Practical analysis for investment professionals
26 February 2016

How to Get Smarter

Posted In: Philosophy

It’s simple: Lever yourself with technology.

It’s not controversial to suggest that computers (and the software that they run) have changed a lot about the way that we live. Mainstream science documentaries are already discussing the eventual emergence of a human-machine meld as an inevitability. Whether that presently far-fetched idea comes to pass or not, there can be no disputing that AI is for real.

Any observer is bound to wonder: Will I be left behind? A widely cited estimate suggests that 47% of total US employment is at risk of being replaced by technology. Think like a portfolio manager: Isn’t that the sort of risk you should hedge?

You can, but hedging well is a function of effort not security selection. I’m putting my money where my mouth is here: The organizing premise that CFA Institute rests on is that you can always be a better analyst. So, I’m a bit biased towards continuous improvement. If you want to take this with a grain of salt, fair enough.

Your Loss

We polled CFA Institute Financial NewsBrief readers about their comfort with technology, and the plurality (62%) of the 583 participants responded, “Comfortable — I’m a skilled user, but there’s a lot I don’t know.”


What is your comfort level with technology?

What is your comfort level with technology?


So, what steps can one take to turn “a lot” into “a little”? The first step might be as simple as learning a few keyboard shortcuts. If, like many, you’re a daily user of Microsoft Excel, there’s no excuse not to invest a little bit of time getting faster.

I spent a number of years as a ski racer and coach, and I can tell you with authority that the difference between an advanced and intermediate skier is whether they are able to lean out over the fall line while turning. Using Excel without a mouse is exactly the same sort of bright-line separator. Especially if you would have answered “of course” to this poll, aspiring towards mouse-free spreadsheeting is an excellent interim goal.

Fortunately, there are resources to help you. An excellent software package called KeyRocket integrates nicely into Microsoft Office on Windows computers and shows you a little notification every time you perform an operation that could have been done more quickly with a hotkey. It also has a Chrome extension. I’m not aware of a similar program for Macs, but HotkeyEVE gives a similar introduction to the many shortcuts that can speed your navigation through the (highly hotkey-friendly) Mac operating system. And here’s a quick explanation if you’re mystified by the notion that anyone would rip F1 off of their keyboard.

Just as leaning out over the fall line is an introduction to a world of fast turns, deep powder, and a better life in general, adding hotkeys into your routine will leave you wondering how you ever got anything done without them. You’ll also quickly realize that they’re something of a minimum. As you start performing the same operations as before more quickly, you’ll start to wonder: What about new ones?

Goodbye, Deus Ex Appina

It used to be the case that if you wanted your computer to do something that it couldn’t do already, you had to wait around for someone else to build an app for you.

That is no longer a thing.

The cost and difficulty of creating your own simple apps has plummeted in recent years. And we’ll get to that. But a host of new technologies bring a great deal of the power that can be harnessed by writing simple applications into the hands of the average user, no code required. Perhaps the most widely known of these is a service called If This, Then That. It’s IFTTT for short.

Its integrations run the gamut from turning the lights on when you get home to triggering alerts based on movements in the financial markets and even ordering mulled wine on Christmas. Presumably, you could set up an automatic light switch rave whenever one of the companies in your portfolio beats earnings or rallies sharply.

But that’s actually pretty picayune compared to the tools you can use to get some actual analysis done. You’re doubtless aware that data from services like Bloomberg and Reuters can be pulled easily into Excel. The St. Louis Fed even has its own tool to pipe in the data from its excellent FRED service alongside the other data streams.

But You Can Go Further

A new service called Blockspring allows you to pull in data from a substantial and growing number of web services. So, you can build custom news searches, overlay a sentiment analysis, and have your spreadsheet text you if people are saying nice things about you on the internet. A state of hyper-awareness is only a few alerts away.

Let’s not forget that you can also pipe in data from Quandl, Data.gov, and pretty much any website. But, by the time you get around to doing stuff like that, it’s probably time to start thinking about writing actual code.

Which programming language should you learn? It’s a daunting question, but it doesn’t need to be. For one thing, learning to program is a lot like learning a foreign language. At first, you will be expressing yourself with roughly the eloquence of a five-year-old. And you’ll be able to do about as much. But eventually, you’ll be able to access a whole set of conversations that made no sense beforehand. And even if you find out later that you’d prefer to have a different set of conversations, you’ll still have learned something.

That’s how you get smarter.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

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About the Author(s)
Sloane Ortel

Sloane Ortel has worked in investment management since 2006 and joined CFA Institute in 2010.

12 thoughts on “How to Get Smarter”

  1. For help deciding which language to code, pick up Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s June 15, 2015 – June 28, 2015 special double issue. It was an outstanding, comprehensive introduction.

    Or, read it online:
    http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-paul-ford-what-is-code/

    1. Will Ortel says:

      Ray —

      I totally agree! That was a great piece.

      Cheers and all best —

      Will

  2. Rowan Williams-Short says:

    Thanks Will – this is really useful!

    I started using short-cut keys in Excel in the nineties, and have never looked back. Something you might have added is the massive value in learning to write macros in Excel. I first did the equivalent in Lotus in about 1992, but Excel’s VBA made that much easier later in the nineties. Having a suite of tailored functions – for example to calculate a bond’s price (slightly different and more precise here in South Africa than the US formula used by Excel), a bond’s convexity, an option’s delta and so on is invaluable and has saved me countless hours. Another macro sucks in overnight data on hundreds of bonds and equities, updates all portfolio analysis metrics I need and prepares an attribution analysis before I can finish making a cup of tea.

    I will definitely be trying KeyRocket in case there are tricks I have missed. Oh, and thanks for adding to my vocabulary too: picayune – what a fabulous word. Would “picayune politics” be an oxymoron?

    Rowan

    1. Will Ortel says:

      Rowan —

      I’m so glad that you found it valuable, and many thanks for adding the bit about macros. You’re entirely right — you can really extend the functionality of Excel. There are a number of incredibly practical applications as you note, but it’s also worth pointing out that the sky is kind of the limit. Here’s a great post detailing six video games that people have built using excel macros.

      And great on “picayune politics”. Sometimes I wish they were worthless! Our own process here in the United States has me longing for an era of boring dysfunction.

      Cheers, all best, and thanks for reading —

      Will

  3. Eunice says:

    Great post! And picayune is definitely the new addition to my cache of vocabulary!

    1. Will Ortel says:

      Eunice —

      Many thanks! I’m glad you found it valuable and enjoy the new word!

      All best —

      Will

    2. Rowan says:

      After observing even more deleterious political shenanigans over the weekend, I think I will change my earlier question to:

      Is “picayune politics” a tautology?

      Rowan

      1. Will Ortel says:

        Rowan —

        I wish I could reply with something other than a knowing “yep,” but I think there’s no way to do that! Interestingly, I just looked up “politics” in the dictionary and was intrigued that it is defined as the art *or* science of government. As an investor who has had occasion to wonder which of the two I practice, It’s rather refreshing to learn I’m not alone.

        As an aside, it’s somewhat disheartening to find that “investing” is defined primarily in the medieval sense.

        http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/investing

        Cheers, all best, and thanks for prompting my wonderings!

        Will

        1. Rowan says:

          Will – that is indeed an archaic definition of “invest”. All our efforts are for naught then!

          I will be in the USA tomorrow (Texas to be exact) on CFA Institute volunteer work and look forward to observing some more entertaining politics. In certain respects some presidential candidates’ antics trump anything I have seen before.

          Two other unusual words that can be useful in investment commentaries: “shellac” and “otiose”.

          Cheers

          Cheers,
          Rowan

          1. Will Ortel says:

            Rowan —

            Otiose is a new one for me! Great word. And enjoy the trip — if you’re in the right part of texas you might be able to track down the source of this cocktail menu:

            https://twitter.com/BullandBaird/status/704362724755689474

            Cheers and safe travels —

            Will

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