The money poured in, crazy money. Pension funds across America, burned by the dot-com collapse in 2000, rushed into hedge funds, the favored vehicle of the quants, entrusting their members' retirement savings to this group of secretive and opaque investors. Cliff Asness's hedge fund, AQR, had started with $1 billion in 1998. By mid-2007, its assets under management neared $40 billion. Citadel's kitty topped $20 billion. In 2005, Jim Simons announced that Renaissance would launch a fund that could juggle a record $100 billion in assets. Boaz Weinstein, just thirty-three, was wielding roughly $30 billion worth of positions for Deutsche Bank.
The growth had come rapid-fire. In 1990, hedge funds held $39 billion in assets. By 2000, the amount had leapt to $490 billion, and by 2007 it had exploded to $2 trillion. And those figures didn't capture the hundreds of billions of hedge fund dollars marshaled by banks such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Deutsche Bank, which were rapidly transforming from staid white-shoe bank companies into hot-rod hedge fund vehicles fixated on the fast buck—or the trillions more in leverage that juiced their returns like anabolic steroids.
The Great Hedge Fund Bubble—for it was a true bubble—was one of the most frenzied gold rushes of all time. Thousands of hedge fund jockeys became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. One of the quickest tickets to the party was a background in math and computer science. On Wall Street Poker Night in 2006, Simons, Griffin, Asness, Muller, and Weinstein sat at the top of the heap, living outsized lives of private jets, luxury yachts, and sprawling mansions.
A year later, each of the players in the room that night would find himself in the crosshairs of one of the most brutal market meltdowns ever seen, one they had helped to create. Indeed, in their search for Truth, in their quest for alpha, the quants had unwittingly primed the bomb and lit the fuse for the financial catastrophe that began to explode in spectacular fashion in August 2007.
The result was possibly the biggest, fastest, and strangest financial collapse ever seen, and the starting point for the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Amazingly, not one of the quants, despite their chart-topping IQs, their walls of degrees, their impressive Ph.D.'s, their billions of wealth earned by anticipating every bob and weave the market threw their way, their decades studying every statistical quirk of the market under the sun, saw the train wreck coming.
How could they have missed it? What went wrong?
A hint to the answer was captured centuries ago by a man whose name emblazoned the poker chips the quants wagered with that night: Isaac Newton. After losing £20,000 on a vast Ponzi scheme known as the South Sea Bubble in 1720, Newton observed: "I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people."
From The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It; © 2010 by Scott Patterson. Excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.