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Start for free## The Equation That Changed Everything

A single equation derived from physics principles has had an enormous impact on the financial world, spawning multi-trillion dollar industries and transforming how we approach risk in investing. Yet most people are unaware of the scale and significance of this mathematical breakthrough in finance.

At its core, this revolutionary equation has its roots in physics - specifically in the discovery of atoms, understanding heat transfer, and even strategies for beating casinos at blackjack. Perhaps it's not surprising then that some of the most successful players in the stock market have not been veteran traders, but rather physicists, scientists, and mathematicians.

## The Medallion Fund: Defying Market Averages

In 1988, mathematics professor Jim Simons established the Medallion Investment Fund. For the next 30 years, this fund consistently outperformed market averages by a significant margin, delivering an astounding 66% annual return. To put that in perspective, $100 invested in the Medallion fund in 1988 would have grown to $8.4 billion by 2018. This phenomenal success made Jim Simons arguably the wealthiest mathematician in history.

However, mathematical prowess alone does not guarantee success in financial markets. The cautionary tale of Sir Isaac Newton serves as a prime example.

## Newton's Financial Folly

In 1720, at the age of 77, Isaac Newton was already a wealthy man. His net worth of Â£30,000 (equivalent to about $6 million today) came from decades of work as a Cambridge professor and his role as Master of the Royal Mint. Seeking to grow his fortune further, Newton invested in stocks, with a significant position in the South Sea Company.

Initially, Newton's investment doubled in value, prompting him to sell his shares. However, as the stock price continued to climb, he bought back in, increasing his position even as the price peaked. When the inevitable crash came, Newton held on, believing he was "buying the dip." Ultimately, he lost about a third of his wealth in the South Sea Bubble.

When asked about his failure to foresee the crash, Newton famously remarked, "I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people."

## The Rise of Mathematical Finance

So what did Jim Simons understand that eluded even the brilliant Isaac Newton? The key lies in the development of mathematical models for financial markets, a field pioneered by Louis Bachelier in the early 20th century.

Born in 1870, Bachelier lost both parents at 18 and took over his father's wine business. After selling the business, he moved to Paris to study physics. To support himself and his family, he found work at the Paris Stock Exchange, where he encountered the raw "madness of people" that had confounded Newton.

Bachelier became fascinated with financial contracts known as options, which have a long history dating back to ancient Greece. Options give the buyer the right (but not the obligation) to buy or sell an asset at a predetermined price on or before a specific date.

## The Mechanics of Options

There are two main types of options:

- Call options: These give the right to buy an asset at a set price.
- Put options: These give the right to sell an asset at a set price.

For example, imagine Apple stock is trading at $100. You could buy a call option for $10 that gives you the right to buy Apple stock in one year for $100 (the "strike price"). If the stock price rises to $130, you can exercise your option to buy at $100 and immediately sell at $130, making a $20 profit after accounting for the option cost. If the stock falls to $70, you simply don't exercise the option, limiting your loss to the $10 premium.

Options offer several advantages:

- Limited downside risk
- Leverage (potential for higher percentage returns)
- Hedging capabilities

## Bachelier's Breakthrough

Despite their long history, no one had developed a reliable method for pricing options. Traders simply negotiated prices based on intuition and market dynamics. Bachelier, with his background in probability theory, believed there must be a mathematical solution to this problem.

He proposed studying the mathematics of finance for his PhD thesis, a novel idea at the time. Surprisingly, his advisor Henri PoincarÃ© agreed.

Bachelier realized that to accurately price an option, one needs to understand how stock prices change over time. He observed that stock prices are influenced by countless factors, making precise prediction impossible. Instead, he proposed that at any given moment, a stock price is equally likely to go up or down.

This insight led Bachelier to conclude that over the long term, stock prices follow a "random walk" - a path determined by a series of random steps, much like the outcome of repeated coin flips.

## The Efficient Market Hypothesis

Bachelier's random walk theory aligns with what economists now call the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH). This theory suggests that in an efficient market, it should be impossible to consistently buy an asset and immediately sell it for a profit.

The logic behind EMH is that if people could reliably predict future stock prices, they would act on that information immediately, causing prices to adjust and eliminating the predictability. In a perfectly efficient market, tomorrow's prices should be unpredictable based on today's information.

## The Normal Distribution of Stock Prices

To visualize how random walks create predictable patterns, consider a Galton Board - a triangular array of pegs with ball bearings that fall through them. Each time a ball hits a peg, it has an equal chance of going left or right. While the path of any individual ball is unpredictable, the collective behavior of thousands of balls creates a normal distribution (bell curve).

Bachelier applied this concept to stock prices. He proposed that the expected future price of a stock follows a normal distribution centered on the current price, with the distribution spreading out over time. This mathematical description of price movement is identical to the equation describing heat diffusion, discovered by Joseph Fourier in 1822.

## From Finance to Physics: Brownian Motion

Interestingly, while the physics community initially ignored Bachelier's work, his mathematics of random walks would later solve a longstanding mystery in physics - Brownian motion.

In 1827, botanist Robert Brown observed that pollen grains suspended in water moved randomly under a microscope. This phenomenon, later termed Brownian motion, remained unexplained for decades.

In 1905, Albert Einstein provided the answer. He hypothesized that Brownian motion results from countless collisions between the observed particles and invisible molecules in the fluid. Einstein's mathematical description of this process was essentially identical to Bachelier's model of stock prices, though Einstein was unaware of Bachelier's earlier work.

## Pricing Options: Bachelier's Model

Bachelier's key insight for pricing options was that the fair price should make the expected return equal for both buyers and sellers. Using his model of stock price movements, he calculated the probability of an option being profitable for the buyer (stock price exceeding strike price plus option cost) and the probability of it being profitable for the seller.

By multiplying these probabilities by the potential profits or losses, Bachelier determined the expected return for both parties. The fair price, he argued, is the one that equalizes these expected returns.

## The Sleeping Giant: Bachelier's Unrecognized Genius

Despite beating Einstein to the random walk concept and solving a centuries-old problem in finance, Bachelier's work went largely unnoticed. Physicists weren't interested in financial applications, and traders weren't ready for such a mathematical approach.

The key missing ingredient was a way to leverage this knowledge for significant profits. That would come decades later with the advent of modern computing and more sophisticated mathematical models.

## Ed Thorpe: From Blackjack to Wall Street

In the 1950s, physics graduate Ed Thorpe saw an opportunity to apply mathematical thinking to gambling. He developed a card counting system for blackjack, giving him an edge over the casino. When casinos caught on and changed their practices, Thorpe took his winnings and analytical skills to what he called "the biggest casino on Earth" - the stock market.

Thorpe started a hedge fund that consistently returned 20% annually for two decades, an unprecedented performance at the time. He achieved this by applying the skills he honed at the blackjack table to the stock market, pioneering a type of hedging strategy.

## Dynamic Hedging: Balancing Risk

Thorpe's approach, known as dynamic hedging, involves continuously adjusting a portfolio to offset potential losses. For example, if someone sells a call option on a stock, they can eliminate their risk by owning a certain amount of the underlying stock. This amount, called delta, changes as the stock price moves.

By constantly rebalancing their position, option sellers can maintain a relatively risk-free portfolio while still profiting from the option premium. This concept of creating a "synthetic" option through dynamic trading would prove crucial in the development of modern option pricing theory.

## Thorpe's Improved Model

Thorpe wasn't satisfied with Bachelier's model, which assumed purely random price movements. He developed a more accurate model that accounted for the tendency of stock prices to drift up or down over time, reflecting the overall performance of the underlying business.

Using this model, Thorpe's strategy was simple: buy options that his model showed were underpriced and sell those that were overpriced. This approach consistently put him on the winning side of trades - until 1973, when a new equation changed everything.

## The Black-Scholes-Merton Revolution

In 1973, Fischer Black, Myron Scholes, and Robert Merton independently derived what would become the most famous equation in finance. Like Bachelier and Thorpe, they believed option prices should offer a fair bet to both buyers and sellers. However, their approach was entirely new.

They reasoned that if it's possible to create a risk-free portfolio of options and stocks (as Thorpe was doing with delta hedging), then in an efficient market, this portfolio should return nothing more than the risk-free rate - the return on the safest possible investment, typically considered to be U.S. Treasury bonds.

The assumption was that if you're not taking on any additional risk, it shouldn't be possible to earn any extra returns. This principle, combined with an improved model of stock price movements, led to the Black-Scholes-Merton equation.

## The Impact of Black-Scholes-Merton

The Black-Scholes-Merton equation provides an explicit formula for pricing options based on several input parameters. For the first time, traders had a straightforward way to calculate option prices, leading to one of the fastest adoptions of an academic idea in the social sciences.

Within a couple of years, the Black-Scholes formula became the benchmark for options trading on Wall Street. This led to an explosion in the options market, which has been roughly doubling in volume every five years - a financial equivalent of Moore's Law in computing.

The impact wasn't limited to options. The underlying principles have been applied to create multi-trillion dollar industries in credit default swaps, over-the-counter derivatives, and securitized debt.

## Practical Applications: Hedging and Leverage

The Black-Scholes-Merton model opened up new ways for companies, governments, and individual investors to hedge against specific risks. For example, an airline worried about rising fuel costs could use options to offset potential losses from oil price increases.

The model also provides a way to gain leverage - to control a large amount of assets with a relatively small investment. This aspect played a significant role in the 2021 GameStop stock controversy, where retail investors used options to amplify their impact on the stock price.

## The Scale of Derivatives Markets

The derivatives market, which includes options and other financial instruments whose value is derived from underlying assets, has grown to staggering proportions. Estimates put the global derivatives market at several hundred trillion dollars - multiple times larger than the markets for the underlying assets themselves.

This multiplication effect occurs because derivatives allow the creation of many different versions of an underlying asset, each tailored to specific risk-reward preferences. While this can provide liquidity and stability during normal times, it can also exacerbate market crashes during periods of stress.

## The Quest for Market Inefficiencies

With the option pricing formula now widely available, hedge funds needed to find new ways to exploit market inefficiencies. Enter Jim Simons and Renaissance Technologies.

Before entering finance, Simons was a renowned mathematician whose work on Riemann geometry had applications in areas ranging from knot theory to string theory. In 1978, he founded Renaissance Technologies with the goal of using machine learning to find patterns in the stock market.

## Renaissance's Approach: Big Data and Hidden Patterns

Simons' strategy was to gather enormous amounts of market data and use advanced statistical techniques to extract subtle patterns. His rationale was that while the market is too complex for anyone to make predictions with certainty, there might be discoverable patterns that could provide a statistical edge.

To implement this strategy, Simons recruited top scientists from various fields - physics, astronomy, mathematics, and statistics. One key hire was Leonard Baum, a pioneer of Hidden Markov models, which aim to find factors that are not directly observable but influence what we can observe.

## The Medallion Fund's Unprecedented Success

Using these data-driven strategies, Renaissance's Medallion fund became the highest-returning investment fund of all time. Its consistent outperformance of market averages led some researchers to question the validity of the Efficient Market Hypothesis itself.

## The Future of Quantitative Finance

The success of funds like Renaissance demonstrates that it is possible to beat the market with the right models, training, resources, and computational power. However, as more players enter the field and more patterns are discovered and exploited, the market becomes increasingly efficient.

Ironically, if we ever reach a point where all patterns in the stock market are discovered, the very act of knowing and acting on these patterns would eliminate them. This would result in a perfectly efficient market where all price movements are truly random - bringing us full circle to Bachelier's original conception over a century ago.

In conclusion, the journey from Bachelier's thesis to modern quantitative finance illustrates the profound impact that mathematics and physics have had on our understanding of financial markets. As we continue to push the boundaries of data analysis and computational power, the interplay between theory and practice in finance will undoubtedly yield new insights and opportunities in the years to come.

Article created from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5w-dEgIU1M