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Mar 10

Betting on the Blind Side

I have Michael Lewis’ upcoming book, The Big Short on pre-order at Amazon. Vanity Fair has an excerpt from it. Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

A lot of hedge-fund managers spent time chitchatting with their investors and treated their quarterly letters to them as a formality. Burry disliked talking to people face-to-face and thought of these letters as the single most important thing he did to let his investors know what he was up to. In his quarterly letters he coined a phrase to describe what he thought was happening: “the extension of credit by instrument.” That is, a lot of people couldn’t actually afford to pay their mortgages the old-fashioned way, and so the lenders were dreaming up new financial instruments to justify handing them new money. “It was a clear sign that lenders had lost it, constantly degrading their own standards to grow loan volumes,” Burry said. He could see why they were doing this: they didn’t keep the loans but sold them to Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo and the rest, which packaged them into bonds and sold them off. The end buyers of subprime-mortgage bonds, he assumed, were just “dumb money.” He’d study up on them, too, but later.

He now had a tactical investment problem. The various floors, or tranches, of subprime-mortgage bonds all had one thing in common: the bonds were impossible to sell short. To sell a stock or bond short, you needed to borrow it, and these tranches of mortgage bonds were tiny and impossible to find. You could buy them or not buy them, but you couldn’t bet explicitly against them; the market for subprime mortgages simply had no place for people in it who took a dim view of them. You might know with certainty that the entire subprime-mortgage-bond market was doomed, but you could do nothing about it. You couldn’t short houses. You could short the stocks of homebuilding companies—Pulte Homes, say, or Toll Brothers—but that was expensive, indirect, and dangerous. Stock prices could rise for a lot longer than Burry could stay solvent. …

The vehicle for Lewis’ tale turns out to be an ex-Doctor with a very interesting background.

By the time Burry moved to Stanford Hospital, in 1998, to take up his residency in neurology, the work he had done between midnight and three in the morning had made him a minor but meaningful hub in the land of value investing. By this time the craze for Internet stocks was completely out of control and had infected the Stanford University medical community. “The residents in particular, and some of the faculty, were captivated by the dot-com bubble,” said Burry. “A decent minority of them were buying and discussing everything—Polycom, Corel, Razorfish, Pets.com, TibCo, Microsoft, Dell, Intel are the ones I specifically remember, but areyoukiddingme.com was how my brain filtered a lot of it I would just keep my mouth shut, because I didn’t want anybody there knowing what I was doing on the side. I felt I could get in big trouble if the doctors there saw I wasn’t 110 percent committed to medicine.” …

He’d moved back to San Jose, buried his father, remarried, and been misdiagnosed as bipolar when he shut down his Web site and announced he was quitting neurology to become a money manager. The chairman of the Stanford department of neurology thought he’d lost his mind and told him to take a year to think it over, but he’d already thought it over. “I found it fascinating and seemingly true,” he said, “that if I could run a portfolio well, then I could achieve success in life, and that it wouldn’t matter what kind of person I was perceived to be, even though I felt I was a good person deep down.” His $40,000 in assets against $145,000 in student loans posed the question of exactly what portfolio he would run. His father had died after another misdiagnosis: a doctor had failed to spot the cancer on an X-ray, and the family had received a small settlement. The father disapproved of the stock market, but the payout from his death funded his son into it. His mother was able to kick in $20,000 from her settlement, his three brothers kicked in $10,000 each of theirs. With that, Dr. Michael Burry opened Scion Capital. (As a teen he’d loved the book The Scions of Shannara.) He created a grandiose memo to lure people not related to him by blood. “The minimum net worth for investors should be $15 million,” it said, which was interesting, as it excluded not only himself but basically everyone he’d ever known.

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