Whales vs. Minnows and Pitfalls of Prediction Markets
Guest post by Resident Contrarian
This is another guest post from Resident Contrarian, who we commissioned to write an unbiased, outside view on the Whales vs Minnows drama that recently consumed Manifold. Enjoy! - David
There’s an investment move called short selling where you borrow a bunch of stocks, sell them, hope the price goes down, buy them back at a lower price, return the stocks, and keep the difference. Fees and interest aside, it’s a pure price bet - you set a neutral win/lose level when you buy the stock and hope it stays under the bar.
Short selling is a weird enough process that there are lots of ways to abuse it. There are usually enough market-enhancing positive effects to it that the government never actually gets around to banning it. But make no mistake: there are 100 ways to skin the “get yourself in financial or legal trouble with shorts” cat. Shorts are a bet made on loan, and it’s trivial to get yourself in so deep you’d have trouble fishing yourself out.
Notably, if you are a big fish that makes itself vulnerable by getting deep into the short pond and enough small players notice, stuff gets weird fast.
The reason I’ve been thinking about short selling this week is that I’ve been trying, as a layman, to find the closest normie-world equivalent to what happened to the Whales/Minnows market controversy. And I can’t. Because in this case a weird pretend-money prediction market and too much dedication to winning at all costs came together to create something entirely new.
There’s no name for what happened, although I am going to pitch “Kingbreaking” as a possible choice. I’ll do my best to explain what went on from an outsider’s perspective and how Manifold’s biggest whale managed to lose a massive amount of Mana and $30,000 real-world dollars in a market he himself created.
There’s an XKCD What If entry about whether all the spiders on Earth (which are nearby) cumulatively exert more gravity on you than the much-farther-away sun does.
This market is set up a bit like that. Manifold whales are much, much bigger than everyone else, to the tune of portfolios 1000 times bigger than the substantial amount Manifold gives new users to start. Minnows are numerous, but Isaac was willing to make a bet that there weren’t so many of them that the whales couldn’t buy 10,000 votes to offset each and every minnow participant.
There was some immediate controversy regarding when/how/if the market would be resolved, since with Isaac in control he could potentially choose a closing date for the market that favored him and Team Whales.This was eventually resolved by setting up a council of 3 relatively trusted Manifolders who would make those decisions independently of Isaac, and who settled on a semi-random “whenever the next bitcoin hash ending in 00 is mined” closing date criteria.
And so the battlefield was set, ready for the ultimate confrontation between indoors-kid Davids and Goliaths.
The craziest thing about all this to me as a layman is that it probably should have worked. Manifold is active, but in a lot of ways, it’s a niche filled by people who are very serious about quant and who think in a very particular way. That makes for low numbers of participants in a lot of markets. From Isaac’s point of view, it would have looked very possible to win this, especially if he could corral most of the other whales.
For the majority of the market’s lifespan, the number of minnows hovered around 400-600 total participants, which meant Team Whales would have to pony up something like four to six million mana to bring home a win. This lead intensified when an enterprising minnow began to use a paid, $2-per-new-user tool to mass produce new minnows, and for the first time make it more likely than not that the minnows would win.
A couple of things then happened:
Isaac offered to buy out No holders with less than 2000 shares and cash them out as if the market had resolved no. If this went exactly his way, he would be able to chip off a large enough fraction of no votes to take down the minnow side. On top of that, Isaac bought the API keys that controlled the previously mentioned mass-recruited minnows from the Manifold user who held them and used that power to flip their votes to “Yes”.
Isaac also started to buy massive amounts of Mana. For other outsiders reading this, Mana is the play money that you use to back your predictions on Manifold; when you open an account, you get some for free. There are few ways to make small amounts of mana without any real-world money exchanging hands, but if you need a bulk amount fast the only real way to do it is either by winning a lot of long-shot markets really fast (which nobody can do on command) or by spending your own cash.
So when you see a climb like this:
That’s a graphic representation of Isaac spending his own money to try and win the market. Notably, that’s Isaac spending money he can’t get back even if the market goes his way because Mana isn’t convertible back to cash (You can, however, donate Mana in your account to charity at a 1:1 ratio with its purchase price). Unilaterally buying markets isn’t cheap, and at or near the top of that peak Isaac had $30,000 real-world, honest-to-god US dollars tied up in this market.
Between this and the API tomfoolery, the minnows were at this point alternating between complaining about foul play and expressing concern for what was starting to look like a dangerous outcome for Isaac himself, noisily oscillating between both positions like an unbalanced washing machine basket.
If this all seems pretty bad to you, understand that you and I are on the same page. It seems that way to me too.
If you thought “Isaac is probably an uber-rich guy with unlimited funds to dump at this to prove a point”, the evidence points to you being wrong. With uber-energized minnows recruiting faster than ever on Reddit and on the Destiny livestream, Isaac himself was by the morning of 4/25 indicating he was out of money he could dump into the market, and despairing of his own chances to win.
Manifold bets are cheaper the more they disagree with the current winning side, and up until this point the Minnows had been strategically holding back on purchases to keep Yes votes artificially expensive. Isaac admitting weakness put chum in the water, and the Minnows immediately swarmed with purchases and drove the market downward in a way it never recovered from.
At this drop, the chart started showing what close observers already knew; the market was effectively over, and the minnows had won.
Aftermath and thoughts
OK, so, I want you to understand: Manifold is paying me for these articles. But at the same time, I’m writing them in my voice and name, so there’s a bit of an understanding that I can more or less say what I want. They don’t have to print what I write; that’s their call. But there’s some freedom that’s been asked for and granted on this project, and I’m utilizing it.
Mostly I’m using it to say the following: This story is interesting, this story is fun to write about, and this story is also horrifying and nobody should want stuff like this to happen.
The point of a prediction market is just that - to make predictions. It’s so you can log on and easily access the wisdom of the crowds to help you make decisions or to help you learn about the reality of a topic that might be so politically or culturally loaded that you otherwise would have difficulty getting a handle on it.
Betting on markets is supposed to be your way of participating in that. Mana exists, near as I can tell, so that you feel like you have some skin in the game; it’s available for free, and buying a significant amount of it doesn’t necessarily cost a ton. Ideally, you put just enough value on Mana that it influences you to make careful, thoughtful bets.
What happened here wasn’t that. It’s been said a lot in the comments, but this story carries a lot of the flavor of gambling addiction - of someone who bets more than they want to lose, feels trapped, and keeps betting. And what we know about the story supports that; $29k does not seem to have been small-amount play money to Isaac.
I don’t understand every aspect of prediction markets. Go to Scott for that. I’m not an expert, but I do understand this: this is not what they are for. If you like these markets, this kind of betting is destructive and gets in the way of everything good you think they should do.
As far as Manifold goes, I’m only slightly more privy to their inner thoughts on this than you are. But from what I can tell, they agree with me at least that this was a bad event and it should be discouraged from happening again. First, and I think I approve of this a lot, they bailed out Isaac to the tune of $25k of the total 29k - an amount that I think means “here’s a penalty to make you not do it again, but also we don’t want to ruin your life to make a point”.
They also have been making some public statements in the comments that indicate they don’t like this and are trying to figure out how to prevent it while not constraining the markets too much:
To be clear once more, I’m sort of broadly allowed to say “Manifold is handling this poorly and I hate them” here. For the most part, they seem to instead be making the moves I’d want them to make - helping this be as small of a disaster as possible for the person most affected, and taking steps to prevent similar stuff while retaining community focus.
My understanding is that Manifold is working on a more comprehensive public statement about how they are working towards discouraging this kind of problem, and when they do I’d encourage them to link it.
In summary: This market was interesting, it’s interesting to talk about, and I hope I made it interesting to read about. Isaac made a huge bet on the idea that the whales had enough money to buy predictions in direct opposition to the mob, and lost. Looking just at that, this is a good thing; arguably, this was the most direct and conclusive way to show that wisdom-of-crowds can’t be taken down by wealth-of-the-few on Manifold at this point in time.
But looking at the social aspects of this (especially to the extent they concern Isaac) shows some dangers of the market; the bets are called bets for a reason. They feel like bets, and Mana has been successful in feeling like something valuable. That’s necessary for the prediction markets to work at all, but it’s dangerous.
Manifold is taking steps to discourage the kind of markets and behavior that would hurt individuals that made bad decisions, but that’s only half of the picture; it’s important that the individuals themselves understand the psychological dangers of things that feel a lot like betting. If a person can freak out because their important-to-them DnD character died and damage friendships over it (and they can, and do) then people can get too wrapped up in these markets.
I’m traditionally a skeptic of ultra-quant solutions to things, and prediction markets fall under the heading. Writing both this piece and my last guest piece has made me far, far more friendly to prediction markets than I was before; they are neat. They are interesting. I sort of get it a bit now. It would be a shame to limit that appeal by losing sight of the purpose of all this: to learn more, and make better decisions.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check RC out on his Substack! He also works at Quill, and takes advantage of inopportune times to mention he loves his wife.