Who Needs Bankers When You Have Robots?

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It’s not so hard to imagine a day when we’ll stop being seduced by the human salesmanship of “active” investors.Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On September 4, a new activist investor announced himself to the world of big-swinging-dick finance. In a short email sent to 200 industry heavyweights, he urged Och-Ziff, one of the world’s largest publicly owned hedge funds, to embrace robo-trading. The author of the note was Michael Young; he is 24, a Chipotle cook who has moonlighted as a self-taught investor since reading Ron Chernow’s The House of Morgan at 19. His stake in Och-Ziff, a $39.2 billion fund, is $1,018. He wrote his declaration from a personal Gmail account; he did not use bcc.

“Dear Partners,” Young began. “We have taken a position in Och-Ziff Capital Management.” Then he got to the point.

OUR GOALS ARE TO:
I. Focus Och-Ziff’s attention on increasing tangible book value.
II. Help Och-Ziff develop an automated trading strategy to decrease human emotion and improve investing performance. This will also increase profit margins by requiring fewer traders to execute trades.
III. While continuing to focus their attention on tangible book value and investing performance. We will advocate for the sale of Och-Ziff Capital Management to a buyer who can manage the business better.

When notorious activist Bill Ackman took his position against Herbalife in 2012, it was with a 342-slide PowerPoint; I have just reproduced Michael Young’s Och-Ziff presentation in full. But that second objective was genuinely eye-catching (one recipient forwarded it to a Business Insider reporter, asking, more or less, “Who the fuck is this guy?”). For decades, certain amateur investors, suspicious of stock-market gamesmanship they might’ve felt looped out of, have proselytized “fundamentals” investing (it’s one way Warren Buffett got sainted as the cuddly Oracle of Omaha). But robo-trading (also called algorithmic or automated investment) is a relatively new crusade — and, for financial managers, a new fear. Which, of course: It’s hard not to worry if your future professional status depends on out–John Henry–ing some Deep Blue fino-bot. One telltale sign they’re genuinely freaked is the word they use to deride the threat. Robot is what we call technology we’re scared of these days, from robot warfare to robot cars to robot doctors. When we like the technology, we call it software.

Lately, financial advisers have been calling it worse things. In August, a team from AllianceBernstein ($496 billion under management) published “The Silent Road to Serfdom: Why Passive Investing Is Worse Than Marxism.” The paper was inspired by index funds, which eliminate human judgment by simply following the market as a whole, but was such a vigorous defense of active, human investment management it got passed around, and talked about, in a frenzy of robot panic. As Bloomberg View’s Matt Levine very memorably sketched out, the threat from robo-trading is to more than just financial services as an employment class. “One broadly plausible thing to expect is that, in that long run, the robots will be better at this than the humans,” he wrote. “Another broadly plausible thing to expect is that, in the long run, robots will keep getting better at it.” Then, after many charming caveats, Levine proposed a truly staggering hypothetical: What if a single robot intelligence could, over time, crowd out not just human traders but all the other AIs too — machine-learning its way to better and better performance in something like the way Google became search in the mid-aughts (by mostly out-algorithming all the WebCrawlers and Yahoos). “Eventually the best robot will predictably and repeatedly outperform the second-best robot, so why would you invest with the second-best robot?” Levine asked. The result: a market taken over by a single robot. But if an exchange could truly be animated not by the messy, uncoordinated behavior of countless self-interested individuals but by the single AI that Levine called “Best Capital Allocating Robot” — at that point, do we have a market anymore? If the Best Allocating Robot is buying, who would the sellers be? And if there were still suckers around, do you call a robot exploiting them “capitalism”? It smells a bit like state command-and-control, only much more efficient at allocating resources than the Soviets ever managed.

How much of a fantasy is this? We may find out. Already, we know that index funds outperform hedge funds, the investor-genius poster children. Lately, hedge funds have hit a rough patch: Like charter schools in education, the hedge-fund sector has used the freedom to experiment to produce some spectacular winners, many more funds that perform at about the level of the market as a whole, and enough true disasters that the entire industry topples into not meaningfully profitable. And that’s at the high-skill end; the broker managing your TD Ameritrade account didn’t turn down a gig at D.E. Shaw for the privilege. So perhaps we’re already investing against our better judgment anytime we hand our money to a real person.

Which means it’s not so hard to imagine a day when we’ll stop being seduced by the human salesmanship of “active” investors and maybe even realize that, when you think about it, robo-trading isn’t “passive” at all. It’s software making the same analytical decisions humans do — only, possibly, better. (To take one example, Bloomberg reports that Renaissance Technologies’ Medallion Fund, working originally with a much cruder technology, delivered an average annual return of 71.8 percent from 1994 to 2014.)

Michael Young loves the Medallion Fund, and he sees a lot of upside in a market run by robots — both for bankers and the rest of us. (Talking about it, he sounds like many in Silicon Valley who believe that, thanks to their work, something like John Maynard Keynes’s promise of a 15-hour workweek is, finally, just around the corner.) “If we go to Wall Street — or any firm — and say, ‘Raise your hand if you’re really doing what you wanted to do when you were 18 …” Young says. “I know ambitions evolve. But you need to have some money in the bank if you want to go to Europe and try out the best teas or visit the best coffee shops. That’s why we need a system where your income is being generated and you don’t have to worry about the betting aspect or your investments going to zero.”

Young may not live to see the full revolution: One recent report suggested “hybrid” robo-advisers (algorithms overseen by humans) would manage only 10 percent of global capital by 2025; “pure” robo-advisers would manage only 1.6 percent. But there’s still plenty of money to make, Young believes, pushing the revolution along — an ultimate-outsider activist-investor trying to put the business of human investing out of business (and having done so mostly during his shift-work off-shifts). “Thank God for my boss,” he says. “He was able to give me a week off so I could plan everything out going forward here. That’s what he wanted me to do. He said, ‘Always follow your passion.’ So that’s what this week is about for me — the purpose of this week is getting Och-Ziff on the right page.”

Working the phones, he says, has proved surprisingly productive. “I just ended up calling Mark McCombe — he’s the co-head of alternative investments at BlackRock.” (That’s the biggest asset manager on the planet.) “I don’t know if it was by luck or by chance that I got him. I was expecting maybe his assistant, but he picked up the phone directly. I think he was on his way out of the office, but I mentioned what we were trying to do and how BlackRock can help Och-Ziff.” McCombe’s office denies the conversation took place, but in Young’s telling, he expressed hope that BlackRock’s size might get Och-Ziff’s attention. “Och-Ziff is so big, and they need help turning that big truck around,” he says. “It’s a lot harder to turn a big truck versus a Toyota. You need a little more guidance. Because sometimes you can be so tuned into your own business it’s like being in your house with the TV on — you don’t realize what’s going on in the outside world. Sometimes that can happen.”

*This article appears in the September 19, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.