When Shing Tat Chung was a baby, his parents changed his name on the advice of a fortune teller. The soothsayer warned that the name they had given him at birth had “too much fire”, whatever that means. The new one, which also happens to be his current one, “is supposed to be more balanced and carry a good fortune,” Chung told me. “I will also apparently make lots of money with this name,” he says, laughing.
That’s a relief because I recently gave him some of my money. More specifically, I put $200 into an experimental investment fund Chung launched in June. Mind you, this guy is not some stock-picking savant who finished Stanford Business School at the age of 15. Chung is a 25-year-old newly minted graduate in design from the Royal College of Art in London.
Fascinated by superstitions and their wider, yet often overlooked, ramifications for society, Chung decided to start The Superstitious Fund Project. Some people trust Windsor-knotted stock traders and mutual fund managers to grow their money. Others use algorithms designed to respond to various market conditions so that – one hopes – they deliver earnings. Still others buy gold, plunk it in a vault, and pray that it will be worth more on some future date than it is today. How odd is it then, really, to calculate trade decisions by way of astrology and numerology?
The fund works like this: stock trades are carried out by an Automated Trading System (colloquially, a “robot”), which is a computer program that buys, sells or holds stocks based on a set of specifications encoded into the program’s governing algorithm. The code for Chung’s experiment was written by Jim Hunt, who runs a firm called Trading Gurus, and together with Chung they named it “Sid the Superstitious Robot”. (They also decided to make the source code completely transparent and free to download.)
Like many investment models, Sid is an automated speculator. But whereas other algorithms might take action based, for instance, on a stock’s recent performance or the price of oil, the criterion for this program are lunar phases and the affection and disaffection people have for certain numbers. “I wanted it to operate based on human characteristics,” Chung says.
Sid won’t buy anything on the 13th of the month, and steers clear of buying or selling any stock if its value happens to have a 13 in it. As for lunar phases, Chung explains with a hint of pride that the algorithm finds a new moon to be “good”, whereas a full moon is very, very bad. “The closer the moon is to being full, the more it effects us,” Chung says. So as the full moon approaches, the robot – instead of starting to grow claws and thick brown hair – sells more, as if it is nervous about the moon’s impact on multinational corporations and the decision-making capabilities of senior management. If you’re wondering how this automated yet temperamental trader handles an eclipse, one word: sell.
And get this: the robot’s beliefs evolve. People are constantly seeing correlations in the world and interpreting them as patterns that they can or should act upon. Sid also generates new, albeit irrational, beliefs and acts on them. Cautious not to leave any spiritual stone unturned, Chung went as far as seeking the advice of a fortune teller to help him determine the most prudent launch date. When her first suggestion conflicted with a prior engagement already on Chung’s calendar, she used her powers and a sacred pendant to “visualise” another option: 1 June.