Taleb and his Black Swan funds have stellar performance

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the sometimes obnoxious writer of the “Black Swan” is now a fund manager. His fund focuses on hedging against “Black Swan” events that are deemed highly unlikely by purchasing thing like out-of-the-money puts. During the recent financial crisis, Taleb’s funds were superstars, returning as much as 115%

Below is an excerpt from the Wall Street Journal explaining what Taleb does and why it has worked so far (hat tip Felix Salmon)

For most of October, it seemed nearly everything that could go wrong with the markets did. But the rout turned into a jackpot for author and investor Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Mr. Taleb last year published “The Black Swan,” a best-selling book about the impact of extreme events on the world and the financial markets. He also helped start a hedge fund, Universa Investments L.P., which bases many of its strategies on themes in the book, including how to reap big rewards in a sharp market downturn. Like October’s.

Separate funds in Universa’s so-called Black Swan Protection Protocol were up by a range of 65% to 115% in October, according to a person close to the fund. “We’re discovering the fragility of the financial system,” said Mr. Taleb, who says he expects market volatility to continue as more hedge funds run into trouble.

A professor of mathematical finance at New York University, Mr. Taleb believes investors often ignore the risk of extreme moves in the market, especially when times are good and volatility is low, as it was for several years leading up to the current turmoil. “Black swan” alludes to the belief, once widespread, that all swans are white — a notion that was proven false when European explorers discovered black swans in Australia. A black-swan event is something that is highly unexpected.

Assets under management at Universa have neared $2 billion since the fund launched early last year with $300 million under management. While Mr. Taleb frequently consults with Universa’s traders, the Santa Monica, Calif., fund is owned and managed by Mark Spitznagel, who worked for several years in the 1990s as a pit trader on the Chicago Board of Trade.

To execute its strategy, Universa buys far-out-of-the-money “put” options on stocks and stock indexes. These are bets that the market will see a sharp, sudden downturn. They become extremely valuable in a market decline of 20% or more in a one-month period.

When times are good, such options are cheap and Universa gobbles them up, taking small losses along the way. When the market makes a quick, steep turn south, as it has recently, Universa’s positions gain value as investors scramble to protect themselves in the downturn by buying puts. The strategy, which keeps more than 90% of assets in cash or cash equivalents such as Treasury bonds, either breaks even or loses small amounts in most months while waiting for periodic, infrequent spikes in volatility.

Here’s an example of a trade the fund made recently. In late September, when the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was trading around 1200, Universa purchased put options that would pay off if the index fell to 850 by late October. Since such a plunge was considered highly unlikely, such options cost only 90 cents. On Oct. 10, those options cost $60 as the S&P 500 tumbled sharply. Universa sold most of its position in the high-$50 range.

It should be noted that Taleb sees his funds as a hedge and this is one reason they have performed so well. I intend to explore his ideas further in later posts.

October Pain Was ‘Black Swan’ Gain – WSJ ($)

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