The Pods On Top Of The Food Chain

There are lots of videos online of orca pods feasting on white sharks. What rattles the imagination is how they go straight for the liver. The liver’s bounty is a dense nutrient-rich oil called squalene that can account for up to a third of a shark’s weight.

Hopping over the semantic curiosity that benz and squal just adopt an “ene” to become oil words, I’ll skip straight to ruthless analogy. The pod shops in investing are top of the food chain in asset management. It’s said on the internet, so I know it’s true, that a single shark liver can nourish an orca for a “whole day”. First of all, if that’s supposed to be a jaw-dropping amount of nutrition call me underwhelmed. If a white shark a day keeps the doctor away, I’m left to think Shamu’s cursed appetite has no end — this is an aqua-treadmill of blood without a killswitch.

Which serves the analogy perfectly.

Squalene is alpha. There’s not a ton of it out there and the hunt for it mobilizes the top of the academic food chain. In 2000, I made $50k including signing and year-end bonus my first year out of college. That figure is 8x today for top grads accepting prop shop offers. Talent war.

The trading world’s ruthless focus on squalene — risk-adjusted returns while staying market-neutral to print money in any environment has been adopted by the investing world. And the allocators have noticed. The pods, like the orcas, are eating everyone’s lunch right out of their bellies. And those inflows are arming the war for mature talent too. Giant guarantees to proven managers. The kind of money that can get even the most ambitious manager to re-think starting their own firm.

With that intro, I’ll point you to a podcast:

Patrick O’Shaughnessy interviews Will England (Invest Like The Best)

Will is the CEO/CIO of Walleye’s $5B multi-manager hedge fund. I’m familiar with Walleye because they started in the mid-aughts as an option market maker. Several friends and ex-colleagues have traded for them. But this podcast is about their hedge fund, not the prop biz. It’s the best investing interview I’ve heard this year.

First of all, if you are unfamiliar with the multi-manager or “pod shop” pass-thru hedge fund model then this interview is a great primer. The big 4 managers in the space are Citadel, Balyasny, Millenium and Point 72.

Will’s language, tone, and thinking will be deeply familiar to folks who have done tours of duty at prop trading and option firms. My take on this interview is “damn, that was honest”. Will is in Minnesota but shoots as straight as a Chicago pit trader. Heck, he addressed the alignment issues with the “back book” — I’ve talked to pod traders about this idea before and couldn’t believe he broached the topic in this call). His voice was like a lullaby from my younger years.

Patrick asks the right questions. Everything from the knowledge to the story is worth an hour of your time. It confirmed a lot of what I thought I knew and taught me even more.

A few thoughts of my own

Will says 25% of their business is still options trading but a significant chunk is now fundamental equity. The PMs are trying to earn a 3% spread between longs and shorts after stripping away beta and factor tilts. Just like other pod shops, these guys are farming pure alpha or “idio” (for idiosyncratic) and levering it to get to about a 30% return which the investor hopes to see half of after implicit/explicit fees.

It has always struck me that this is the natural progression of active management. A barbell where you pay up for pure alpha and get your beta for free.

The closet beta active management world is a melting ice cube. But the incentives and stickiness of legacy relationships both from allocators and story-telling managers will try to keep the freezer door closed as long as possible.

But I can’t say I know where the equilibrium will shake out. If you have pure alpha, you can choose your investors either by fees or by preference. You have all the bargaining power. But I’m not sure what the capacity of alpha even is. Will didn’t mince words about the competitiveness. He thinks the number of PMs that possess both the chops and psychological profile to play this game is on the order of a thousand people maybe. The pods are flush with cash and signing talent with big upfront deals like athletes. (He admit the model could be in a period of froth at the moment). Will’s belief in market efficiency sounds like “efficiently efficient”. Yes, there are 10 Sharpe strategies. They are also low-capacity. Any strategy with an obnoxiously high Sharpes is basically arbitrage counting down to extinction. But that new species pop up and then disappear is a general truism. A never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

[Aside: Anyone reading Moontower for a long time knows I don’t wade into the market-efficiency debates because they sound like academic masturbation. I have my own version which rhymes with what Will talks about — The “No Easy Trades” Principle. When I encounter someone who disagrees with this I hear one of these possible confessions:

  1. “I got rich on a highly concentrated risky bet and have never considered what the outcomes would be if I re-ran my life 100x”

  2. “I have no idea what I’m talking about”

I was out with a friend recently who ran a high-volume options trading business for 25 years. We talked about how nearly every time they would “exploit” some weird rev/con financing opportunity they found a way to get f’d by the borrow market. He could rattle off example after example of interesting set-ups and yet the outcomes were consistent. You’re literally paying to discover new failure modes but the way each setup arrives you feel like you can see why the opportunities are real.

Almost every time I did a trade and felt good about it afterward, I was in the pre-glow of a bad beat. The trades that feel scary are the ones that pay. And this makes sense — the price is compensation for doing what nobody wants to do. The job-to-be-done is finding a way to manage the risk until everyone who is transacting to satisfy their greed or pain is filled. The removal of that pressure is what begins to turn the trade in your favor.

Trading profitably is painful. It must be or there is no reason to be paid for it. what’s worse — just because you feel pain, doesn’t mean you will make money. The pain is the cherry on top of doing everything right. You can have pain even if you do things wrong and it will be in vain. The difference is when you do things wrong, you feel good about it in the interim because you don’t get how this works. And that fleeting satisfaction is what keeps you from learning.

I’m sorry but trading profitably means being constantly paranoid and finding a way to live with that. I suspect a subtle aspect of what makes the pods so smart is they have codified and automated the risk management in a way that guarantees the PM’s paranoia.

This is an aside because I think you need a lot of reps to grok what I’m saying and honestly most people will just go on pointing to things that don’t make sense and breathlessly exclaim “See the market is inefficient”. You don’t have a right to say that unless you tweet it from your yacht purchased with lots of receipts.

Strategically, in a game where the skill level is extremely high and evenly matched, then variance will drive a lot of the separation. So the counterintuitive response for someone dead-set on being rich but knows they are overmatched is to take a giant, high-variance bet and hope this was the lifetime it panned out.]

Sorry, back to the body.

In short, I don’t consider what these pods are doing to be investing. They are trading but on a medium time horizon. It’s called “fundamental equity” but let’s say the holding periods are under 2 years and probably more like 1 (if someone knows the stats please share) then this isn’t about “realized” fundamentals. This is about anticipating change in sentiment around expected fundamentals. This feels like a game of nearer-term info, flows, positioning, and game theory. A re-rating game. A game that was much more similar to what I did (although it sounds more complex than vol trading which has more to do with flows and is yet even smaller capacity) than what I imagine value investors do.

My thoughts on value investing are mixed. And I’m being liberal with the word “value”, recognizing that cookie-cutter implementations of “value” are the equivalent of accounting fails (like not updating the meta-principles to handle object-level changes in importance to things like goodwill or brand equity). I assume there are value managers who can spot high-multiple value names because they have a “g” column in their Pandas dataframe (just kidding — I meant in their spreadsheet — we are still talking about value investors here). The problem with these managers and their “long-term” theses is they want you to buy the brand name vitamin instead of the generic and when you ask for the quarterly bloodwork to see if it’s making a difference they say you won’t see the benefits until you retire. The blood results are just “noise” they’ll tell you.

On the other hand, if the manager’s signal reliably swamped the noise then they wouldn’t give that away. They’d try to get pod shop fees. Market efficiency is fractal — there’s a market for the assets and for the labor that moves the assets. I’ve alluded to this before in The Paradox of Provable Alpha and Will’s interview made me think it’s only going to be a more relevant paradox going forward.

Learn more:

🧵BEAT THE PODS: A 7-POINT RECIPE FOR SINGLE MANAGERS (Brett Caughran)

This is a long but good thread by @FundamentEdge

This pairs well with Ted Seides’ interview with Jason Daniel and Porter Collins, 2 of the investors made famous in The Big Short from their work with Steve Eisman:

🎙️Big Shorts and Big Longs (Capital Allocators)

These guys had a stint at Citadel where they learned the intricacies of the pod model. It didn’t resonate with them and for reasons that confirm my own interpretation — pods are more like traders than long-term investors. They had 2 big insights:

  1. The pod model is so prevalent (and it is smart) that if you don’t understand the dynamics they impose on the market, you’re playing with one eye closed. They have respect for the model (and how Citadel implemented it) even if it’s not their game.

  2. They realized the model left some forms of edge behind because of its nature. They could make picking that up part of their own niche. This is touched upon in Caughran’s thread above.

🔗Multi-Manager/Pod/Hedge Fund 101 (7 min read)

Byrne Hobart’s primer from his evergreen Capital Gains Substack

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