The Alchemists of Banks and Trades
Reviewed By: The Editorial Board
The Editorial Board of The Columbia Review selects new books and films of interest, as well as paid submissions and sponsored reviews from authors, publishers, directors, agents and producers.

The word “Quants” refers to the mathematical wizards and computer programmers whose brilliant work product forms the DNA, the wiring, the plumbing, and often the automated decision-making process that generates the myriad, constant, countless trades that collectively we call “our global financial system.” More specifically, this documentary opens a window into the bowels of the global financial beast, its innermost workings, and the purported causes of the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting Great Recession. Besides, it provides a well-explained premonition about the next brewing crisis that could be ignited by the vast networks of computer-driven financial trading.

Quants: The Alchemists of Wall Street is a documentary done with great subtlety. It features soft-spoken geniuses and intersperses artistic scenes of mundane daily routines. Yet, like a well-done horror flick, this documentary’s seemingly pedestrian atmosphere takes us into the underworld of those who brought upon a global disaster and ruined millions of lives.

This documentary is especially good because it avoids the shrills of hyperbole accusations, inflated political declarations, and futile attempts at witch medicine. It is reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil.” It introduces us to those who invented and developed the complex mathematical models that were supposed to quantify–and predict–human economic behaviors. Between the lines, there’s a wary warning here about how those same methods are now being used by a new generation of quants to generate the financial technological wonder that allows instant trading in various financial products that crisscross the worlds continents.

In its essence, Quants tells us how Wall Street no longer has either a wall or a street, but rather exists in the borderless, lawless, and timeless world of the Internet. In that world, computers use mathematical algorithms to make automated instantaneous trades at the speed of light, where the only criteria is the spread between purchase price and sale price, while the actual value of the underlying product is irrelevant. It is an efficient, rapid and exciting way to make or lose large sums, all within the made-up bubble of the unconfined worldwide web. But the consequences of this virtual way of doing business might be very real and bloody painful.

Quants is an excellent documentary. Not a dull moment. Watch it!