"Professionals are often incapable of independent thought"

By the Spring of 1998, Jonathan was 13, and his ambitions were growing. He had glimpsed the essential truth of the market: that even people who called themselves professionals are often incapable of independent thought…
— From Jonathan Lebed’s Extracurricular Activities, by Michael Lewis, New York Times, 2001

This quote, this assertion in this context, hit me like a lightning bolt 11 years ago and has rung in my head ever since.

Michael Lewis’s article, written for the Sunday Times Magazine, brilliantly teases out the excruciating ironies — the abject conflict — between new and old ways of thinking about expertise and authority. 

It is a story about about a boy from New Jersey who figures out that he is just as capable, in fact more capable, than established professionals at analyzing stocks. He makes about $800,000 in 6 months of trading, and as a result he is prosecuted by officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission who are both mystified by his very existence — and threatened by his implicit challenge to The Way Things Are Done (which, we have learned throughout a decade of financial crisis, is often a nonsensical house of cards).

Eventually, the Bloomberg News Service commissioned a study to explore the phenomenon of what were now being called ‘whisper numbers’. The study showed the whisper numbers, the numbers put out by the amateur Web sites, were mistaken, on average, by 21 percent. The professional Wall Street forecasts were mistaken, on average, by 44 percent. The reason the amateurs now held the balance of power in the market was that they were, on average, more than twice as accurate as the pros – this in spite of the fact that the entire financial system was rigged in favor of the pros. The big companies spoon-fed their scoops directly to the pros; the amateurs were flying by radar


It occurred to no one that the public might one day be as sophisticated in these matters as financial professionals.


Even a 14-year-old boy could see how it all worked, why some guy working for free out of his basement in Jackson, Mo., was more reliable than the most highly paid analyst on Wall Street. The companies that financial pros were paid to analyze were also the financial pros ‘biggest customers’. A year later, when the Internet bubble burst, the hollowness of the pros only became clearer.


“At length, I phoned the Philadelphia office of the S.E.C., where I reached one of the investigators who had brought Jonathan Lebed to book. I was maybe the 50th journalist he’d spoken with that day, and apparently a lot of the others had had trouble grasping the finer points of securities law. At any rate, by the time I asked him to explain to me what, exactly, was wrong with broadcasting one’s private opinion of a stock on the Internet, he was in no mood.

‘Tell me about the kid.’

‘He’s a little jerk.’

‘How so?’

'He is exactly what you or I hope our kids never turn out to be.’

‘Have you met him?’

‘No. I don’t need to.’