Mathematical whizkids and former physicists-turned bankers are almost becoming dime a dozen in the financial world.
But there’s a truism that’s been rife in the banking sector for decades — France turns out a high number of quantitative analysts.
Financiers take to the forums to ask why and associations have been set up to highlight and help France’s deluge of quants to network. This association “Quant Valley” is even subtitled “Paris the City of Quants.”
And it can all be traced back to one maths genius — Nicole El Karoui.
On a basic level, quants — what they’re more commonly known as in banking — use computers to tell them what to buy and sell. However, the programmes and analysis require a deep level of pure mathematics and algorithms that only a very neat pool of professionals would understand.
French-Tunisian El Karoui is an architect in this field and has been instrumental in shaping France’s academic institutions in the way they teach quantitative finance.
French universities now rank amongst the top in the world for churning out the high-calibre and highest-paid finance graduates. For example, the average finance graduate from Ecole Polytechnique in France will earn around £74,000 ($US115,000)
. In fact, there are seven French universities in the top 15 for best paid financial graduates in the world.
Famously, some of world’s famous quants, and rogue traders, hail from a number of these universities.
The woman that shaped France’s reputation for quants
Those under the tutelage of professor El Karoui are famously sought after in London’s Square Mile and New York’s Wall Street.
The Paris-based maths professor, who teaches the niche art of creating and pricing complex financial instruments linked to stocks, bonds and loans — derivatives, is the co-director, with Marc Yor and Gilles Pagès, of the Master of Advanced Studies programme Probability & Finance (more commonly known as “DEA El Karoui”). The programme is currently jointly operated by École Polytechnique and the Pierre and Marie Curie University.
It also is now one of the most prestigious programmes in quantitative finance in the world.
In 2006, just before the shine was taken off those trading in complex derivatives by the credit crisis, the media like The Wall Street Journal highlighted what a huge deal it was for finance students to study under the famous French quant expert.
“When I talk about El Karoui’s master’s, everyone knows,” said a French student at the time Xavier Charvet to the WSJ.
Rama Cont, a former student and now Professor of Mathematics and Chair in Mathematical Finance at Imperial College London, said El Karoui’s name was “the magic word that opened doors for young people.“
At the time, the WSJ reported that banking headhunters sought after the 75 or so students that were being tutored in El Karoui’s “Probability and Finance” course.
In the same report, head of BNP Paribas’s US equity and derivatives department in New York,
Amine Belhadj, even said that El Karoui “played a crucial role in finding interns when the bank began handling derivatives for clients in 1989.”
Rise and fall of French quants
El Karoui shaped the banking world from the outside-in, and with this, a plethora of French quants would flood the shores of the US and the UK.
Immediately following her help in the late 1980s for banks finding the right talent in the derivatives sector, French universities were developing programmes that used her teachings and methods to focus on “the very, very complex modelling of derivatives,” reported Newsweek. British or other European universities were not on the same page.
Instead UK and European banks would siphon in French talent.
But the French talent did come at a price — like Frankenstein’s monster, El Karoui’s theories and methods, which were taught in all the major French universities, were being misused.
The traders that lost a ridiculous amount of money (legally or illegally) and became household names for it were often French and hailed from French university derivatives tutelage.
Goldman Sachs’ one time wonder kid, Fabrice “Fabulous” Tourre, came from the elite École Centrale Paris. Unfortunately, he was dubbed the “face of Wall Street greed” by US regulator Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and was fined £391,000 ($US650,000) and told to hand back a £112,000 ($US175,000) bonus for defrauding investors in the run up to the credit crisis.
Former trader Bruno Iksil — dubbed “The London Whale” for his massive legal market bets — was also a derivatives wizard that reportedly went to École Centrale. While he was at the centre of the $US6.2 billion (£4 billion) JP Morgan legal trading loss of 2012, when massive derivatives bets went sour, he was a massive profit generator for the bank previously.
Critics say that traders that don’t come from the same calibre of university, such as Jerome Kerviel, also make huge mistakes like financial wizards, such as Iksil and Tourre, to prove their worth.
Kerviel, a former trader at Societe Generale’s lost $US5.8 billion (£3.7 billion) in rogue trades and graduated from the less prestigious and “provincial” university (University of Lyon).