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Trump & Russia probes recap: Week of Mar 3 - 9

EDIT SUNDAY 3-17: the weekly recap that would normally be posted Monday this week will instead be posted Tuesday morning. I'm very sorry, I have 2.2k words written, it looks like to fully recap last week it needs to be at least 4.5k. It will be extra good to make up for it!
 
Heads up: The day of the week I post these may change in the near future due to changing real life circumstances. Would you be averse to a bi-weekly recap? If I keep it at a weekly thing, I might make it a Tuesday through Monday recap (i.e. posted Tuesday mornings). Please give feedback at this SurveyMonkey link or in comments below.
This is a really long one! I’d like to note how much news the Democratic house is making. The Congress section has more than quadrupled in size.
All recaps are also posted on RusticGorillaPress, where I think it’s a bit cleaner and attractive than on reddit.
Housekeeping:
  • The list of Trump admin departures (415 of them) can be accessed here. The website is now updated! See the new version here. When a person is added to the list I post to /45chaos.
  • There’s a mailing list for notifications when this review is posted plus a link. To be added, send me PM with your email address. If you signed up already, check the spam folder just in case
  • If you’d like to donate a dollar a month, I’d appreciate it: patreon. Or if one-time donations are your thing, Buy Me A Coffee. Recaps will continue regardless of the donations, so no pressure.
  • There’s now a keep_track discord!
On to the review...
 

Week of Mar 3 - 9: What We Learned in the Trump and Russia Probes

 

MUELLER INVESTIGATION

Mueller: Manafort

Sentencing. As everyone likely knows, the former campaign chairman to President Trump was sentenced to 47 months in prison for bank and tax fraud. Prosecutors recommended Manafort be given at least 19 years in jail, as the sentencing guidelines state. However, Judge T.S. Ellis called the guidelines "excessive" and "out of whack" because Manafort had no prior convictions and lived "an otherwise blameless life."
  • Many people have decried the sentence as too light. There are numerous factors that played into the 47 month sentence and the disparity between it and the sentences for other crimes. This article by the Atlantic gives a good overview of the systematic factors.
  • OPINION: I don't have a problem with 4 years for bank and tax fraud. I have a problem with the harsher sentences for what seem to me to be crimes that are as bad if not lesser than fraud. While I disagree with Judge Ellis in many ways, I think the problem is larger than one judge. The entire justice system needs an overhaul. Instead of targeting Ellis with outrage, let's focus on what we can do to change the system. Here's a link to nonprofits that are working to change the system.
 
Upcoming sentence. While the Virginia sentencing went fairly well for Manafort, the DC sentencing coming up on Wednesday is likely to be tougher. Judge Amy Berman Jackson could sentence him to an additional 10 years for conspiracy charges. Jackson sent Manafort to jail for witness tampering and ruled that he breached his plea agreement by lying to prosecutors. His history with Jackson has not been as friendly as it was with Ellis.
  • Keep in mind this story from a few weeks ago: The Manhattan DA is prepared to file criminal charges against Paul Manafort, charges that wouldn't be susceptible to a presidential pardon.
 

Mueller: Stone

Gag order. Roger Stone is testing the limits of the gag order issued by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson banning him from making any public statements about Robert Mueller’s investigation. Judge Jackson gave Stone until Monday to explain why he did not inform the court about his upcoming book, in which he attacks the special counsel as “crooked.” Stone’s lawyers claimed “it did not occur to counsel” to tell the judge about the book because it had gone to printing before the gag order was issued. Tuesday, the judge dismissed their reasoning and ordered the defense to submit a plan to come into compliance by March 11 (today). She further ordered Stone to submit communications about the book and information about his social media posts.
 
Discovery. Mueller's office gave Roger Stone's attorneys over 2.2 million pages of discovery materials, with over 4 terabytes of data still to come.
 

Mueller: Other

Mystery update. The unknown foreign-owned company fighting a grand jury subpoena from Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed a brief in an ongoing legal battle to get the Supreme Court to review, and possibly overturn, a decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The lower court ruling held that the company must submit to the subpoena and will be assessed a large daily fine until it complies. In the new brief, “Country A,” which owns the mystery company, argued that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over foreign countries in criminal matters. Country A further warns that “the D.C. Circuit’s ruling will create a foreign-policy nightmare, guaranteeing reciprocal treatment for U.S. agencies and instrumentalities abroad.”
 
Troll factory. In the case against Concord Management and Consulting, a Russian company accused of funding the St. Petersburg troll farm, Mueller’s team argued against handing over sensitive materials in discovery. The gist of the prosecutor’s argument was that Russia could use discovery obtained through the US court system to gather intelligence on Mueller’s probe and other US investigative secrets. Concord’s lead attorney argued a defense cannot be mounted without the ability to at least discuss millions of “sensitive” documents. For now, this material is housed in the US with an independent counsel.
  • Mueller’s team has reason to be concerned, as “non-sensitive” documents turned over to Concord have already found their way online - in an altered state meant to discredit Mueller’s investigation.
 

RUSSIA NEWS

NK Summit. As reported in the last recap, the Trump administration asked the Kremlin for advice before meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. Following the summit, Russian state TV scorched Trump for being “weak” and praised Kim Jong Un for “forcing the head of the largest imperialist nation to negotiate with him as an equal.” The host of Russia’s main weekly news show opined that “Trump miraculously managed to worsen relations on all fronts... Nothing but failures at every turn... Trump, who calls himself the ‘master of the deal,’ left Vietnam empty-handed.”
  • In a feedback loop similar to that between the White House and Fox News, the Kremlin, Trump, and the GOP repeated the same talking points about the failure of the summit: blaming the Democrats and Michael Cohen.
    • Trump tweeted “For the Democrats to interview in open hearings a convicted liar & fraudster, at the same time as the very important nuclear summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to the ‘walk.’”
    • Russian state media: “Without a hint of conscience, Democrats scheduled these open hearings to dramatically complicate the life of Republican Trump, at the same time that he, at the other end of the world, tried to resolve the crisis around Pyongyang’s nuclear development.”
 
Troll strategy. Cybersecurity experts have noted that Russian trolls are attempting a different strategy, “promoting politically divisive messages through phony social media accounts instead of creating propaganda themselves.” John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at FireEye Inc. said: “Instead of creating content themselves, we see them amplifying content. Then it’s not necessarily inauthentic, and that creates an opportunity for them to hide behind somebody else.”
 
UK hack. The UK believes Russia’s GRU was behind a cyberattack on a British institute that aims to counter Russian fake news and disinformation. Security officials reportedly see the cyberattack as a response to Britain implicating the GRU in the Salisbury poisoning last year.
 
Money laundering. A group of investigative journalists revealed the existence of a $9 billion money-laundering operation called “the Troika Laundromat,” with links to politicians and Russia’s largest private investment bank, Troika Dialog. A collection of offshore shell companies was used to move billions of dollars from Russia to the west. Criminal and legitimate money was likely mixed together in the process, masking the original source and “washing” the criminal money. As Bill Browder summed up, “This is the pipe through which the proceeds of kleptocracy flow from Russia to the west.”
  • A more in-depth explainer can be found here and here.
 

CONGRESS

Erik Prince. Blackwater founder (and brother to Betsy Devos) Erik Prince acknowledged for the first time that he met at Trump Tower in August 2016 with Stephen Miller, George Nader, and Donald Trump Jr. Prince failed to disclose the meeting when interviewed by Congress in 2017. When asked about this, Prince suggested the transcript of his congressional appearance may have been wrong. Rep. Adam Schiff was asked about this and responded, "There's nothing wrong with our transcript... He did not disclose that meeting to our committee."
 
Pardon controversy. In Cohen’s public testimony before the House Oversight Committee, he stated under oath that he never sought a pardon from Trump. Last week, numerous media outlets published reports that Cohen’s former lawyer approached Trump’s lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani, to inquire about the possibility of a pardon. Additionally, Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis basically confirmed this to the WSJ, but said it was only after Trump’s team “dangled” the possibility first. Then, on Friday, Trump tweeted: “ he directly asked me for a pardon. I said NO. He lied again!”
  • Republicans have seized upon this discrepancy to refer Cohen to the DOJ for possible perjury charges.
  • Legal experts noted that by sending the above tweet, Trump made himself a key witness in both congressional and DOJ investigations into Cohen’s possible perjury. A CNN legal analyst said: “It is beyond ill-advised for the President to be tweeting about this. Republicans have demanded that DOJ conduct a perjury investigation. And Trump just identified himself as a key witness.”
 
Edits. Since his public testimony, Cohen has testified privately before numerous congressional committees and turned over crucial documents. On Wednesday, Cohen gave the House Intelligence Committee documents that reportedly show edits to his false 2017 written statement to congress. In his public testimony last month, Cohen said Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow made changes to his 2017 statement on Trump Tower Moscow, which was then reviewed by other Trump World lawyers like Abbe Lowell, Ivanka and Jared’s lawyer.
  • CNN legal analyst Susan Hennessey pointed out on Twitter: “This is significant regardless of the actual substance of the edits. Editing and returning a document communicates some approval that the edited document be submitted. If Trump knew the content was false, and it appears he did, then that is suborning perjury.”
 
Trump-Putin docs. Chairmen of the House Oversight, Intelligence, and Foreign Affairs committees have demanded the White House and State Department turn over documents and witness interviews related to Trump’s communications with Putin, “including in-person meetings and telephone calls.” Any employees with knowledge of these communications are required to submit themselves for interview. The deadline for these requests is Friday, March 15. These letters follow a request for information sent Feb. 21st that the White House ignored.
  • Referring to reports that Trump “went to great lengths to conceal notes” created during Trump’s meetings with Putin, the chairmen wrote: “These allegations, if true, raise profound national security, counterintelligence, and foreign policy concerns, especially in light of Russia’s ongoing active measures campaign to improperly influence American elections.”
 
Security clearance oversight. The White House refused to comply with a request from the House Oversight Committee for information related to Jared Kushner’s security clearance, calling the demand “overly intrusive.” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone said complying would “concede the Executive's constitutional prerogatives” and “allow the Committee to jeopardize the individual privacy rights of current and former Executive Branch employees.” Cipollone agreed, though, to brief the committee on general White House security clearance processes.
  • Chairman Elijah Cummings responded in defense of the powers of oversight held by Congress and is considering his next step, which could possibly include issuing subpoenas.
 
Kushner’s clearance. Congressional Democrats called for a criminal investigation into Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, for allegedly making “false statements” during the application process for security clearance. In a letter to Attorney General William Barr, Reps. Ted Lieu and Don Beyer stated, “Mr. Kushner omitted contacts with more than one hundred foreign persons on his clearance forms – including the Russian Ambassador.” The congressmen also reference a recent report from the New York Times that President Trump “ordered” then-chief of staff John Kelly to grant Kushner a top-secret clearance, “overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials” and White House counsel Don McGahn.
  • Excerpt from the letter: “Lying on one’s SF-86 Questionnaire for National Security Positions, however, is a federal crime under 18 U.S. Code § 1001 punishable by up to five years in prison. It was previously reported that Mr. Kushner had to submit at least three separate addenda detailing over 100 omissions, including the infamous June 2016 meeting he attended in Trump Tower where Russian agents offered “dirt” on then-candidate Hillary Clinton. He also failed to report his meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak and the head of Russian-owned bank Vnesheconombank.”
 
Ivanka’s clearance. After Reps. Lieu and Beyer sent the letter requesting a criminal investigation into Jared Kushner, CNN published a report that President Trump had also pressured then-chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn to give his daughter, Ivanka Trump, security clearance. It is important to note that the president has the legal authority as commander in chief to decide who is given access to classified information. However, in “most instances” the decision is left up to the White House personnel security office based on FBI background checks.
  • When the personnel office determined Kushner should not receive a top-secret security clearance, the president allegedly “pushed Kelly and McGahn to make the decision on his daughter and son-in-law's clearances so it did not appear as if he was tainting the process to favor his family… After both refused, Trump granted them their security clearances.”
 
Clearance leaks. Late last week, news broke that a White House source leaked documents related to Kushner's and Ivanka's security clearances to the House Oversight Committee. According to Axios, the documents "provide detailed information on the timeline for how Kushner's and Trump's security clearances were approved and who the people were involved in processing and the final decision."
 
Judiciary request. On Monday, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, sent letters to 81 individuals and entities requesting a large variety of documents related to possible obstruction of justice, corruption, or abuse of power by President Trump. Recipients have two weeks to respond; failure to do so can result in legally-binding subpoenas.
  • Recipients included Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump; son-in-law Jared Kushner; Allen Weisselberg, the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Organization; former attorney general Jeff Sessions; former communications director Hope Hicks; the Trump inaugural committee; former White House lawyer Don McGahn; and Cambridge Analytica. The full list can be found here. Note Ivanka Trump’s absence from the list. When questioned about it, Rep. Nadler said she could “quite conceivably” get a document request in the future.
  • Rep. Nadler: “Over the last several years, President Trump has evaded accountability for his near-daily attacks on our basic legal, ethical and constitutional rules and norms.”
 
Cooperators? Some of the individuals included in the House Judiciary Committee’s request for documents told the public whether they plan to comply… or not.
  • Longtime Trump confidant and chair of his inaugural committee, Tom Barrack, told CNBC he “will fully cooperate.” Barrack was asked to turn over documents related to numerous issues, including foreign governments "discussing, offering, or providing, or being solicited to discuss, offer, or provide, any present or emolument of any kind," to Trump's inaugural committee.
  • Republican strategist and former communications adviser, Michael Caputo, reportedly “informed the committee that he has no records responsive to their inquiries and he does not plan to testify in front of the panel.” Caputo told the Washington Post he has already begun to form a joint strategy to resist the Judiciary Committee’s request with four other Trump associates. “All four are reluctant to appear because they believe it’s a perjury trap designed to move toward impeachment of the president,” he said.
  • Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary, told Fox News that he plans to cooperate with the House’s probe. However, Spicer also stated that the committee’s request is a “fishing expedition” by Democrats.
 
Tax returns. The House Ways and Means Committee is preparing to request Trump’s tax returns, perhaps as early as next week. Rep. Bill Pascrell said they will seek 10 years of Trump’s personal tax returns but will not request his business filings at this time. A team of four attorneys have been assisting the committee in crafting an “air-tight” legal strategy with the knowledge that it will likely become a court battle. A 1924 provision in the tax code gives the chairmen of certain congressional committees the power to request any individuals’ tax return information. It must remain private, however, unless lawmakers vote to make it public.
  • Trump has reportedly made it clear to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that he is not to turn over Trump’s tax returns. Mnuchin has already stonewalled Democrats’ requests for information about Trump’s businesses. For example, Sen. Sherrod Brown has been trying since 2017 to get a list of the Trump family’s investors and business partners.
 
FBI HQ. House leaders sent a letter to the General Services Administration (GSA) demanding documents that are being withheld about the Trump administration’s decision to block the relocation of the FBI headquarters. Moving the headquarters would have allowed developers to acquire the current site and compete with the Trump International Hotel. The five chairs of House committees sent a request to the GSA in October 2018, but did not receive all the required documents. In the new follow up letter, the Democrats give a deadline of March 20, after which they state they “will be forced to consider alternative means to obtain compliance.”
  • The plan to relocate the FBI was in place before Trump took office. In fact, before he was elected, Trump “expressed interest in an earlier project that would have involved moving the FBI to a new site in suburban Maryland and selling its Pennsylvania Avenue location to a private developer.” Trump wanted to acquire the property for himself. After becoming president, this was out of the question so he blocked the longstanding plan. This decision will cost hundreds of millions of dollars more and accommodate thousands fewer employees.
 
New hire. House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, hired the former second-in-command prosecutor at SDNY’s organized crime unit to serve as the committee’s senior adviser and director of investigations. Daniel Goldman spent ten years in the Southern District of New York prosecuting Russian mob figures and obtaining convictions for money laundering, racketeering, and fraud. The hire shows Chairman Schiff is following through on his promise to focus on Donald Trump’s finances, specifically crossing Trump’s “red line” to focus on money laundering and financial leverage foreign entities may have over the president.
  • In an emailed statement, Goldman said: “Under Chairman Schiff’s leadership, we intend to run a professional investigation designed to uncover the facts and the truth.”
 

OTHER INVESTIGATIONS

More subpoenas. The New York State Department of Financial Services opened an investigation into the insurance practices of the Trump Organization, issuing a broad subpoena to the organization’s insurance broker, Aon plc. The Department of Financial Services has the ability to refer any illegal activity to prosecutors. The subpoena comes after Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, testified that President Trump inflated his assets to insurance companies.
  • According to the New York Times, the subpoena “seeks copies of all communications between Aon and Trump and the Trump Organization, as well as all internal Aon documents relating to Trump and the company.” In addition, regulators are interested in “compensation for the current and former Aon employees who handled the Trump Organization account, seeking information about their incentives, bonus payments or commissions. They are seeking similar contracts and agreements between Aon and Trump.”
 
Inaugural donations. The Guardian reported last week that Trump's inauguration was given a combined $75,000 "from shell companies that masked the involvement of a foreign contributor or others with foreign ties." At least one the contributors is not eligible to make political donations in the US. The three shell companies masked a wealthy Indian financier based in London; a lobbyist for the Taiwanese government & funded by Chinese investors; an Israeli real estate developer who claims to have a green card.
 
Trump’s involvement. A report by Bloomberg revealed that Trump was more involved in planning his inauguration than previously reported. The chairman of the inaugural committee, Tom Barrack, “would frequently call Trump so he could weigh in” when questions arose in planning meetings. According to multiple sources, Trump “wanted to know everything about the inauguration’s finances.” This is important because the White House has denied Trump’s involvement, claiming that the various federal investigations into the inauguration have nothing to do with Trump.
  • White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in December when asked about the investigations: “That doesn’t have anything to do with the president or the first lady. The biggest thing the president did, his engagement in the inauguration, was to come here and raise his hand and take the oath of office. The president was focused on the transition during that time and not on any of the planning for the inauguration.”
  • Federal prosecutors in New York and AGs in New Jersey and DC are investigating Trump’s inauguration. Additionally, Tom Barrack was contacted by the House Judiciary Committee for documents related to the inaugural committee’s work.
 

DOJ NEWS

Barr update. Attorney General William Barr decided not to recuse himself from overseeing the special counsel’s investigation. A Department of Justice spokesman said he conferred with ethics officials who advised him a recusal was not necessary.
 
DOJ nomination. The Trump administration reportedly plans to nominate current US attorney for DC, Jessie Liu, to serve as US Associate Attorney General - the third-ranking DOJ official that oversees all civil litigation in the DOJ. Of concern, however, is who may be nominated to replace her as the head federal prosecutor in DC, the office that is involved in key aspects of Mueller’s investigation like the prosecution of Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Maria Butina, and Sam Patten.
  • Liu was part of Trump’s transition team, which was raised as a conflict of interest in her confirmation for her current role in DC. In the hearings, she also acknowledged that she had an in-person interview with Trump for the job, “a departure from standard practice.”
 

MISC. NEWS

Showered with presents. The State Department released its annual list of gifts given by foreign leaders to federal employees, including the Trump family and administration. The list shows that in 2017, foreign leaders gave Trump’s family over $140,000 in gifts. China, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Arab states gifted the most lavishly. As the New York Times concluded, “flattery was a major theme of the gifts that Mr. Trump received.” When the first family receives a gift, they have to turn them over to the National Archives.
  • The two most expensive gifts were given by China’s president: an ornate calligraphy display and presentation box worth $14,400 and a porcelain dinnerware set that includes plates imprinted with the pink house at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort worth $16,250. Presents from the Saudis and Gulf Arab states accounted for at least $24,120.
  • It’s hard not to notice that the world leaders Trump has treated the worst also gave some of the least expensive gifts. For instance, Germany’s Merkel gave “Mont Blanc pens and paper worth $5,264; Macron a map from 1783 of the United States worth $1,100 and Trudeau a sandstone statue of a male lion wearing a crown valued at $450.”
 

Too long; didn’t read section (as short as possible)

Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison for bank and tax fraud; he has a second sentencing on March 13. The New York State Department of Financial Services opened an investigation into the insurance practices of the Trump Organization, issuing a broad subpoena to the organization’s insurance broker, Aon plc. The Guardian reported last week that Trump's inauguration was given a combined $75,000 "from shell companies that masked the involvement of a foreign contributor or others with foreign ties." A report by Bloomberg revealed that Trump was more involved in planning his inauguration than previously reported.
Attorney General William Barr decided not to recuse himself from overseeing the special counsel’s investigation. On Monday, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, sent letters to 81 individuals and entities requesting a large variety of documents related to possible obstruction of justice, corruption, or abuse of power by President Trump.
Erik Prince acknowledged for the first time that he met at Trump Tower in August 2016 with Stephen Miller, George Nader, and Donald Trump Jr. He did not disclose the meeting to Congress. Cohen has testified privately before numerous congressional committees and turned over crucial documents, including documents that show Trump’s team made edits to Cohen’s 2017 false testimony. The House has requested information related to Trump’s communications with Putin.
The White House refused to comply with a request from the House Oversight Committee for information related to Jared Kushner’s security clearance. However, a White House source leaked relevant documents to the House. There was also a report that Trump had pressured then-chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn to give his daughter, Ivanka Trump, security clearance. Congressional Democrats called for a criminal investigation into Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, for allegedly making “false statements” during the application process for security clearance.
The House Ways and Means Committee is preparing to request Trump’s tax returns, perhaps as early as next week. House leaders sent a letter to the General Services Administration (GSA) demanding documents that are being withheld about the Trump administration’s decision to block the relocation of the FBI headquarters. House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, hired the former second-in-command prosecutor at SDNY’s organized crime unit to serve as the committee’s senior adviser and director of investigations.
submitted by rusticgorilla to Keep_Track

The Stockpicker’s Burden, and Other Lessons

Edward Thorp, the father of card counting and quantitative investing, fills you in on his mistakes so you don’t have to repeat them.
https://www.barrons.com/articles/the-stockpickers-burden-and-other-lessons-1521460800
By Leslie P. Norton and Dan Lam March 19, 2018 8:00 a.m. ET
In 1962, the young writer Tom Wolfe wrote a sympathetic profile in the Washington Post about a 30-year-old mathematician who had learned how to beat the house in blackjack. The mathematician, Edward Thorp, described how to figure out the sequence of the cards and how to bet accordingly.
The story went viral. And Thorp, who taught math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then at the University of California, Los Angeles, became an instant celebrity who wrote best-selling books about his techniques. (In fact, Fischer Black and Myron Scholes used a key idea from one of those books for their formula to price options; they subsequently won the Nobel Prize.)
Thorp also invented a wearable computer that could beat the casino at roulette. Soon, he took what he knew and began applying it to the stock market and taking private clients. One early admirer was Warren Buffett, who having briefly shut down an early money management vehicle because stocks were too expensive, advised a client to sign on with Thorp. In 1969, Thorp opened Princeton Newport, a quant fund that returned 19.1% a year until 1988. A few years later, Thorp started a new statistical arbitrage fund using techniques he discovered in 1980.
“Ed is known as the father of quantitative investing, but his genius has really been the ability to identify inefficient areas of the market and figure out ways to take advantage of mispricings,” said Steven Friedman, founder of the Santangel’s Investor Forum, an investor conference. Thorp shut the second fund down in 2002, when returns “were down to the low teens. I didn’t want to work for the low teens,” he recalled.
All along, Thorp has been writing his books, including the entertaining and informative memoir A Man for All Markets, which comes out in paperback next month. We caught up with Thorp, now 85, just before he left for a hiking vacation in New Zealand. In this first part of the wide-ranging interview, he told us how stock markets are like casinos, and why index investing is worth it.
Barron’s: How did you become the father of card counting?
Thorp: In high school, it occurred to me that the roulette ball moves in a stately orbit like a planet. I thought it might be predictable. I did a lot of doctoral work in physics, and was convinced I could predict from the motion of the ball and the spinning rotor roughly where the ball would fall, and if I did so I would have a huge advantage. That’s what got me interested in gambling. I went to the casinos in Christmas of 1958, and while there I read an article from a statistics journal that showed how to play blackjack so you lost slowly. I decided the game was beatable essentially by keeping track of the cards. So I got all the information from the people who wrote the article, improved their calculations, and used those calculations to figure out how to count cards.
I was at M.I.T. at the time and [entered the data into] an early high-speed computer that was available to the faculty. After nine months, I had my results. I saw that indeed you could beat blackjack and do a nice job. I announced it at the American Math Society, which was attended not just by mathematicians but lots of other characters like Tom Wolfe, and then it went viral on the Associated Press wire.
Q: Why are some tables hot and cold?
A: If the game is honest, most of the time it’s just random fluctuations. Those random fluctuations are what I think of as luck.
Q: How are casinos similar to the stock market?
A: Imagine you are investing in an index fund. The casino is Mr. Market, who offers you a collection of bets. If you choose an index fund, say VTSAX [the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index fund], on a typical day it randomly fluctuates by 1%. But there is a long-term drift in your favor of about one twentieth of a [percentage point]. So if you had $1 million in your portfolio in such an index, Mr. Market will come to you each day and say, “Let’s flip a coin. If it’s 50/50, then you’ll win $10,000 or lose $10,000. But I’ll pay you $500 if you play that day.” If you play for one day, you’ll be at $9,500 or at $10,500. If you play for a year, the chances are moderately good that you’ll be ahead because those $500 payments add up and overcome the fluctuation. Maybe a third of the years, you’ll be down and unhappy. But if you play for 10 years or 20 years, then those $500 payments just keep adding up.
Warren Buffett has also devoted his life to compounding. So a similar process happens at blackjack tables. If you’re counting cards, you have a little drift in your favor. But in blackjack you play 100 hands an hour, and in a week you may play 4,000 hands. In a casino, you get to the long run fairly quickly.
Q: That stock market drift you’re talking about—are those the real numbers?
A: It is five basis points a day. [A basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point.] Multiply that by 250 days, and it’s about 12.5%. The historical geometric growth is about 10.5%, because of the fluctuations.
Q: Given that drift, is stock-picking even worth it?
A: There are three types [of investors]. One wants to do well and not spend a lot of time. Those should be passive investors, and they will beat most of the others who will be dragged down by fees and costs and punished by what I call “the scared-rabbit syndrome,” which is that they run out at the bottom and get back in at the top. The index investors who just buy and sit avoid all these issues.
Then there is the small group of investors who want to be professionals—hedge fund managers, people who work for endowments, universities, and so on. I might add that they haven’t done all that well. Then there are people who just enjoy messing around in the market and are willing to spend time to get an education. For them, I say, take a small amount of capital and learn. But put most of it in an index fund where it will grow while you are busy getting your education and paying for it.
I paid for my education and know it can be fairly expensive. My book talks about some big mistakes and also about the Kelly Criterion formula, which tells you how to allocate money between risky alternatives and gives you an idea of how much to allocate to each.
Q: But before applying the Kelly Criterion, as you’ve pointed out, you need to know how big your edge is. How do you do that?
A: At a casino, you can generally calculate your edge fairly precisely. In the stock market, it’s not so easy. For an index fund, the statistical numbers we’ve viewed are probably not too far off what you can expect going into the future, assuming the world stays something like the world we know and the U.S. is the successful country it is. It doesn’t have to be the only superpower. The historical experience in first-world countries goes back for centuries. So we have a pretty good idea what the statistics are going to be for equities going forward.
Then take those numbers and shade them somewhat conservatively, using [your assumption of] rates and tail risk. Then you can do a pretty good conservative calculation of how much to invest. But really, don’t borrow. You can make much more if you borrow when things are reasonably good, but every so often, something nasty happens.
Look at all those people who were in the VelocityShares VIX Short Volatility Holding exchange-traded note. For years people minted money and kept telling me how great it was. I studied it, couldn’t see their edge, and I could see the black swan downside. Sure enough, it was wiped out last month.
Read part 2 of our interview with Edward Thorp, “Why Edward Thorp Only Owns Berkshire Hathaway”
In the second part of our interview with card counter and mathematician Edward Thorp—the father of quantitative investing—he recalled an early brush with Bernie Madoff, described what’s in his portfolio, shared his solution to gun violence, and served up the secrets of a long life. He also shared his most recent list of what he does to promote healthy longevity, which we post in its lightly edited entirety below.
Barrons.com: All the way back in 1991, you were suspicious about Bernie Madoff’s returns.
Edward Thorp: I was asked to review the portfolio for a client, the pension plan of a large international consulting firm. I looked through their various managers. All looked fine except Bernard Madoff Investment Securities. The returns were exceedingly regular—1% or 2% a month no matter what was going on in the market, using an allegedly simple strategy of an options collar. Even when the market went down, they had magically guessed they should put on a large short in S&P index futures. It couldn’t be right. I asked the client for confirmations. For half of them, the trades never took place on the exchange that the tickets said they traded on. Then for another quarter of them, the volume didn’t match the exchange volume.
I called a friend at Bear Stearns and asked him, as a special favor since I was a large client, to get information on trading on 10 particular options on certain days. The 10 options they checked for me showed no evidence they were connected in any way with Madoff. So I told my client this was an absolute fraud and he needed to pull out. Of course, it didn’t blow up for 17 years. Some people were enraged that I never told them, but I had a fiduciary obligation to keep my mouth shut.
Q: What’s in your portfolio now?
A: One good stroke of good fortune was meeting Warren Buffett in 1968. It led me to realize that I needed to invest in Berkshire Hathaway (ticker: BRK.A), although I didn’t do it until 1982. It’s my single investment in the stock market. It’s like a broad value-stocks equity index. I hold it in lieu of VTSAX [the Vanguard Total Stock Market fund]. It does about as well with no current taxes to pay. VTSAX has dividends that are taxed annually. I also have some hedge funds, but I consider them not as good as Berkshire, so I use them to spend and finance other things I do.
Q: Why not go out and find better investments, as you did in the past?
A: When I was 35, I had lots of time and less money, so doing 10% or so better than the index, with little risk, was attractive and fun. At 85, the marginal value of time is higher and the marginal value of money is lower. These are strong disincentives when I can make a long-run 10% or so by doing nothing.
Q: There are a lot of quant funds in the market today. Is there so much competition that the inefficiencies, which at one time you would have exploited, are gone?
A: I don’t think so. The quant funds trawl through massive amounts of data. But there’s a lot of information about companies that aren’t in the available data, including strategic thinking. Take, for instance, the fact that some companies buy back stock intelligently and some do it very stupidly. The intelligent ones buy back stock when they’re getting their money’s worth, when it’s actually worth paying for the shares because they’re underpriced. Take an extreme case where the stock has liquidation value of $10 a share and the company can buy back stock at $8 a share. Many closed-end funds are in exactly the situation I just described. They just don’t happen to buy back their stock because they don’t want to reduce the amount of capital they manage and [thus] reduce their fees. There are a lot of things that involve thinking that artificial intelligence isn’t going to find.
Q: What do you think of stocks?
A: Stocks today are on the high side and will be hurt as rates rise. We are probably late in this cycle. We’re due for a slowdown and maybe another severe correction. If you’re a long-term investor, though, equities are the way to go.
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Q: What lessons do you want people to come away with from A Man for All Markets?
A: That the best thing you can do for yourself is to educate yourself to think clearly and rationally. It helps to have math or science or logical training. The next is to be widely read and curious. If you are that way, you have so much more to use in terms of tools. [Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman] Charlie Munger has a collection of multiple mental models—shorthand ways to think of things. I also have my own, and one of my favorites is to understand externalities [spillover effects from other economic activity].
For example, if I buy fire insurance for my house, my neighbor is a little safer. That’s an externality benefit. If someone drives a polluting gasoline car and uses the atmosphere as a waste dump without paying any consequences, that’s a negative externality. Another one is guns. Gun dealers make a lot of money, their clients go out and kill people, and society pays huge costs. Gun dealers don’t.
Externalities are a good way to start analyzing problems. A lot of problems go away if you make people who distribute negative externalities pay the consequences. There’s a neat solution. Automobiles kill about 35,000 people a year. If you want to drive a car, you need a license, some training, and also insurance if your car does damage. People have to be accountable for their guns, just like cars. If your car is stolen, you are expected to report it. [What if it were the] same with guns? People wouldn’t be able to accumulate thousands of guns, because what insurance company will insure it? What do you think the insurance would be for an AR-15? It would be very high.
Q: You’re 85 and look like you’re in your early 60s. What’s your secret?
A: I think rationally and clearly about how to slow aging. I’ve been exercising since my 20s. I started running marathons when I was 47. I’ve run 22; my personal lifetime best is 3.17 hours. I spend five hours a week in vigorous walking or easy jogging. I work out with a trainer twice a week. I feel I should do more. I have a body-mass index of 22 and am comfortable there. I try to eat semi-intelligently. I have never smoked. It has got to be one of the stupidest things. I have never met Jim Simons of Renaissance, the greatest quant hedge fund guy ever, because he was a chain smoker and I didn’t want to go into his office. You should think about your overall health and fitness plan. You are your own best health manager. Get started by telling yourself: Some is better than none, and more is better than less.
Q: Thanks, Ed.
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