Michael Burry is a value investor notable for being one of the first, if not the first, to short sub-prime mortgage bonds in his fund, Scion Capital. He figures prominently in the Gregory Zuckerman’s book, The Greatest Trade Ever, and also in The Big Short, Michael Lewis’s contribution to the sub-prime mortgage bond market crash canon. In Betting on the Blind Side, Lewis excerpts The Big Short, which describes Burry’s short position in some detail, how he figured out that the bonds were mispriced, and how he bet against them (no small effort because the derivatives to do so didn’t exist when he started looking for them. He had to “prod the big Wall Street firms to create them.”).
Late one night in November 1996, while on a cardiology rotation at Saint Thomas Hospital, in Nashville, Tennessee, he logged on to a hospital computer and went to a message board called techstocks.com. There he created a thread called “value investing.” Having read everything there was to read about investing, he decided to learn a bit more about “investing in the real world.” A mania for Internet stocks gripped the market. A site for the Silicon Valley investor, circa 1996, was not a natural home for a sober-minded value investor. Still, many came, all with opinions. A few people grumbled about the very idea of a doctor having anything useful to say about investments, but over time he came to dominate the discussion. Dr. Mike Burry—as he always signed himself—sensed that other people on the thread were taking his advice and making money with it.Lewis discusses Burry’s perspective on value investing:
Once he figured out he had nothing more to learn from the crowd on his thread, he quit it to create what later would be called a blog but at the time was just a weird form of communication. He was working 16-hour shifts at the hospital, confining his blogging mainly to the hours between midnight and three in the morning. On his blog he posted his stock-market trades and his arguments for making the trades. People found him. As a money manager at a big Philadelphia value fund said, “The first thing I wondered was: When is he doing this? The guy was a medical intern. I only saw the nonmedical part of his day, and it was simply awesome. He’s showing people his trades. And people are following it in real time. He’s doing value investing—in the middle of the dot-com bubble. He’s buying value stocks, which is what we’re doing. But we’re losing money. We’re losing clients. All of a sudden he goes on this tear. He’s up 50 percent. It’s uncanny. He’s uncanny. And we’re not the only ones watching it.”
Mike Burry couldn’t see exactly who was following his financial moves, but he could tell which domains they came from. In the beginning his readers came from EarthLink and AOL. Just random individuals. Pretty soon, however, they weren’t. People were coming to his site from mutual funds like Fidelity and big Wall Street investment banks like Morgan Stanley. One day he lit into Vanguard’s index funds and almost instantly received a cease-and-desist letter from Vanguard’s attorneys. Burry suspected that serious investors might even be acting on his blog posts, but he had no clear idea who they might be. “The market found him,” says the Philadelphia mutual-fund manager. “He was recognizing patterns no one else was seeing.”
“The late 90s almost forced me to identify myself as a value investor, because I thought what everybody else was doing was insane,” he said. Formalized as an approach to financial markets during the Great Depression by Benjamin Graham, “value investing” required a tireless search for companies so unfashionable or misunderstood that they could be bought for less than their liquidation value. In its simplest form, value investing was a formula, but it had morphed into other things—one of them was whatever Warren Buffett, Benjamin Graham’s student and the most famous value investor, happened to be doing with his money.And I love this story about his fund:
Burry did not think investing could be reduced to a formula or learned from any one role model. The more he studied Buffett, the less he thought Buffett could be copied. Indeed, the lesson of Buffett was: To succeed in a spectacular fashion you had to be spectacularly unusual. “If you are going to be a great investor, you have to fit the style to who you are,” Burry said. “At one point I recognized that Warren Buffett, though he had every advantage in learning from Ben Graham, did not copy Ben Graham, but rather set out on his own path, and ran money his way, by his own rules.… I also immediately internalized the idea that no school could teach someone how to be a great investor. If it were true, it’d be the most popular school in the world, with an impossibly high tuition. So it must not be true.”
Investing was something you had to learn how to do on your own, in your own peculiar way. Burry had no real money to invest, but he nevertheless dragged his obsession along with him through high school, college, and medical school. He’d reached Stanford Hospital without ever taking a class in finance or accounting, let alone working for any Wall Street firm. He had maybe $40,000 in cash, against $145,000 in student loans. He had spent the previous four years working medical-student hours. Nevertheless, he had found time to make himself a financial expert of sorts. “Time is a variable continuum,” he wrote to one of his e-mail friends one Sunday morning in 1999: “An afternoon can fly by or it can take 5 hours. Like you probably do, I productively fill the gaps that most people leave as dead time. My drive to be productive probably cost me my first marriage and a few days ago almost cost me my fiancée. Before I went to college the military had this ‘we do more before 9am than most people do all day’ and I used to think I do more than the military. As you know there are some select people that just find a drive in certain activities that supersedes everything else.” Thinking himself different, he didn’t find what happened to him when he collided with Wall Street nearly as bizarre as it was.
In Dr. Mike Burry’s first year in business, he grappled briefly with the social dimension of running money. “Generally you don’t raise any money unless you have a good meeting with people,” he said, “and generally I don’t want to be around people. And people who are with me generally figure that out.” When he spoke to people in the flesh, he could never tell what had put them off, his message or his person. Buffett had had trouble with people, too, in his youth. He’d used a Dale Carnegie course to learn how to interact more profitably with his fellow human beings. Mike Burry came of age in a different money culture. The Internet had displaced Dale Carnegie. He didn’t need to meet people. He could explain himself online and wait for investors to find him. He could write up his elaborate thoughts and wait for people to read them and wire him their money to handle. “Buffett was too popular for me,” said Burry. “I won’t ever be a kindly grandfather figure.”Hat tip Bo.
This method of attracting funds suited Mike Burry. More to the point, it worked. He’d started Scion Capital with a bit more than a million dollars—the money from his mother and brothers and his own million, after tax. Right from the start, Scion Capital was madly, almost comically successful. In his first full year, 2001, the S&P 500 fell 11.88 percent. Scion was up 55 percent. The next year, the S&P 500 fell again, by 22.1 percent, and yet Scion was up again: 16 percent. The next year, 2003, the stock market finally turned around and rose 28.69 percent, but Mike Burry beat it again—his investments rose by 50 percent. By the end of 2004, Mike Burry was managing $600 million and turning money away. “If he’d run his fund to maximize the amount he had under management, he’d have been running many, many billions of dollars,” says a New York hedge-fund manager who watched Burry’s performance with growing incredulity. “He designed Scion so it was bad for business but good for investing.”
Thus when Mike Burry went into business he disapproved of the typical hedge-fund manager’s deal. Taking 2 percent of assets off the top, as most did, meant the hedge-fund manager got paid simply for amassing vast amounts of other people’s money. Scion Capital charged investors only its actual expenses—which typically ran well below 1 percent of the assets. To make the first nickel for himself, he had to make investors’ money grow. “Think about the genesis of Scion,” says one of his early investors. “The guy has no money and he chooses to forgo a fee that any other hedge fund takes for granted. It was unheard of.”