The economist John Maynard Keynes said it best with his immortal words about financial markets being able to stay irrational longer than one can stay solvent. I think it was Keynes who said those words yet it doesn’t matter. What matters is how important and powerful those words are. I personally think these are some of the most important words of advice for any investor whether they are a novice or seasoned. One may have complete confidence and conviction in a security they are investing in yet there is always the chance that things don’t go according to plan regardless of how much due diligence they may have done on it.
The Big Short is a well known book by Michael Lewis, which was later made into a successful film. The book is about an investor and fund manager named Michael Burry who places an enormous bet against subprime mortgage bonds. He was one of a small handful of investors who at the time discovered how rotten those bonds were and how they had the power to create an enormous financial crisis, which they eventually did in 2007-8. He placed his bet relatively early in around 2005. At the time, it was seen as a rather contrarian thing to do as the majority of people in the financial world were amazingly unaware of how toxic those bonds were.
Although Burry would eventually be vindicated and handsomely rewarded for his bet, I personally think that the way he went about it wasn’t so smart. To be clear, I am not for one moment knocking his deep research and analysis. In fact, I applaud his diligence and ability to discover serious flaws in that corner of the market whilst everyone else it seemed was asleep at the wheel. Yet I don’t think it was a smart move for the following reasons. Firstly, his move to short those bonds represented a very high percentage of his total fund, which made a lot of investors very nervous. If you are a fund manager or work for a fund, it is quite common for an individual security to not represent more than 10% of the total fund. Anything higher than that percentage has the potential to create a lot more risk and volatility to the fund. What’s more, it was expensive to hold such a large short position as large payments to service it were due every month. It was understandable why those investors and others at his fund were nervous and had very little patience. Secondly, and more importantly, I don’t think Burry ever familiarised himself with Keynes’ quote. Although it took about two years for his bet to come good it could have taken much much longer. It is entirely plausible that had his fund had to wait even longer for his bet to come good there would have been so much pressure on Burry to finally close his short and thus cut the loses the fund was making by holding it.
You see it doesn’t matter whether Burry was fundamentally right in his analysis. He was completely correct. These bonds were a train wreck waiting to happen. But that’s not the point. The point is that timing the markets is very very difficult. Alternatively, Burry could have done the following. He could have still made his bet yet it wouldn’t have represented more than 10% of his total fund for example. That way, there would be less tension and pressure on Burry to close his position in the event that it was going to take so long to come good. What’s more, it would have still made him and the investors in his fund a lot of money when that day would eventually arrive.
This brings me to another well worn adage in the investment world of never having all your eggs in one basket. Although this may be a cliché it is so very true. Although enormous fortunes are made by putting all one’s huevos in one single basket, it is also the fastest way to blow up a portfolio. Burry’s enormous bet came good and he was rewarded, but he could also have been fooled by randomness by some unusual twist of fate.
Over the last few years many investors, including some well known names, lost a lot of money shorting Tesla. Although the rationale behind their decision to short the company was completely understandable, namely that the market capitalisation of the company was not reflective of it’s fundamentals, the share price has nonetheless continued to climb even higher. This right there should be a warning in the perils of going for that ‘big short’. As I already stated, it is ok if such a position is not so great that it poses a serious risk to an entire portfolio. But one can only imagine those legions of investors having a Michael Burry style moment with Elon Musk’s company.
Interestingly, it seems that Burry himself has now thrown his hat in the Tesla Short ring. I may be wrong, but it appears that his fund is betting against Tesla to the tune of 40% of the entire weighting of the fund. I wish him luck. Will his bet come good again? Or will he join the scores of other investors who got badly burnt betting against Elon?
By Nicholas Peart
10th August 2021
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