls that I patronized as well as stalls that wouldn't necessarily be at all street fairs, there was cajun (from the Delta Grill, crawfish boil, etouffee, jambalaya), fried seafood (whole fried soft shell crabs, terrific fried scallops), fresh seafood (raw bar, I couldn't get myself to eat more than one oyster from a guy shucking in the street on a hot day), and pulled pork sandwiches (whole roast pig out in the open, run by a bar).

There were also some interesting non-food items there. There was a stall for the "super sham-wow" which is essentially a larger piece of sham-wow. I gotta say, that thing looks more and more impressive. For $20 you get essentially 6 times the amount of shamwow goodness of the TV ad. There are usually people selling sheet sets. Best deal I saw was $20 for 1000 count king size, which will easily run $120 at Macy's. Then there was the guy who was selling containers of spices. I don't care if you're the greatest, most diverse chef in the world, I'm willing to bet that you don't have that container on the right in your spice rack/cupboard.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On tilt (trading, poker)

The market has me on tilt right now. I haven't been this frustrated with daily trading in a long time. Right now I'm going to take a break for the rest of the week to avoid tilting any further. To fully complete the metaphor, the feeling I have right now is just like when a donk is sitting at the table with no fear and major aggression.

You continue to sit at the table because, after all, the guy is a donk and is frequently risking a lot while behind. The problem is though, that if you don't get dealt the right cards to take advantage, it can be a very frustrating experience. The irrational play of a donk can make it hard for you to play your game and make your usual moves. Maybe you catch him while you hold the best hand, but then he sucks out on you. Again. And Again. Or perhaps at some point because you know he's a donk, you start reraising him with weaker hands than you normally would. This is fine except he never folds and you miss the flop. At some point, between the bad beats, the inability to play your own game, and the frustration with not being able to take advantage of someone's irrational play, you can easily go on tilt.

That's exactly how the market feels to me right now. It's not that there isn't money to be made out there, but it's like the description above where I'm not getting dealt the right cards to take advantage. There are also the bad beats, for example where I'm correct on the trend or the eventual move, but just as I establish a heavy position, some order comes in the opposite direction that just can't wait to fill and pushes it past my risk. I have to get out, and then once that donk order runs out, it goes back so quickly I can barely reestablish. There was even a trade today where I made money, but at the same time still felt so disgusted by the move, even though it was in my favor.

Recognizing the tilt is at least a step in the right direction. I hate being away from the market but I know that I need to step away and take a breather. The fact that I go in every day and feel frustrated by the movements can't be good for my results. Hopefully it'll get better after the long weekend.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Added Labels To Posts

I've added labels to some old posts and will try to remember to add labels (and include the label in parentheses in the post title) to new posts. I've not completely categorized every post, but it's a start and maybe some day when I'm really bored or want to look back at all the writing I've done I'll do a more thorough job. For now, the labels include bridge, food, gambling, horseracing, sport, stock/trading, and tv.

Charles Barkley is still awesome (sport, entertainment, tv)

I was rooting for the Celtics so game 7 was disappointing, but since I cleared out some of the stuff on my DVR, I decided to stay tuned and watch the post game show. It's been a while since I've watched an entire Inside the NBA show, but this was pretty awesome. About a few minutes in, Chris Webber interrupts Barkley, saying that he wants to reiterate something, at which point Barkley challenges Webber to spell "reiterate". Webber starts with "r-e-i", changes his mind to "r-i-e", then gives up all together. Hilarious. Remember, Webber actually spent 2 years at Michigan.

Another gem was when Kenny Smith set up a joke by asking Barkley, "Why don't you give a woman a watch?" To which Charles replied, "Cause there's a clock on the stove!" Webber hadn't heard this one before and was laughing uncontrollably at this point.

While he's very entertaining, Barkley is also a terrific basketball analyst. He made a great case for Orlando being hard for Cleveland to match up against, as well as a case for Denver having played the most consistently good basketball so far in the West. From all my years watching horseracing, I definitely know that it's important for an analyst not to be afraid to pick an underdog. I also like how he said he was pissed that the Lakers have amassed so much talent and yet are half-assing it.

The best part I thought came at the end when they showed the clip where Barkley and his ugly-ass swing hits a gallery spectator in the back of the head.

Barkley is still awesome and entertaining.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Another Poker/Trading Analogy (trading, gambling)

Many people have written or talked about the similarities between poker and trading as professions. Mostly these discussions focus on the characteristics of the players and the traits of the successful and unsuccessful participants. Usually things like how being fearless, having good discipline, good money management, a quick mind, and the ability to be decisive are common to both good poker players and good traders. Instead, I'm going to point out what I think are similarities between the different games of poker and the different trading strategies that are their equivalent.

I am one of those who believe that poker is not a card game, but a betting game. There is no play of the cards (suits, rankings) and the role of the cards is simply to determine the winner of the betting, while at the same time providing different states of probability along the way. Because of this, the different ways that people are allowed to bet are more important than many people realize. Similarly, there are many markets with varying degrees of liquidity and risk. Many traders also have different time horizons and risk/reward goals for their trades. What follows is my view of the trading equivalent of three of the most popular poker games and why it matters to know the difference.

Limit Holdem

In limit, the amount per bet is fixed and the number of raises is capped. This means that relative to each bet, the resulting pot you can win is smaller than at other games. This also means that the odds and implied odds for calling a bet while behind cannot be dictated by the player who is ahead. In the end, most successful limit holdem players are continually trying to grind out small edges and small pots. The trading equivalent of the successful players who play this game are the market makers, spread makers, arbitrageurs, and rebate players. These are the guys who try to take advantage of small edges and make them over and over again, knowing that they are not aiming to take all of someone's money on one hand.

Pot-Limit Omaha

In pot-limit, a player may bet or raise up to the amount that is already in the pot. This means that pots can become big by being progressively built. This style of betting is perfect for Omaha, where there are many different routes to end up with the best hand on the river. That means players will build pots whether they are already there (eg. top set) or plan to get there (eg. flush draw, wrap straight draw). Also, no matter how much you've committed to the pot, it is important to give it up when the wrong card hits (eg. you have top set and the river connects both a flush and a straight, chances are you're beat). I feel that the trading equivalent of pot-limit players are trend followers. Trend traders add into their position along the trend, hoping to ride it for a big payoff at the end. Similarly, these traders have to get out when the trend line breaks no matter how committed they've been in riding the trend.

No-Limit Holdem

The most popular of the poker games involves the ability to win big pots and make big bluffs. My feeling is that the equivalent type of trader usually consists of one or two individual traders rather than a well-oiled hedge fund machine, and these traders usually trade in the biggest or thinnest markets, usually currency, commodities, or energy markets. These aren't guys who get leveraged to make a tiny spread. They get leveraged for a big payout. These are usually the traders and poker players who tell you they only need to have about a 50% win rate because their winners are much bigger than their losers. The most memorable of these traders usually involve the biggest bets. Soros and Druckenmiller come to mind, and among the most recent, Brian Hunter. He was the trader that brought down Amaranth. From what I read, he knew the market was going against his spread trade but he thought he had enough resources behind him (2bil+leverage) to squeeze the market the other way. Sometimes you go all-in on a bluff and get called. Also note that while he made a big bet and lost, he wasn't a rogue trader like Kerviel or Leeson.

It is important to identify these differences in betting style/strategy because not everyone can excel at all of them. One other thing in common between poker players and traders is ego. While most players think they can do just as well in all the different forms and strategies, that is usually not the case. While nobody will really argue against Phil Hellmuth's skills at NL Holdem tournaments, when he sits down against the best cash limit holdem players in the world, he's practically giving away money. Similarly, you can frequently spot a trader who thinks he's better at making spreads but whose buy points usually lead to 3% moves that he never takes advantage of. It is important to really know what kind of trading you excel at, just as it is important to play the game of poker that you're best at.

Also, no matter the size and scope of your operation, the basic style is the same. The difference between a daytrader trying to ride a half hour trend and a PM riding an 8 month trend is like the difference between playing 1/2 and 10/20. A trader who makes a market in one stock every day and a quant who runs a market making program in 15 stocks is the difference between a guy playing 1 table and one of those internet pros 15-tabling the poker games.

Finally, let's not forget the Bernie Madoffs. There is the equivalent of a ponzi scheme in poker. I don't know the correct term, but here's an example. A guy sells 50% of whatever he'll win to someone for the entry fee. This is a pretty normal type of staking arrangement in poker. However, the same guy can now go to someone else and make the same deal. Now he's sold 100% of himself, but taken in twice the buyin. All he has to do now is put up a good show, not cash, and he's got himself a risk-free equivalent of one buyin.

This Year's Triple Crown (horseracing)

I didn't write anything about the Kentucky Derby because there was no dominant horse going into the race. There was no Curlin and no Big Brown. The dominant horse, Rachel Alexandra, ran in the Oaks instead. Luckily, Jess Jackson (owner of Curlin) bought the horse and supplemented her for the Preakness.

I'm mixed in my feelings about this race. If Rachel Alexandra was the wonder filly they proclaimed her to be, she should have won by 6 lengths the way the race went when she lengthened into the straight. The jockey Calvin Borel, however, did admit that the horse struggled on this ground, so it's possible that what we saw today was nowhere near her best. My other problem is that this race was set up for her perfectly. All the Derby runners ran harder races two weeks ago, and noone rests a horse to target the Preakness (while that frequently happens for the Belmont). In fact, I thought Mine That Bird was the most impressive runner, and unless the ground really was a huge factor, I'd rate the runner-up to be a better horse at 10 furlongs for now. It's still impressive for a filly to lead throughout from the outside post against male horses, but I wouldn't start comparing her to Zarkava just yet.

Before the race, there was a lot of talk about the owners of the two other main contenders trying to supplement additional horses to shut Rachel Alexandra out of the field. In the end, one of the other owners said that she'd drop out of the race with her horse just to make sure Rachel Alexandra makes the field. Upon hearing that, the two owners abandoned their plan. This is something that I think Hong Kong does a great job of in ensuring the true sport of racing horses. In other racing jurisdictions, owners can enter multiple horses easily, usually a rabbit to ensure a true pace for their stayer or backmarker. Hong Kong does not allow this, and sometimes smaller fields may result. However, one can be assured that every horse entered is trying to achieve the best possible placing for its connections.

In writing (food, economy, conspiracy)

My friend posted this link on Facebook:
A terrific article about the scam that is the push for ethanol fuel. Another example of our fine government at work. I actually think this article applies to everyone more than to me because I don't drive. Please read it.

I posted earlier an old article by Michael Lewis about Shane Battier. My friend pointed out another great Lewis article, this one on what the hell happened in Iceland:

In other news, Frank Bruni will step down as the food critic for the New York Times. Of all the major food critics, especially in New York, Bruni was the one that I enjoyed reading the most and whose views I felt were most in line with mine. He cites his new book coming out as his main reason for stepping down, as it will compromise his ability to be a stealthy critic. This is a very big and influential role and it will be interesting to see what his successor will bring to the table.

Mecca (food)

Well, pizza mecca anyway.
Those who read food blogs will most likely at some point have come across the name Di Fara Pizza. It is a little place in the middle of nowhere Brooklyn that has been voted the best pizza in NYC for like forever. It is notorious for long waits but its fans are like a cult. So last week, I took half a day off and made the trek with two friends who are currently unemployed. I will use a Q&A to try to describe everything I can remember. Any other questions are welcome in the comments.

Q: How long was the total trek?
A: Leaving from Union Square, the subway ride felt like about 50 minutes each way.

Q: How does the place look?
A: It's a dingy pizzeria, tiny and not particularly clean. It's been shut down by the DoH previously. But as one of my friends said, that's how you know it's the good stuff. When a place isn't aesthetically appealing but people are still lining up anyway, you know there's a good reason.

Q: How long was the wait?
A: We arrived at what I thought would be an off-peak time of 2:20ish, after the lunch crowd and before the after school crowd. We were the 8th pizza in line, and the wait was about 50 minutes total.

Q: What did you order?
A: We ordered a round pie with half artichokes, but were also lucky enough to get three square slices fresh out of the oven without too long of a wait. A pie costs $20 (which is expensive for the middle of nowhere Brooklyn) while slices cost $4. So the cost of not waiting is a 60% premium.

Q: What did you do while you were waiting?
A: There really is nothing nearby so we didn't bother going outside. Instead we just stood there watching the master craftsman do his thing. Dom Demarco makes every pie and goes at it religiously.

Q: Some say that's a big part of the experience. How did you feel?
A: I always admire the work of a master craftsman. It's one thing to pretend you're an artist or creative chef or whatever, it's another to churn out fine work time after time and day after day. He was just there, continuously making pies, tearing mozzarella, grating cheese, pouring olive oil, and cutting basil. The most memorable parts for me were watching him practically take the pizza out of the oven with his hands (we could barely touch the pizza immediately after we got our slices) and the smell of the fresh basil he cuts after the pizza is out of the oven and he finishes off the pizza with basil and some more grated cheese.

Q: Moment of truth, how was the pizza?
A: The square slice was probably the best slice of pizza I've ever had. Everything about it was great, the sauce, the cheese, the crust, and the fresh basil. The round pie was excellent, and the crust was probably the best you could hope for without a coal oven, although the people next to us had over a quarter of their pie black underneath. The artichokes were very good also.

Q: Was it worth the wait?
A: That's very subjective. Is it worth waiting 45 minutes for a couple of burgers at Shake Shack? I would say that it's worth waiting for a pie if you're already there, but the total trek did take up 3 hours. I would do it again if I was bringing people for a "been there, done that" experience, but I don't think I'd go out of my way just to grab a pie.

Q: Final verdict?
A: Excellent, yes. Transcendant, no. Not an epiphany meal, but certainly a trek that I would advise people to do at least once.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Awesome NY Times article (sports, stats, entertainment)

I know this is like 3 months old, but for anyone who hasn't read it yet, this is an amazing article: . It's talks about Shane Battier, but more importantly the NBA and the stats movement in sports in general. I knew about it but was only reminded to read it today when I was watching the Yao-less Rockets destroy the Lakers.

Right now I'm watching the DVRed season finale of SNL. Justin Timberlake is always terrific on SNL, although I think there was too much singing on this show. Jessica Biel is really hot and I can't believe it was 7 years ago that I saw her once in the psych department (she went to Tufts for two years, and was a freshman my senior year).

Tomorrow is the FTOPS PLO8 event on Full Tilt Poker, so I plan to take a half day at work and hopefully the end result will be even better than my results in the SCOOP.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Unhealthy and healthy (food)

Out of Danny Meyer's restaurant empire, I think the only ones I hadn't been to yet were Blue Smoke and Union Square Cafe. Since I had a rough day at work, I decided to do some bingeing and stopped into USC for their burger. The burger is a nice big round patty that came out really juicy and buttery, although medium despite requested medium rare. It came with two big slabs of bacon which were terrific, and melted cheddar cheese which was flavorful but not overwhelming. The bun was nice although the bun bottom got squished as is usually the case with most half pound+ burgers. There were only a couple slices of cucumber and red onion, with no lettuce or tomato accompanying the burger. I wish the burger had a more beefy flavor, but overall it was quite good and very satisfying. While the fries looked great, I opted for the garlic potato chips instead. They weren't as garlicky as I would have liked, but very crisp and a nice middle ground between too airy and too dense. However, probably because I don't snack regularly, my jaw got sore from all the chewing of the chips.

So after the burger I was walking up to midtown to go home when I noticed a Pump Energy Food on Madison Ave. This is an interesting franchise. Right now there are 5 locations (all in Manhattan) and while they all follow the core healthy food concept, the menus at different locations vary drastically. The one on Madison reminded me of a Chipotle. Customers can choose from a wrap, a bowl (with brown rice), or a salad. To their selection they add a protein, a vegetable, and condiments. Considering the burger binge, I decided to get a whole wheat wrap with brown rice, ground bison, spinach, cucumbers, and diced tomatoes for dinner. The prices are also similar to Chipotle, although it looks like they give you less food (proper portion perhaps?). It was good but not great, but overall a good option for something healthy that keeps well on the way home.

I never understood brown rice. I don't understand why it's ridiculously more expensive when it tastes so much worse than white rice. If you go into many restaurants in China or Japan and tried to order brown rice, they'd probably get pretty pissed and consider you dishonoring the restaurant for asking for an inferior product. I also cannot stand brown rice sushi. Sushi rice is supposed to have flavor but the brown rice is often still mealy-tasting and the texture is horrible for sushi.

I also don't think that brown rice is as healthy as its promoters tend to say it is. I find that health claims in America are almost always relative. For example, there are claims that soy protein does wondrous things and lowers cholesterol. That's not exactly true. I'm sure it lowers cholesterol when you're using it to replace bacon, but otherwise, I've also read plenty of things that advise against regularly eating soy protein. While brown rice contains more fiber than polished white rice, there's still a lot of carbs there in each serving, and I wouldn't consider that particularly healthy for most people.

Monday, May 4, 2009

An automatic psych (bridge)

While there's really no such thing as an automatic psych, the following scenario is what I believe to be the best controlled risk/reward psych available without it being a systemic psych (eg. pretending strength opposite a limited partner). I've discussed this psych before, but a similar hand (in the example that follows I'm going to use the most optimal hand) came up while I was playing this past weekend.

Say you hold ♠xxx xx xxx AKQTx with partner dealer and your side not vulnerable.
The auction starts pass by partner, 1 by RHO.

I think the proper bid here is a psych of 1♠!!!

Let's first look at the obvious risk. Partner has spades and raises. If partner has a good hand and makes a limit raise with 2, no problem you pass. Let's say partner raises you to 2/3/4 spades. Because you have 3 of them, it's less likely for one of the opponents to have a spade stack which makes it easy to double you. Also because you have 3 of them, it could be a legitimate suit for your side to play in. 2♠ in a moysian fit wouldn't be so bad, and 4♠ if partner has 5 of them wouldn't be so bad either. This is one of the main reasons why I think it's better to psych in spades than in hearts, even though looking at your hand hearts might be more likely to be their suit. It's much more dangerous when you're wrong if you psych in hearts.

Now let's look at the secondary risks. Let's say you do pick off their spade suit. If it goes pass by your LHO and partner and RHO reopens with a double, chances are LHO had a trap and you can just bid 2. There are some partners who might not work it out, but I try not to play with them. Another secondary risk is that you cannot take advantage even when you have succeeded. You derail their auction, but they land in a different spot and partner makes a spade lead that is very bad for the defense. This is a big risk for a lot of psychs. However, one of the advantages of psyching with this hand is that it takes away one of those cases.

The main advantage of the psych comes from actually stealing the opponents' spade fit. The two most likely scenarios are:

1. LHO has 5 spades and decides to trap, opening bidder with 3-4 spades might not be able to reopen. You might get to play it in 1S undoubled (of course you could be down 250 on a partscore hand, but the chances of them missing a game on that auction have to be much higher)

2. LHO has 4-5 spades and decides to bid notrump, likely raised to 3NT at some point by RHO. This is the killing point of the whole hand. This is the reason why I advocate a psych with this specific hand. You can now DOUBLE to ask for a club lead. This mitigates one of the risks mentioned earlier of partner making the wrong lead against the opponents' contract in the wrong strain.

So it seems to me that the risk to reward for psyching here is immensely in your favor. There is a good chance for the opponents to miss their spade game or play the hand in a notrump game going down instead. At the same time, holding 3 spades and being able to subsequently ask for a club lead strongly decreases the likelihood of disaster, especially relative to most "normal" psychs.