Investors use AI to answer British election riddle

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leads in the opinion polls — but that could change by election day. (AFP)
Updated 03 December 2019

Investors use AI to answer British election riddle

  • Fund managers turn to machines after pollsters’ failure to call last two polls

LONDON: Question: How do you predict the outcome of a snap election when so many polls have been so wrong, half of voters haven’t made up their minds and the crucial factor may not be who wins, but how much they win by?

Answer: Unclear.

So financial investors, who could make or lose fortunes on the result of Britain’s Dec. 12 vote, are taking matters into their own hands and arming themselves with every predictive tool at their disposal — from artificial intelligence analysis to private polling and sports betting techniques.

Faced with such an unpredictable and financially pivotal election, fund managers say they can’t put their faith in pollsters who failed to accurately call the last two British elections and dramatically dropped the ball on Brexit and Trump.

“In the past opinion polls accounted for 85 percent of your input, now maybe it’s 30 percent,” said Stephen Jen, macro hedge fund manager at London-based Eurizon SLJ. “The world has become so complicated that polls, the standard metrics of the past, don’t capture the picture anymore.”

Reuters interviewed more than two dozen big investors, including Aviva, Legal and General, NN Investment Partners, State Street Global Advisers and M&G Investments.

Most said they had turned to AI-based tools that variously analyzed news reports, social media, web traffic, opinion polls and betting odds to decipher how the vote might play out.

Brexit has scrambled traditional political allegiances, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives pledging a swift split from the EU, the main opposition Labour promising another referendum and others vowing to stay in the bloc.

It will not be enough for Johnson simply to win more seats than any other party — he needs a parliamentary majority to ensure Brexit happens. Any other outcome is likely to lead to a second referendum on EU membership.

Given the stakes, recent studies show almost half the electorate are now considered undecided “floating voters.”

“Frankly, this election is by far the most difficult to call in living memory,” said Edward Shing, global head of equity derivatives strategy at BNP Paribas.

Valentijn van Nieuwenhuijzen, who oversees almost €300 billion ($332 billion) at NN Investment Partners, said he was using the social media analysis services of MarketPsych to monitor the mood among voters.

MarketPsych, which sells its products through data company Refinitiv, tracks almost 3,000 sites, searching for expressions related to certain subjects.

Ahead of elections, it can track public sentiment toward issues like a change of government and social tensions, said Eric Fischkin, director quant and feeds at Refinitiv, in which Thomson Reuters, the parent company of Reuters News, holds a 45 percent stake.

“On both those parameters, the index is at its highest since the Brexit referendum,” he added. “If those indexes are marching upwards during an election it means that a higher share of the total media buzz is around those topics.” Using social media analysis to make political calculations is largely unproven. However Henrik Mueller, a professor at Dortmund University, argues it could be a key tool to gauge the mood of Britain’s highly charged political scene.

In a paper for the Bruegel Institute think-tank, he detailed how Twitter-derived sentiment analysis he had conducted before the 2016 Brexit referendum reflected the swing toward Leave sooner and more accurately than opinion polls and bookmakers.

“The UK situation is unique, it’s an ideal environment for this kind of analysis because the public is polarized around one question — Brexit — which is easier to track on social media,” Mueller said.

But such techniques failed to yield clear signals for the 2018 Italian election, and before the 2017 French election at least one social media “scraping” company wrongly predicted victory for far-right Marine le Pen.

Demand from investors has spawned a raft of companies selling various brands of data analysis. US-based Predata, for example, applies machine-learning algorithms to web traffic data to generate indicators that it sells to financial customers.

The company, which studies the sources and scale of traffic rather than content, said analysis in early November showed a spike in research into new voter registrations in Britain.

This was driven by people browsing on phones, rather than computers — with the mobile-based traffic four times higher than at a similar point before the 2017 election.

“One assumption we can make is, this is generally associated with a younger audience,” said Eric Falcon, Predata’s director of research.

Engagement by younger voters, who are likelier to be anti-Brexit, could be considered a negative for the Conservatives.

British parliamentary seat projections are complicated by a first-past-the-post voting system — in each of the 650 electoral districts, the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. This can undermine gauges of the overall national vote.

While opinion polls show the Conservatives around 10 points ahead, BNP Paribas noted that at this point in the 2017 campaign, the party had an even bigger lead, only to see it evaporate by election day.

A model created by pollsters YouGov shows the Conservatives on track to win 359 seats but has a margin of error of 50 either way — the difference between a majority and a hung parliament, potentially Brexit and no Brexit.

“The uniqueness of the UK election makes polling less useful,” said Peter Fitzgerald, chief investment officer for multi-asset at Aviva Investors. “What you actually need to do is effectively look at 650 mini-referendums.”

Said Haidar, chief investment officer of macro hedge fund firm Haidar Capital Management, said he found bookmaker betting odds a more accurate predictor than opinion polls.

Using odds, as well as following news reports and polls, he said he correctly predicted the result of the Brexit referendum and “made a ton of money” in related bets.

Betting exchanges such as Betfair have indeed done a better job of predicting the outcomes of some votes; a Cambridge University study credited punters with cottoning on to the result of the Brexit referendum hours before financial markets.

Yet betting markets may not provide as good a gauge for elections as they do for binary referenda. The amount wagered is also tiny against the multi-billion-dollar currency and bond markets.


A Jordan startup delivers eco-friendly alternative to dry cleaning

Updated 05 December 2019

A Jordan startup delivers eco-friendly alternative to dry cleaning

  • Products used by WashyWash are non-carcinogenic and environmentally neutral
  • Amman-based laundry service aims to relocate to a larger facility in mid-2020

AMMAN: A persistent sinus problem prompted a Jordanian entrepreneur to launch an eco-friendly dry-cleaning service that could help end the widespread use of a dangerous chemical.

“Dry cleaning” is somewhat of a misnomer because it is not really dry. It is true that no water is involved in the process, but the main cleaning agent is perchloroethylene (PERC), a chemical that experts consider likely to cause cancer, as well as brain and nervous system damage.

Kamel Almani, 33, knew little of these dangers when he began suffering from sinus irritation while working as regional sales director at Eon Aligner, a medical equipment startup he co-founded.

The problem would disappear when he went on vacation, so he assumed it was stress related.

However, when Mazen Darwish, a chemical engineer, revealed he wanted to start an eco-laundry and warned about toxic chemicals used in conventional dry cleaning, Almani had an epiphany.

“He began to tell me how PERC affects the respiratory system, and I suddenly realized that it was the suits I wore for work — and which I would get dry cleaned — that were the cause of my sinus problems,” said Almani, co-founder of Amman-based WashyWash.

“That was the eureka moment. We immediately wanted to launch the business.”

WashyWash began operations in early 2018 with five staff, including the three co-founders: Almani, Darwish and Kayed Qunibi. The business now has 19 employees and became cash flow-positive in July this year.

“We’re very happy to achieve that in under two years,” Almani said.

The service uses EcoClean products that are certified as toxin-free, are biodegradable and cause no air, water or soil pollution.

Customers place orders through an app built in-house by the company’s technology team.

WashyWash collects customers’ dirty clothes, and cleans, irons and returns them. Services range from the standard wash-and-fold to specialized dry cleaning for garments and cleaning of carpets, curtains, duvets and leather goods.

“For wet cleaning, we use environmentally friendly detergents that are biodegradable, so the wastewater doesn’t contain any toxic chemicals,” Almani said.

For dry cleaning, WashyWash uses a modified hydrocarbon manufactured by Germany’s Seitz, whose product is non-carcinogenic and environmentally neutral.

A specialized company collects the waste and disposes of it safely.

The company has big ambitions, planning to expand its domestic operations and go international. Its Amman site can process about 1,000 items daily, but WashyWash will relocate to larger premises in mid-2020, which should treble its capacity.

“We’ve built a front-end app, a back-end system and a driver app along with a full facility management system. We plan to franchise that and have received interest from many countries,” Almani said.

“People visiting Amman used our service, loved it, and wanted an opportunity to launch in their countries.”

WashyWash has received financial backing from angel investors and is targeting major European cities initially.

“An eco-friendly, on-demand dry-cleaning app isn’t available worldwide, so good markets might be London, Paris or Frankfurt,” Almani said.

 

• The Middle East Exchange is one of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Global Initiatives that was launched to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai in the field of humanitarian
and global development, to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region. The initiative offers the press a series of articles on issues affecting Arab societies.