HFC boss Stefan Nilsson checks in with Chris White in Singapore for a chat about long-form reading, Iron Maiden, men wandering about in foreign climes, Stilton cheese, cheeky cigars on mountain tops and much more. Chris is a seasoned member of the Asian hedge fund industry with stints at firms such as Graticule, Nezu Asia, Eudaemonic Capital, Elmwood Advisors and Man.
From where and how do you get your daily general news updates?
For market news, mainly the FT and Bloomberg. More general news I tend to pick up from various curated feeds across the internet. I try to prioritise long-form thought pieces over headlines and have found Medium and Pocket to be quite good in that regard – once the algos figured out my tastes.
What do you do to unwind on a weekend?
In the pre-pandemic era, I have vague recollections of travel, going climbing with friends, that kind of thing. Nowadays we are more constrained; weekends are typically spent throwing the kids in the pool and trying to keep fit.
Can you name a great book you have recently read?
My three-year-old insists on “The Gruffalo” every night – solid character development, an emotional roller coaster and a surprise twist at the end. During the lockdown, I finished “The Annotated Turing” by Charles Petzold, which takes Alan Turing’s classic paper “On Computable Numbers, With An Application To The Entscheidungsproblem” and breaks it down paragraph by paragraph. This is where computing really began, everything else – apart from Claude Shannon, perhaps – is rather a footnote. Still not an easy book to get through, hence the necessity of the lockdown to focus on it, but an incredible feat of exposition. Looking at my nightstand now, I’m sensing an unconscious desire for travel. I’ve got Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Between the Woods and the Water”, Robert Byron’s “The Road to Oxiana” and Alan Booth’s “Looking for the Lost” sitting there – all great books about men lacing up their boots and going wandering in foreign climes.
Your soundtrack of choice?
That’s very activity-dependent. If it’s grinding through some code, then it’s typically some electronica that doesn’t require much concentration. For a decent paced run, nothing beats old school drum ‘n’ bass, but for a workout where motivation is key then the metal playlist comes out – Iron Maiden, Metallica, sometimes newer stuff like Slipknot. Evenings tend to be a bit quieter – Dinah Washington, Coltrane/Hartman, Michael Nyman are always a good way to end the day. Recently I came across the Verve record label remixes – modern DJs and artists like Bassnectar, Diplo, Kascade remixing classic tracks from Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and others. Downtempo enough, but not so much that my eight-year-old complains that it’s “boooooring”.
What drink do you start the day with and what drink finishes it?
Start is a pint of milk with a scoop of chocolate protein powder in it. Followed by coffee. So much coffee… End of day is usually water with chia seeds soaked in it and a squirt of fresh lime juice. Tastes much better than it sounds. Actually, it tastes exactly like it sounds.
What’s the worst money mistake you’ve made?
Getting paid in USD while living in Japan in 2010 and 2011. I’ve never seemed to be on the right side of the currency trade with respect to salary. You should always short me in that respect and for what it’s worth I am currently USD income with SGD liabilities…
Have you ever had a great mentor and what did you learn?
I’ve had a number of mentors, both good and bad. On the great side, Akio Shimazu who hired me to Schroders – and is now head of Man Group in Japan – stands out. He taught me that mistakes were inevitable, but that you had to make a substantive change as a result to make the same mistake impossible in future; it’s never good enough to simply say “I won’t make that mistake again”.
What gives you energy?
There are so many ways to make money in the world and so much alpha which is left on the table. I’ve built and run programs and businesses that get that as a concept, and the constant ability to innovate and get paid for it is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’ll never get bored of applying technology to financial problems, it’s endlessly fascinating.
How do you stay grounded and focused as a person in these turbulent and fast-changing times?
I think I’m finally at a point in life where I’ve got some perspective in an old-timey way. I came into the industry at the tail end of the Japan crash and the US S&L crisis, in the teeth of a UK recession. Swiftly followed by the Asia crisis, LTCM, the NASDAQ bubble bursting, 9-11, the quant crisis, 2008 and GFC, Greek blowup, Brexit and now the Covid pandemic. Almost every firm I’ve worked for no longer exists, got taken over or is in the process of self-immolation. It really is just one damned thing after another, so the quicker you can elevate yourself above the noise and get a sense of how these things are likely to pan out, the better. But at the same time, I think it’s also worth considering that the chaos can go on much longer than you imagined. Everyone thought World War II would be over by Christmas of 1939, so learn to dig in and ride it out. Finance is not so far from alpinism in that respect. You’ve got to lug around a bunch of heavy stuff and keep putting one foot in front of another to reach an objective that most people can’t see and don’t care about. Long stretches of tedium and slog, interspersed with moments of abject terror which force you to dig deep. And always keep your escape routes in mind. It’s been good training…
Can you name a terrific restaurant that you love?
In Japan, it would have to The Sodoh in Kyoto. I’ve been going there since it was on the Kamogawa and known as the River Oriental back in the 90s, through to moving to the present location in Higashiyama. The setting – the estate of a former nihonga artist – with the pagoda of Hogan-ji illuminated at night, is just magical. In London, Rules in Covent Garden will always have a special place in my heart. As a northern boy trying to fit into the City it was, and still is, the embodiment of everything I thought London would be. Plus, they give you a huge round of Stilton cheese that you can dig into with dessert spoons, and who doesn’t love that?
What’s your favourite museum in the world?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We used to go there almost every week when I lived in the city. I have a particular fascination with the Oceania section, I could wander around that for hours.
Are you active on social media and what do you actually use it for?
Much less active than I used to be, but perhaps that is just a pandemic side effect. I find myself using LinkedIn more these days, it seems to have found its stride somewhat. Facebook seems to have degenerated into endless adverts. I rarely look at it. I never really “got” Instagram or Twitter and I am way too old and uncool to use Snap or TikTok.
Do you have any secret guilty pleasure that you are prepared to reveal here?
I love a nap. It’s the ultimate life hack – like getting two days for the price of one in terms of energy and focus.
What kind of battle dress do you normally put on for work?
Bold to assume I’m wearing anything at all in this WFH era.
Do you celebrate your wins? If so, how?
Wins are always so ephemeral. By definition, you spend most of your life below your most recent high-water mark. To the extent I’ve hit a new high in anything, I’m always looking out for the next drawdown. Generally, too, wins are the culmination of a long process – by the time they arrive, you’ve had a good idea that they were coming for some time and so the mind has already moved onto the Next Big Thing. Very much a cliché, but it really is more about the journey than the destination.
What makes you happy?
Seeing the things I’ve created start to blossom, function of their own accord and grow in unexpectedly delightful ways. That goes for family as well as professional endeavours. There’s nothing better than that, although sitting at the top of a mountain after a hard climb with a cheeky cigar in hand does come a close second.