Renaissance’s Lapsed Academic
How I Got My Start in Finance
Featuring Howard Morgan
Published on: May 13th, 2019 • Duration: 8 minutesHoward Morgan, founder of Renaissance Technologies, joins Real Vision co-founder Grant Williams to discuss the fortunate start of his career. Moving from academics to the technology side of finance, Morgan blazed a trail that has transformed the finance industry and the world. This video is excerpted from a piece published on Real Vision on March 22, 2019 entitled “Failure as a Forerunner to Success.”
JUSTINE UNDERHILL: In this episode of "How I Got My Start in Finance," we meet Howard Morgan, one of the original members of Renaissance Technologies. He is a quant hedge fund legend. He shares his story with Real Vision's Grant Williams about the start of a new business model that revolutionized trading.
HOWARD MORGAN: I consider myself a lapsed academic. I started out going to Cornell for a PhD in operations research and computer science, which I got in 1968. So it was a little before most people were--
GRANT WILLIAMS: --aware of computers.
HOWARD MORGAN: Yeah, known about computers at all. I had been very lucky. In '65, at City College, my mentor said to me-- when he asked me what I'm doing next year, I said I'm going to MIT for physics. And he whispered in my ear, just like in The Graduate, and said, you don't want to do that. He said, computers.
And fortunately, I listened to him, and went to Cornell, and then taught at Cornell and Caltech and then at the University of Pennsylvania for about 12, 14 years in total. And at Penn, in 1973, I brought the ARPANET to Philadelphia with machine 50 on the ARPANET-- I think now we have about 10 billion devices on it, but we had 50 then-- and learned about what the future was going to be.
And through most of the '70s, I was one of the world experts in what we called in the 70s the office of the future, which meant word processing and electronic mail and voicemail. In fact, when I said in 1980-- I think executives one day will type their own emails and not have their secretaries print them, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed that with a ha-ha-ha. And the Secretary's Union picketed my office, because they thought I was the end of secretaries. So I did get that one right, however.
GRANT WILLIAMS: You did and then some. I think we're going back the other way now. A lot of these executives are getting people to type their emails for them.
HOWARD MORGAN: Well, or Siri.
GRANT WILLIAMS: Or Siri, yeah.
HOWARD MORGAN: Or Siri. And that's something else that we did a lot of research back in the 70s and 80s, which was voice recognition and voice synthesis. But it was a little too early for that.
GRANT WILLIAMS: Background and computing was obviously a big factor in your first-- when you lapsed you would fall into capitalism.
HOWARD MORGAN: Very much so. So I had helped start a company in the mid 70s with a fellow out at the Rand Corporation. And that company did Unix, it was the first Unix license actually. And Jim Simons, a friend of the founders, who is still a professor, funded it through himself and some friends. And so I met Jim.
And in 1981 we started doing some investing together. And he said to me in early 82, he said, look, I made some money now with some of this trading. I made more than I can do with just trading. So we want to do some more venture as well. So why don't you take a leave of absence and we'll start Renaissance. And so in April of 82, Jim as CEO and me as president, we started Renaissance Technologies.
And at that time had about $70 million to invest $35 in the quant trading. And it wasn't quite black box, but it was quant oriented trading, and $35 in venture. And we did that for seven years very successfully. Until at the end of seven years Jim said, look, the venture has a 25% IRR-- rate of return, which is top decile-- but it takes five or seven years to get that liquid.
And I've now got the trading to where it's a 38% IRR at net and I can cash in tomorrow morning if I just want to go home. So let's take the venture out of Renaissance. So Renaissance then went purely quant trading. That was right about the time Medallion Fund started. And I then kept my office next door to Jim and did venture capital on my own for the next 14 or 15 years. And then started some more organized stuff.
GRANT WILLIAMS: We'll come to that in a second, but I'm fascinated go back to the early days of Renaissance. Because I mean, they changed everything. I mean, you two guys changed the investing world. In the early days you're obviously trying something that-- there were a few people doing it, but nobody really kind of figured out how to put it all together. What were those days like?
HOWARD MORGAN: Very exciting. I mean, Jim had assembled a team of mathematicians and computer scientists and some astrophysicists. And the goal was to use statistical models to beat the markets. And he believed that could be done. He believed it meant really good data science-- what today we would call big data science. And no one was doing that at the time.
And putting together that level of intellect and putting it on a problem of taking these time series of all the data you could get and collecting it over long periods of time. Renaissance has more market data, I think, than almost anyone else does. And they've got it going back into the mid 70s. And everybody else, now you can buy market data. But it's very different what you're buying and what they're keeping. They also became one of the largest users of computing power.
Certainly in the late 90s they had more processors per employee than Google. They had thousands of processors. When everybody else was working with a few computers, they realized that with big parallel processing algorithms you could do much more interesting data analysis. And they successfully built that. And a lot of that team was out in Stony Brook, not in Manhattan where Jim and I were mostly.
But guided by Jim mostly, I threw in my computer science knowledge where it was helpful. But was more focused on the venture side. It really did change the world because the Medallion Fund delivered astonishing returns and continues to over what is now a 30 plus year period. And that's never been done.
GRANT WILLIAMS: When you looked at the results of this, I mean, even for you guys it must have been-- these can't be right. These numbers come to be right. I mean, their truly extraordinary.
HOWARD MORGAN: Well, yes. I mean, but I think in some ways it was-- one of the ways we used to talk about it was think of it as a casino and we're the house.
GRANT WILLIAMS: Right. Right.
HOWARD MORGAN: I mean, because in fact almost everyone else was playing with emotion. And I know Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's partner, has been quoted as saying when people say, why are you guys doing so well and the rest of us aren't? And he said, it's because you invest on emotion and we invest on logic.
JUSTINE UNDERHILL: Renaissance Technologies was able to apply data science to the world of finance. While that might seem like a norm today, Howard Morgan was there when it all started. He knew then that with the advancement of technology, the future of trading was ready for more logic and less emotion. For Real Vision, I'm Justine Underhill.