The 26-year-old ex-Citadel quant who came in from the woods
If you’re looking for the ultimate backstory to a hedge fund career, Lucas Rooney has it. The 26-year-old who joined Eisler Capital as a VP on the equities desk last October, and who started his career at Citadel’s Chicago office in January 2020, didn’t have the archetypal hedge funder young adulthood. While other students were grinding at their desks, Rooney was among the trees.
“I didn’t actually finish high school,” Rooney told Michael Watson (himself a former Citadel MD, and founder of the Hedgineer community) in a recent podcast. “I kind of ended it when I was 16 years old… spent the next six years kind of traveling around, working odd jobs.”
Those jobs involved clams, trees, landscaping and then, the wilderness. Rooney spent years living in the wild, guiding canoe trips, mountain climbing, backpacking. “When I was guiding in Montana…many of our trips would be during the colder weather seasons,” he told Watson. “We wake up at five, six in the morning, I would cook breakfast for the clients and we would hit the road….we would start hiking.”
Rooney was 21 when he reverted to the mean and went to the university of Massachusetts Amherst to study mathematics and statistics. He was 23 when he joined Citadel as an associate. “I had a pretty non-linear path getting here, certainly pretty nontraditional,” he told Watson.
He left the wilderness after the dean of Boston University came on one of his canoe trips and offered to help him apply for college if he was interested. Rooney appraised the offer through the prism of canoe-lore: “There's an expression in canoeing, with regards to running rapids. That's to be in the big water and get out of it and out of the big water and get into it,” he told Watson. “I could continue doing the guiding thing and try to live a normal life at like 30 or 35 or something. But it'd be a lot harder at that point." The better alternative was returning to education, pursuing a normal life and then reverting to a non-traditional lifestyle if he wanted it later.
At College, Rooney interned at commodities trading firm Louis Dreyfus. There, he heard of Citadel. At that time, Citadel was building out its agriculture desk and Rooney interviewed with the head of agricultural trading. “We talked about work I had done at Dreyfus, thoughts on markets overall, some of my background and I didn't give them the full story,” said Rooney. “But we talked about books, honestly, that we were reading for like half the call.”
Rooney began at Citadel by trading livestock before adding biofuels to his remit. He taught himself how to code in Python using Google and StackOverflow. He stuck with Citadel for nearly three years, until Eisler came calling in April 2022.
Working in equities is harder than commodities, Rooney told Watson. There are fewer opportunities to unearth alpha in equity markets: “Commodities have to converge to a price at some given point in time… Whereas equities are kind of trading some ethereal notion of the future value of the company…There's a lot of participants out there. There is also a lot of liquidity. There's also a lot of transparency...” In commodities, there’s more asymmetry and fewer participants and more potential for arbitrage.
These days, Rooney lives in New York and his daily routine has no real wilderness built-in. “I was more of a hardo,” he said of his former existence. “- Oh, you know, if it's not a two weeklong wilderness trip where I don't see another human being and, you know, have to really rough it, I'm not interested. Now I'll take what I can get. Like a walk in Central Park is nice, right?”
But his experience in the woods has informed his approach to human beings. When he’d guide people, it was often the most humble who would cope best, said Rooney. – It was an “ego deflation experience:” “You would have people that delusionally thought they were awesome and tough and could do anything. And you had people that felt like they never accomplished anything in their life and would fail at anything that they tried and kind of were like meek and had given up,” he told Watson. “And almost without fail, you would see the person who delusionally thought they were fantastic and excellent… get knocked down because it's really hard.”
That time also gave him an experience that prepared him for trading. Much of the time in the wilderness was about mundanity and monotony, Rooney reflected. He’d be in a “a Zen or like mindless flow state of just doing the same things over and over again,” but then something unexpected would happen. “You know, if there's a thunderstorm and you're in the middle of a twenty mile wide lake and you got to get to shore, otherwise you're going to get caught in lightning, It's definitely pretty exciting, but also gives you a real appreciation of the fact that, like, random stuff can happen and there's real risk imbued in that randomness…”
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