Lessons from Hedge Fund Market Wizards: Colm O’Shea

Colm O' Shea Hedge Fund Market WizardsIn our first installment of “Lessons from Hedge Fund Market Wizards”, we examine the lessons offered in Jack Schwager’s interview with noted global macro trader and hedge fund manager, Colm O’Shea of COMAC Capital. 

Last week we brought you a brief overview of Hedge Fund Market Wizards, including several interviews with author Jack Schwager sharing trading insights found within this new Market Wizards volume. 

We’ll expand on those ideas throughout this series by zeroing in on our favorite interviews and highlighting some key lessons and quotes. Of course, our notes are just a sample of what readers will find in these interview chapters – we don’t want to give away the store!  

Today, we’ll look closely at some key insights offered in the book’s opening chapter. Here are our notes on Schwager’s interview with Colm O’Shea

1). Colm O’Shea began his career as a young economic forecaster. He was kept behind closed doors by his firm, who did not want clients to know their research reports and forecasts were written by a 19-year old who had landed the job before starting at university. 

2). Colm realized he did not want to continue publishing consensus-hugging forecasts, and he landed his first job as a trader at Citigroup after graduating from Cambridge. He went on to work for George Soros’ Quantum Fund before founding his own firm, COMAC Capital.

3). O’Shea view his trading ideas as hypotheses. Moves counter to the expected direction are proof that his trade hypothesis is wrong. O’Shea is quick to liquidate these positions when they reach a pre-defined price (a level at which his trade hypothesis is invalidated). He risks a small percentage of his assets on each trade – position sizing. 

4). Received early lessons in trading and macro thinking by reading Edwin Lefevre’s classic, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator. Colm points out that the character, Mr. Partridge teaches the protagonist (a thinly-veiled Jesse Livermore) to size up general conditions – “it’s a bull market, you know!”. 

5). Price movements take place in the context of a larger fundamental landscape. O’Shea believes one must pay attention to both the fundamentals and the technicals (price as seen through technical analysis) to make sense of the picture.
6). In his first week as a trader, the British pound was kicked out of the ERM (the famous Soros trade), much to his surprise. Recalls Colm, “I had absolutely no comprehension of the power of markets vs. politics. Policy makers [often] don’t understand that they are not in control…it’s the fundamentals that actually matter.”

7). You can’t be short just because you think something is fundamentally overpriced. In the example of the Nasdaq bubble, you should have been selling Nasdaq at 4,000 on the way down, not on the way up. Wait until the market turns over, or until you can see a turning point (a la George Soros shorting the pound).

8). Being short credit in 2006-2007 was the same as being short Nasdaq in 1999. Bubble pricing was evident and the problems were obvious. However, being short was a negative carry trade (in which one must pay a certain cost to maintain a speculative position through instruments such as credit default swaps) and credit spreads went lower (the trade went against you) before a turning point was reached. 

9). All markets look liquid in a bubble. It’s liquidity afterwards that matters. Can you get out?

10). There does not have to be an identifiable reason for every trade. O’Shea cites the LTCM blowup in ’98 as an example. At the start of the ’98 crisis, there was no LTCM story in the press, but T-bond futures were limit up every day. “Once you realize something is happening, you can trade accordingly.”. Trade hypothesis = something big is happening. I will participate, but do so in a way that I can get out quickly if wrong.

11). Most great trades are incredibly obvious to everyone after the fact. O’Shea points to his bearish turn at the start of the financial crisis in August 2007, when money markets seized up and LIBOR spiked. To this day, equity people wrongly point to March 2008 (Bear Stearns collapse) as the start of the crisis. The great trades don’t require predictions, but you must see what other market participants won’t.

12). Big price changes occur when people are forced to reevaluate their prejudices. Crisis (such as the inflationary threat from growing U.S. debt) may hit in the future when people notice and start to care. Bond yields will only signal there’s a problem when it’s too late. Fundamentals underlying the trade/event exist all along.

Hope you enjoyed the first in our series of “Lessons from Hedge Fund Market Wizards”. Look for our next post, featuring hedge fund titan Ray Dalio, later in the week. 

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1. Lessons from Hedge Fund Market Wizards: Steve Clark.

2. Lessons from Hedge Fund Market Wizards: Ray Dalio.