McAlpha Deception

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Alpha is like secret sauce, and Eric Falkenstein estimates that 90 percent of alpha is misrepresented:

Anyone in charge of a business line making money, is usually too embarrassed by the straightforward nature of their advantage to admit it, so they have to point out some nuance that makes absolutely no difference. Thus, every market maker, making money off order flow, will swear they are adding value ‘reading the tape’ or trading like a turtle, or some other such nonsense. Finance is probably the worst, because there’s so little alpha and so much branding and ‘sticky money’, that truth-telling is a strictly dominated strategy. If you ask your average financial executive to explain what he does, chances are he won’t tell you even if he knows. Further, many are actually clueless. They don’t know their job is to provide the appearance of a method to the whims of the main decision-maker, that they fit the right diversity box, or their husband is a senator. Admitting the truth would be too depressing, and the mind is very good at protecting its self image.

Falkenstein takes the secret-sauce metaphor one step further:

I like McDonald’s: it’s clean, I like the burgers and fries, my kids enjoy their play areas and have a fairly nutritious lunch (hamburger with apple slices and milk). But their burgers tend to lose adult taste tests against Burger King. Why? McDonald’s burgers are primarily loaded with ketchup, which appeals to kids, where BK has more mayo, which appeals to adults. The solution might seem easy, add an option to replace ketchup with mayo.

But that would make the burger choice seem much less alpha-like. A burger chain has a reputation, and they carefully project one of having super quality and care, or something outside the box like a square shape, or flame broiling. Heaven forbid they state, these are hamburgers, not steak. They are cooked by people who have trouble remembering to wash their hands after using the bathroom (thus the prominent signs), let alone the ordinal ranking of rare, medium, and well-done. A multinational corporation can’t produce a medium rare burger without generating a class action E. coli lawsuit, and a well-done piece of ground beef is about as nuanced (yet still enjoyable), as an ice-cold light beer.

But that’s like a finance professor saying all investment analysts can’t predict the market. A thriving industry goes on, acting as if they have alpha in every ‘buy’ recommendation, every burger. Thus, the newest McDonald’s creation are their new Angus burgers. They have… lots of mayonnaise. Too much in fact. So, even though they know this is the true ‘secret sauce’ in the adult burger battle, they emphasize the Angus dimension, and then overload the key ingredient. I prefer the more predictable double quarter pounder with no pickle.

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