Applied Finance and The Third Culture

31 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2020 Last revised: 16 Mar 2021

See all articles by Sonya Cates

Sonya Cates

Roger Williams University

Maria Garrahan

Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management

Stephen Lawrence

The Vanguard Group

Date Written: January 9, 2021


In his 2001 paper, Leo Breiman describes two diametrically opposed cultures in data science: the model driven statistician and the algorithm driven data scientist. His argument, that an algorithmic approach is often preferable to an iterative model-driven approach is unlikely to resonate with many financial professionals for whom theory is king, and simplicity is a virtue. This third culture of applied finance is as far removed from either culture described in the original paper.

We propose a horse race between these three cultures: applied finance and an iterative search of simple heuristic models, traditional econometricians armed with classical regression techniques and data science with a mature approach nonlinear algorithmic exploration. We compare several approaches to modeling market volatility and downside risk and explore the role that modeling discipline has on the stability of the outcome. Our tests are performed both on historical equity market and currency market returns, and on a return-mimicking data generating process, from which we can more thoroughly test the stability of each approach.

We find that each culture has its own idiosyncrasies and limitations, which need to be carefully understood as practitioners start to experiment with tools from other disciplines. The necessity of algorithmic approaches to harness the burgeoning opportunities of alternative data may be tempered by the limited work that has been done to bridge the knowledge and techniques of the three cultures.

Keywords: Machine Learning, Econometrics, Applied Finance, Investment Process, Volatility Modeling, GARCH, Elastic Net Blending, Research Culture

JEL Classification: C50, G11

Suggested Citation

Cates, Sonya and Garrahan, Maria and Lawrence, Stephen, Applied Finance and The Third Culture (January 9, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Sonya Cates

Roger Williams University ( email )

Bristol, RI 02809
United States

Maria Garrahan

Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Management ( email )

84 State Street
Suite 250
Boston, MA 02109
United States

Stephen Lawrence (Contact Author)

The Vanguard Group ( email )

100 Vanguard Blvd
Malvern, PA 19355
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics