After 20 years of working on the buy side and on the sell side of the financial industry, this volatility arbitrage quant went back to school.

Why One of Asia’s Most Successful Quants Went Back to School at HEC Paris Executive MBA

After building Nomura Principal Investments’ Asian volatility operations from the ground up, Jean-Noel Payer secured seeding for his first solo fund, which he launched to the tune of $250-plus million in capital. Since then, it’s been victory after victory for the man who wrote the book on Asian  derivatives. Even so, after 20-plus years of unmitigated success, Jean-Noel went back to school for an Executive MBA at HEC Paris.

Over a career spanning two decades in Hong Kong and Tokyo, Jean-Noel Payer built up quite a reputation for himself as one of Asia-Pacific’s top volatility arbitrage quantitative traders.

His LinkedIn page, for one, reads like a playbook in career progression for any aspiring hedge fund manager with lofty goals: Senior Equity Derivatives Trader, Senior Portfolio Manager, Managing Director, CEO/Founder.

By the age of 36, having been in the region for the better part of 13 years, he was helming volatility operations at Nomura Principal Holdings, the successor to Lehman Brothers’ proprietary trading unit in Asia-Pacific. Having carved out a niche as one of Asia’s foremost authorities on volatility trading, the French transplant struck out on his own in what Reuters raved about being “one of the biggest startups in the region this year.

Eight years later, Voltex Asia, his volatility-focused hedge fund, was one of the leaders of the Asian volatility arbitrage landscape. As founder and CEO, he was riding high. His next step? The HEC Paris Executive MBA, of course.

Jean-Noel made his name in Hong Kong finance.

The global finance hub of Hong Kong served as the setting for much of Jean-Noel’s early career. He launched Voltex Asia there in 2012.

Sound Investments

To an outsider, being at the pinnacle of one of the world’s most nuanced, in-demand, and lucrative professions doesn’t augur with the idea of going back to school.

Jean-Noel, who will graduate from HEC Paris in the summer of 2021, is quick with an explanation.

“Our type of investment is a very day-to-day job, and very niche. Once you become a specialist, you have very specific expertise, which is good in a way because people will fight – and pay – for that expertise. At the same time, if I want to expand my business to get out of the niche of being labeled an Asia volatility specialist, I need a broader understanding,” he says.

The broadness of understanding to which Jean-Noel alludes is a hallmark feature of the Executive MBA program at HEC Paris. With 50 different nationalities and an average of 15 years’ professional experience across a wide range of sectors, the program prides itself in offering the promise of cutting-edge, global training for its participants – which is exactly what Jean-Noel was looking for.

“I’ve been working and dealing with people with the same background and same thinking as me for 20 years,” he says of a career thus far spent within the cozy confines of volatility trading. “I’m interested in meeting people working in other industries approach and see how they solve their problems. My path as a quant may be seen as very successful, but in terms of options I was in a corridor; the EMBA for me was one way to reopen a lot of doors.”

Soft-spoken and circumspect, Jean-Noel has a measured eloquence in expanding on the wealth of insights he has gained in his time at HEC with regards to opening his eyes to the challenges faced by professionals from outside his own field.

“It’s pretty refreshing and humbling to be exposed to other industries which have tougher problems with margins and fixed costs. People in the automotive industry, for example, have managed to find solutions in fast-evolving industry with razor-thin margins. This just shows me I can do it on my side, too.”

Getting Ahead

His grasp of what may paradoxically seem to be the limitations that arise from twenty years of success in finance belies a quality one might not expect out of hedge fund manager: humility.

“When you’re in your own industry, you have this bias where you think your industry is the best thing in the world, especially in finance. Hedge funds are a little bit too day-to-day: daily returns, quarterly returns, six month returns. You tend to lose long-term vision when you’re on the pure quantitative investment side.”

His enthusiasm and fascination for how people in other industries solve problems, along with the entrepreneurial demands imposed by his own foray into business ownership, especially one as numbers-based as finance, also factor into his calculus.

“If you want to grow business on the buy side of hedge funds, it’s not enough to be a good quant. You need to have human skills: you need to raise money, manage investor expectations, and understand the legal side of things,” he explains. “That’s all outside of my core expertise. I’m an actuarial science guy. I don’t naturally understand those other things.”

Indulging Curiosity

Not understanding, or not knowing, is anathema to the professional competency of any quant, especially one whose reputation is staked to the cryptic world of volatility. But Jean-Noel, along with the rest of the prodigiously accomplished members of his cohort, have taken the EMBA opportunity to lean into the unknown and learn. In Jean-Noel’s case, being able to indulge his curiosity for startups has been a key feature of his Digital Transformation specialization.

Digital Transformation cohort at HEC Paris MBA.

Jean-Noel and his fellow Digital Transformation participants during an on-campus encounter.

“If you run a quant fund, plenty is digitalized, but the business model itself is obsolete. There’s so little interaction with the customer. On the bank side, fintech is really advanced, but on the hedge fund side, there’s a lot of things to play with,” he says. “There’s a ton of room to grow.”

Learning What Jean-Noel sees in his industry- despite the vaunted and undeniable growth of FinTech – is opportunity.

“The good thing about my major is that it really focuses on how to change your business model to incorporate digital changes in the world. One of my projects right now is using AI to process alternative data to sell to investment funds. There’s a pure technical part to creating a dataset, but the more important part is presenting it and being customer-centric – how to market, how to push it, how to convince people it’s useful,” he says.

“For that, the EMBA is perfect: a mix of marketing, customer-centric business, methodologies and experiences to improve the market fit of your product.”

More CEOs of Fortune Global 500 companies have graduated from HEC Paris than any other university in Europe, and nearly 4,000 graduates are currently CEOs, CFOs, or have founded their own companies. According to the Financial Times, the HEC Paris Executive MBA is ranked #1 in Europe and #3 in the world; click here to learn more about this world-class program.