Science in Finance II “…ists”

A century or two ago, finance was the career for the less talented members of the family. Sons of the aristocracy would eventually go to sit in the House of Lords, while overseeing their property. One son would join the military, Catholic families would send a son off to the church. Perhaps if they were of an enquiring mind one son might become a scientist. But if a son turned out to be intellectually challenged he would be sent off to be ‘something in the City.’ This didn’t require any more brains than that required for an arts degree. This was the finance-is-for-artists (and long lunches) period, now long gone.

More often one now finds proper scientists working in finance. They have the analytical skills needed by investment banks and hedge funds. I imagine some must start out being frustrated by the lack of an established rigorous foundation for the subject. Where are the conservation laws? Where are the experimental results and the hypotheses? Quantitative finance has a well-used set of tools, but the popular models are essentially ad hoc.

Those in trading are undoubtedly pragmatists who really don’t care for the port-and-cheese side of finance, nor for compact theories. Can it be put in a spreadsheet and does it make money? That’s all that matters.

Unfortunately, most of the theory is built by axiomatists who really seem to believe in their models. These are the ones to be really frightened of. Speaking to them is like speaking to a god botherer, “there is but one stochastic volatility model and its name is Heston.” (News flash: God and complete markets are simplifying assumptions that make life easier for the unimaginative, you aren’t meant to believe in them once you’ve grown up!)

My feeling is that the best type of ‘ist’ working in finance is a pragmatic scientist, combining the curiosity and the scepticism of the scientist with the get-the-job-done attitude of the pragmatist.