June 7, 2024
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Greg Zuckerman Sees Beauty in Numbers

It is no easy feat to write a non-fiction book about algorithms and the financial market that is as gripping as the best who-done-it. “The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution” (2019), written by Greg Zuckerman, is an engrossing and accessible account of the man who beat the market by developing the mathematical algorithms that have transformed the financial industry.

“Jim Simons is the greatest moneymaker in the history of finance,” said Zuckerman. “Anyone using big data, from the market to Netflix, is trying to embrace and employ the predictive models Simons created.”

By day, Zuckerman is a financial reporter at the Wall Street Journal, where he has been for 23 years. In addition to his latest work, he has written two other books about the financial world. He has also co-written, with his two sons, two books on inspirational sports figures for young readers and adults. A resident of West Orange, he is a member of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David (AABJD), where he chairs the adult education committee.

Zuckerman grew up fascinated—he described it as “obsessed”—with the financial market. At sleepaway camp he made his counselor bring him copies of Barron’s and would make trades from the camp phone. He figured he would work on Wall Street after college. But when he graduated from Brandeis University in 1988, he couldn’t find a job.

He spent the next few years as an entrepreneur. He started Shalom Buyit, a newspaper advertising kosher apartments and rooms for rent on the Upper West Side. When that didn’t take off, he tried to find a niche in the college tour business by offering students parent-less tours. While the idea met with some success, he couldn’t make a living. He taught Hebrew school and gave Bar Mitzvah lessons. He was fired from two different jobs doing banking conferences.

“Basically,” he said, “I spent five years, from the ages of 21-26, trying to figure out what to do with my life.”

He finally found the job that put him on the path to becoming the well-known and respected financial writer he is today. A newsletter published by Investment Dealers’ Digest was advertising for a financial reporter, a career path he had never considered despite his life-long obsession with financial markets. When he got the job, he remembered thinking, “I’ve always been a newspaper reader. I love trading. And now I’ll get paid to write about Wall Street. How cool is this?”

Zuckerman described himself as one of the few financial reporters that actually enjoys finance—a big advantage in a competitive field. After working at the newsletter for four years, he briefly moved on to the New York Post before joining the Wall Street Journal in 1996. Over the years, Zuckerman has covered the bond market, private equity, hedge funds, personalities and trades, and credit markets. He joined the investigative group two years ago.

Nothing he had written, however, rivaled the scale of covering the 2008 financial meltdown.

“When the meltdown happened, I wasn’t exactly shocked,” he said. “My colleagues and I had been writing since early in 2007 about the subprime lenders running into problems. It did give me a sense of trouble ahead.

“But to see the broader impact—beyond mortgages and housing—was stunning,” he continued. “To cover the demise of Bear Stearns and Lehmann Brothers, you’re writing as a professional but as a citizen it was disconcerting and even scary. You try to separate the two. But there was a decent chance that things could turn into a depression.”

Zuckerman’s first book was written in the aftermath of the financial meltdown. As a reporter, he had always delved deeply into his subject matter. Eventually, there came a time when he had a full tale to tell and didn’t feel he had the space in the paper to do it justice.

“In my writing I try to find the story behind a big important shift or revolution in the world of business. And just as important, the characters behind the shift,” he explained.

This was the motivation for “The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History” (2010). A New York Times and Wall Street Journal best seller, the book has been translated into 10 languages.

“The Greatest Trade” is about the individuals who anticipated the financial meltdown. Zuckerman’s goal was to try to explain the financial crisis through those who predicted it. “My general approach is ‘Mary Poppins’ like—a spoonful of sugar. I deal with important and complex financial topics, but I try to do it through a cast of interesting characters so that readers can both learn and enjoy themselves while getting something of an education.”

“The Greatest Trade” was followed by “The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters,” a 2014 national bestseller. The book describes how several unlikely individuals revolutionized American energy consumption and production. “The Frackers” was named among the best books of 2014 by The Financial Times and Forbes Magazine and book of the year by the New York Financial Writers Association.

“The Man Who Solved the Market” is the dramatic narrative of Jim Simons, arguably the most successful trader in the history of modern finance. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when other traders were still relying on intuition and personal insight, Simons seized on the idea of data-driven quantitative (quant) trading.

The visionary mathematician and former code breaker surrounded himself with physicists, computer scientists, and other mathematicians who collected and analyzed mountains of data and developed algorithms to process it all. Decades later, his company, Renaissance Technologies, has recorded trading gains of more than 100 billion dollars. Its Medallion Fund has generated average annual returns of 66 percent. Simons himself is worth 23 billion dollars. His revolutionary methods are now the industry standard and ubiquitous in all areas of life today, from the financial markets to doctors’ offices to military installations.

It was not an easy book to write. Simons wouldn’t talk to Zuckerman for over a year. “Everyone and anyone who knew him was getting calls from me,” he said. Simons finally agreed to a meeting. Zuckerman traveled to Newton, Massachusetts, where he took a picture of Simons’ boyhood home. When he showed Simons the picture, “it sent the message that I was taking the project seriously to avoid mistakes and to tell his story accurately, and that I wasn’t going away,” he said.

Zuckerman was as interested in what Simons and his company did with the money as he was in how they made it. “When you write your own book, you can follow your interests,” he explained.

Zuckerman described Simons as one of the most unique characters he has ever encountered in his long career. “He’s really admirable. He’s approaching 82 and is still chasing puzzles—how the universe began, a cure for autism, ways to subsidize the salaries of school teachers.

“Part of the reason I do this job,” he continued, “is because I get to meet interesting people and learn [so much] … about religion, the existence of God, the importance of family, how to lead a meaningful life. That opportunity to pick the brains of some of the smartest and important people in the world is a privilege and a pleasure.”

As an author, one of the most meaningful experiences in his life was writing two books together with his sons, Eli and Gabriel. “Rising Above: How 11 Athletes Overcame Challenges in their Youth to Become Star” (2016), describes the remarkable stories of how stars in various sports overcame imposing setbacks in their youth. The book was chosen by Scholastic Teacher magazine as a top pick for 2016 and a top 2017 recommendation of the Texas Library Association. A companion book, “Rising Above: Inspiring Women in Sports,” was published in 2018.

Eli was 13 and Gabriel was 16 when they started writing the first book. “It was Eli’s idea. He thought there might be some good stories and inspirational stories about sports stars who overcame challenges in their youth. Gabriel, who had always been a big reader, was on board.”

The idea was for the three of them to interview stars from different sports, each of whom had encountered a different kind of challenge—physical and sexual abuse, poverty, racism, physical differences, sexism, and questions about sexual identity. Included in the two books are interviews with Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles, Cy Young award-winning pitcher R.A. Dickey, and pitcher Jim Abbott, who found major league success despite being born without a right hand.

“The goal of the books is to inspire young people dealing with their own challenges,” explained Zuckerman. “Everybody has something—even if it’s on the inside.” He admitted that his Wall Street Journal credentials opened some doors, “although there was plenty of begging and just showing up at events and waiting for hours in the hopes of getting an interview.”

Zuckerman found the sport stars remarkably inspirational. “Players enjoyed opening up and sharing lessons with my sons. They had been through a lot. We noticed a commonality. They had all found someone to open up to and when they did, they were able to turn the corner. They wanted to share what they had learned and inspire other young people.”

Writing the books with his sons was a bonding experience for which he will be forever grateful. Proof that these stories have made an impact are the letters the Zuckermans have received from young people who have been inspired by their books.

“It is a privilege that we are able to help young people with these stories,” he concluded.

By Sherry S. Kirschenbaum

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