5.14.2011

Finance, the Cause of and Solution to All of Life's Problems


My cohort of incoming Joseph Wharton Scholars was a confident and focused bunch. Having the prestige of Wharton amplified by our special designation within it, we aimed to max out on all the business school had to offer us. It became a badge of honor to not only double concentrate but triple or even quadruple concentrate, and/or to pick up a second degree on the engineering side to capitalize on the growing confluence of business and technology.

Leave it to our statistics professor, of all people, to instruct us in the importance of a well-rounded liberal arts education. While we schemed to fill our semesters with business courses, he urged us to mix in other disciplines.

I recall one brazen young classmate responding to yet another mini-lecture on this subject with what he perceived to be a rhetorical question: "If I'm going to be a hot-shot i-banker on Wall Street, what's the point of taking physics?"

Our stats professor smiled, and proceeded to discuss how a principle from physics, concerning the patterns associated with different vibrations, had formed the core of a new line of thinking about how to price derivatives and other financial instruments. (Darn these know-it-all Ivy League professors!) Point being, we ought to be open to the ways something from one discipline can be very transferable to an entirely different discipline.

I remembered this episode when I read this article from Fortune Magazine about a fund manager who used advanced statistical techniques gleaned from his expertise in analyzing markets to provide a crucial insight into how autism works. Here, the principle is the reverse of my stats professor, who was trying to get us business geeks to learn about other things besides business; my take-away from this article is that high-powered business acumen can be marshaled for other, potentially revolutionary positive uses. Perhaps somewhere, some class of idealistic college students who find business and finance dirty topics is being lectured in the following way: "You want to find a cure for cancer or figure out how to break the impasse in the Middle East? Go take a class down the hall on financial instruments and portfolio management!"

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