Tag Archives: investments

Saudis Follow Michael Burry in Water Investment ValueWalk, By Mark Melin  

The latest hot investment is a water investment, one that is particularly liquid but deals in a scarce commodity.

Water has always been a valuable commodity, but it is one that many experts have said is under appreciated, under priced and laced with government subsidies. Hedge fund legend Michael Burry of The Big Short fame first popularized the idea of investing in water, and now the government of Saudi Arabia investing in U.S. water rights is raising eyebrows.

 

 

Water is a cheap commodity

The days of “cheap water” are behind us, Ben Grumbles, President of the U.S. Water Alliance, previously told ValueWalk. He says water and its infrastructure has been “taken for granted” and is “a leaking time bomb.”

The commodity that is perhaps most under appreciated in the U.S. was the focus of Michael Burry’s next “big short” for a reason.

“We often spout off the fact that 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water,” Burry was quoted as saying. “While this is true, freshwater – the kind we care about – actually only represents 2.5% of that amount. On top of that, only 1% of our freshwater is easily accessible, with most of the other 99% trapped in glaciers and snowfields. In the end, only 0.007% of the planet’s water is actually available to fuel and feed the world’s 7 billion people.”

The United Nations has noted water use has grown at over twice the rate of the world’s population, with today people using nearly 30% of the world’s total accessible renewal supply of water. Projections are that in less than 10 years, that percentage could reach 70% and by 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with 2/3rds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions.

Drinkable water is a scarcity issue, something that they are well aware of in Saudi Arabia.

Saudis pile in on water investment

Almarai Co., Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, recently purchased land and water rights in California’s Palo Verde Valley, an area that has preferential access to water from the Colorado River. The Saudi company was reported to have acquired a large tract near Vicksburg, Arizona, a region known for fewer well-pumping restrictions than other parts of the state. The purchase of nearly 14,000 acres enable the Saudis to take advantage of weakened water rules and the move is not sitting well.

“It flies in the face of economic reason,” said John Szczepanski, director of the U.S. Forage Export Council. “You’ve taken on all of the risk a farmer has. The only way you can justify that is that they’re really not trying to make a profit. They’re trying to secure the food supply.”

Indeed, not only does Saudi have a water problem, but it could be getting worse due to recent Government cuts (although at least for now the Government has no plans to stop water investments). A recent report from Jadwa Investment notes:

Another project to commence operations is the $2 billion oil-fired power and desalination plant in Yanbu, with a capacity of 2,500 mw of power and 550 thousand cubic meter a day (cm/d) of desalinated water.

And:

The rapid growth in demand for power and water will continue to be met with continuous project expansion.

Watch water investment, it could be the next big thing.

Advertisements

Zeno’s Paradox Janus, by Bill Gross

 

 

I once wrote that a good “bond manager” should metaphorically be composed of 1/3 mathematician, 1/3 economist and 1/3 horse trader. I still stand by that, although I would extend it now to the entire investment arena, especially after experiencing several years of “unconstrained” asset management. Surprisingly though, upon reflection, I find that personally I was never really an “A+ student” at any of the 3 but good enough at each to provide consistent long term alpha and above average profits for clients. In math, for instance, I was a 720 SAT guy but certainly nowhere near 800 status. In economics, I never got beyond Samuelson and an introductory MBA class at UCLA Anderson, but was self-educated enough to have forecast and ridden the secular bond bull market beginning in 1981, and fortunate enough – though “addled” – to have predicted the housing crisis, as well as named and described the “New Normal” that would follow. Horse trader? Well that’s an even more subjective assessment but I can remember being a rather mediocre fraternity poker player. You could usually bluff me out of a big pot, and these days in the market I find myself turning right sometimes when I should be going left. Whatever. B+, A-, B is how I would grade myself but the returns and the relative alpha compared to contemporaries proved to be the real scorecard, and I’m happy with the result, acknowledging of course that some in the “classroom” I worked and work with at PIMCO and Janus earned Summa Cum Laude status and more themselves.

But back to the 1/3 math thing. It’s there that I find the average lay and even many professional investors still thinking and managing assets at the grade school level. The childlike “teeter totter” principle, for instance which couldn’t be simpler in its visualization of bond prices going up when interest rates go down, produces foggy-eyed reactions from a majority of non-professionals, and from a few supposed experts as well. And too, the concept of longer maturities inducing more risk for bond holders seems to stump many. Heaven forbid the introduction of the more refined concepts of duration and forward yield curves as well as the extension into stocks with the addition of an equity “risk premium” and how it might be calculated. “Forget about the math,” many investors really seem to say – “let’s stick to the old Will Rogers adage, ‘If a stock is going to go up – buy it. If it ain’t going up – don’t buy it’!”

Well today’s markets are markets that increasingly will be dominated by math, not Will Rogers. And negative interest rates are front and center. To explain, let me introduce a twister I first came across during one of my high school math classes known as Zeno’s paradox. Zeno was an ancient Greek who posed the following conundrum: Imagine a walker heading towards a finish line 10 yards away but every step he took was half of the length of the step he took before. If so, even if he walked an infinite amount of steps he could never reach his destination. Mathematically correct but the real world resolution was that Zeno’s walker and everything else that we experience moves forward in full step integers as opposed to fractions. It was a mathematical twist only.

But there is no “math only” twist to today’s bond and investment markets. Negative interest rates are real but investors seem to think that they have a Zeno like quality that will allow them to make money. In Germany for instance, 5 year Bunds or OBL’s as they are called, yield a negative 30 basis points. That produces a current price of 101.50 at a 0% coupon that guarantees, guarantees that an investor will get back 100 Euros 5 years from now for every 101.50 Euros she invests today. Why would a private investor (the ECB has a different logic) buy a 5 year OBL at a minus 30 basis points and lock in a guaranteed loss? Well credit and electronic money has its modern day disadvantages in that you can’t withdraw billions of physical Euro Notes from the local bank, nor can banks withdraw some from the central bank. You have to buy something and that’s the yield that’s artificially being imposed. Besides, the purpose of it is to force the investor to buy something with a positive yield further out the maturity spectrum or better yet with a little or a lot of credit risk to get inflation and the economy’s growth engine started again. Seemingly logical, but as I’ve pointed out in recent years – not working very well because zero and negative interest rates break down capitalistic business models related to banking, insurance, pension funds, and ultimately small savers. They can’t earn anything!

Anyway, for those private investors that continue to hold 5 year OBL’s and lock in a guaranteed loss 5 years from now, many of them are using a bit of Zeno’s paradox to convince themselves that they will never reach the loss-certain finish line at maturity. They think that because 4 year OBL’s yield even less (-40 basis points), the 5 year OBL’s will actually go up in price (remember the teeter totter?) if 4 year rates stay the same over the next 12 months, and the ECB has sort of – sort of – promised that. Whatever it takes, you know. If so, the private investor will actually make a little money over the next year (10 basis points) and she can give herself a slap on the back for having eluded the ECB’s negative interest rate trap!

Ah but Zeno’s, Draghi’s, Kuroda’s, and even Yellen’s paradox is actually just that – a paradox. Some investor has to cross the finish/maturity line even if yields are suppressed perpetually, which means that the “market” will actually lose money. Yet who cares about Zeno and a bunch of 5 year OBL investors? Well 30-40% of developed bond markets now have negative yields and 75% of Japanese JGB’s do. Still who cares about them, just buy high yield bonds or even stocks to avoid Zeno’s paradoxical trap. No! All financial assets are ultimately priced based upon the short term interest rate, which means that if an OBL investor loses money, then a stock investor will earn much, much less than historically assumed or perhaps might even lose money herself. Yields have been at 0% or negative for years now across most developed markets and to assume that high yield bond and equity risk premiums as well as P/E ratios have not adjusted to this Star Trek interest rate world is to believe in – well to believe in Zeno’s paradox.

The reality is this. Central bank polices consisting of QE’s and negative/artificially low interest rates must successfully reflate global economies or else. They are running out of time. To me, in the U.S. for instance, that means nominal GDP growth rates of 4-5% by 2017 – or else. They are now at 3.0%. In Euroland 2-3% – or else. In Japan 1-2% – or else. In China 5-6% – or else. Or else what? Or else markets and the capitalistic business models based upon them and priced for them will begin to go south. Capital gains and the expectations for future gains will become Giant Pandas – very rare and sort of inefficient at reproduction. I’m not saying this will happen. I’m saying that developed and emerging economies are flying at stall speed and they’ve got to bump up nominal GDP growth rates or else. Cross your fingers. Zeno’s paradox was a mathematical twist only and the artificial/ negative interest rate world created by central bankers has similar logic. The real market and the real economy await a different conclusion as losses from negative rates result in capital losses, not capital gains. Investors cannot make money when money yields nothing. Unless real growth/inflation commonly known as Nominal GDP can be raised to levels that allow central banks to normalize short term interest rates, then south instead of north is the logical direction for markets.

Faking it. Excerpted from Elliott Management’s Paul Singer letter to investors.

Nobody knows when reality will overtake the rhetoric, lies, phony statistics, wishful thinking, fake prices and tiresome poseurs pretending to be world leaders. The situation is universal, a consequence of incompetent leaders and careless (or ignorant) citizenry. Global problems are continuing to mount, along with the risk that the consequences of years of bad policies and inept leadership compound (as sometimes happens) in a short window of time. Let us start by unpacking some current examples of fakery, and then try to explore the consequences.

Monetary policy.

Either out of ideology or incompetence, all major developed governments have given up (did they ever really try?) attempting to use solid, fundamental policies to create sustainable, strong growth in output, incomes, innovation, entrepreneurship and good jobs.The policies that are needed (in the areas of tax, regulatory, labor, education and training, energy, rule of law, and trade) are not unknown, nor are they too complicated for even the most simple-minded politician to understand. But in most developed countries, there is and has been complete policy paralysis on the growth-generation side, as elected officials have delegated the entirety of the task to central bankers.

For their part, the central bankers are proud and delighted to be providing the primary support for the global economy. Their training for this role took place in the decades before the 2008 financial crisis, when central bankers (led by “The Maestro,” Alan Greenspan) “deftly” headed off crisis after crisis. These policy responses “worked,” we were told, and they promised a new era of fine-tuning, moderation in markets and complete control of the economy by central bankers. The words in quotes are meant to be ironic, of course, because in fact, the Federal Reserve Board’s moves disguised hidden – but serious and real – future costs, which came due in 2008. The ensuing crisis introduced the term “moral hazard” (not meant to be ironic) into the mainstream, meaning that risks were taken by financial institutions and others seeking private reward, while the costs of the risks were borne primarily by the taxpayers. Central bank manipulation of prices and risk taking has become the norm over the last six years, because it is so hard for investors to see the downside. QE and ZIRP have been “free,” as far as most people are concerned, in terms of stability, asset price and economic growth, and economic recovery. “Free” in this context means devoid of future countervailing negative consequences. Unfortunately, this particular magic bullet is illusory – the negative consequences are in the early stages of revealing themselves.

Among the worst consequences of the delegation of responsibility from political leaders to central bankers has been the increasing arrogance of the latter group and their inability to understand the rapidly evolving nature of the world’s major financial institutions. Prior to the crisis, central bankers were unable to understand the risks that were building up in the global financial system and the economy. They did not see the 2008 collapse coming, nor did they perceive how fragile the system had become, or that the major financial institutions had become the largest and most leveraged hedge funds on earth.

This lapse was a catastrophic error, not just of execution but also of theory and structure. During the 2008 crisis, the central bankers (rightly) applied standard (more or less) responses to financial collapse (flooding the system with liquidity and reducing interest rates), which of course truncated the crisis and stabilized the system. But their inability to understand the financial system, or to take responsibility for their massive failures in causing/allowing the crisis to occur, has resulted in a seriously deficient economic recovery phase. Central bankers do not understand that it was their tinkering, manipulation, bailouts and false confidence that encouraged and enabled the insanity that led to the fragility and collapse. Partially as a result of that misunderstanding, the developed world has doubled down on the same policies, feeding the central bankers’ supreme self-confidence. Political leaders have been content to stand aside and watch the central bankers do their seemingly magical and magnificent work.

The believers in the wisdom of this central-banker-centric economic world have been crowing and gloating that those (like us) who have raised concerns about the risks posed by the post-crisis, monetary-dominated policy mix (inflation, distortions, growing inequality, lower growth) are just “wrong” and should apologize for a “massive error.” This, shall we say,“Krugmanization” of a substantial portion of the economics profession and punditocracy is in its triumphalist phase, and whether its smug non-stop “victory lap” ultimately represents an embarrassing high-water mark is for subsequent events to reveal.

However, let us look at the policies that have been implemented post-crisis (in the absence of the kind of solid pro-growth policies that we and others have been advocating) and compare them to the policies that were in place during the run-up to the 2008 crisis.

  • Pre-crisis, the Fed funds rate was 1% for 2-1/2 years. There was no asset buying by the central bank (QE), but the persistently low Fed funds rate fueled bubbles in leverage, real estate and structured products. The balance sheets and derivatives books of financial institutions went from crazy to colossally insane. 
  • Following the crisis, the Fed funds rate has been effectively zero for six years, and QE has put several trillion dollars of government and mortgage debt on the books of the world’s major central banks. Indeed, a substantial portion of government spending in the past six years has been “financed” by QE. If the gibberish that passes for explanations of why this is not just money printing makes sense to you, then please give us a call so we can be educated. The explanation makes no sense to us.

ZIRP has allowed insolvent corporations to issue debt at almost no premium to government bond rates. Companies that should be shuttered or taken over and chopped up are instead able to pursue projects that should never have seen the light of day, and to create fake demand that essentially borrows growth (and jobs) from the future.

A good deal of the economic and jobs growth post-crisis is false growth, with little chance of being sustainable and self-reinforcing. It is based on fake money conjured by the Fed to buy assets at fake prices.What happens when interest rates are normalized and QE stops (and reverses) globally is a question that nobody wants to contemplate. The financial system is fragile, still ultra-leveraged and reliant upon a continuation of superlow interest rates. Thus, the appearance of stability and low volatility is also illusory.

Government economic data.

Some of the most important government data is unreliable, starting with inflation. Reported real GDP growth has been in the 2% annualized range for the last few years. The 4% annualized real growth rate reported for the second quarter of 2014 only reversed the terrible first quarter numbers, so year-over-year growth was still only in the 2% range for the twelve months ended June 30, 2014. Only if third and fourth quarter real GDP growth reaches 3% or higher, and only if that rate persists next year, will it be fair to say that the U.S. economy has finally recovered from the crisis (six tough years later).

But regardless of the purported results for the rest of 2014 and into 2015, all of the reported growth numbers are too high, because the official inflation number is too low. Over a long period of time, these figures have become politicized, always in the direction of under-reporting inflation.Constant repetition has resulted in most policymakers and economists now just accepting the adjustments and tricks that have become part of the reporting culture. From the notion that there is “core” and “non-core” inflation; to ignoring house prices and using “rental equivalence”; to “hedonic adjustments” according to which, if your computer is “better” than last year’s, then you should subtract an amount from the actual price every year to reflect that improvement, even though it is subjective and not really quantifiable; to a handful of other nonsensical adjustments, inflation is understated.Inflation is also distorted by the increasing gap between the spending basket of the well-off and that of the middle class (check out London, Manhattan, Aspen and East Hampton real estate prices, as well as high-end art prices, to see what the leading edge of hyperinflation could look like).

Said differently, inflation is the degradation of the value of money. Money has no meaning beyond the value of the real things for which it can be exchanged. The inventions and tools of modern finance have made things look really complicated, but stripping inflation to its essence is critical to understanding what is real and what is false. The inflation that has infected asset prices is not to be ignored just because the middleclass spending bucket is not rising in price at the same rates as high-end real estate, stocks, bonds, art and other things that benefit from QE and ZIRP. Money is losing value in those areas. This is inflation, plain and simple. If and when the situation gets to be Argentina-like, with generalized increases across the entire spending spectrum, it will be clear to everyone. In the meantime, sadly, policymakers do not recognize the reality of the peculiar and sectoral inflation, in some cases massive and growing, that has been caused by money printing and bad policy.

Even apart from rising prices in high-end goods, all of this suggests that CPI inflation is being understated by some unknowable amount, which we estimate is between 1/2% and 1% per year. This is a big difference in a 2% or 2-1/2% per year reported real GDP growth environment. Middle class citizens who are paying more at the supermarket and for college tuition and for many other goods and services feel that inflation is higher than reported, but they lack access to reliable data. The well-off think that it is their exquisite good choices that enable them to sell their overpriced $10 million co-op apartment and buy a $20 million overpriced Hamptons beach home. Neither group is coming to grips with the insidious and tricky nature of modern inflation, and the government just uses its tone of complete confidence to ignore what citizens see with their own eyes.

Unemployment figures are also a source of faulty or misleading data. The headline currently reported unemployment rate of 5.9% is deeply misleading. A 35-year low in the workforce participation rate, a policy-driven transition from full-time to part-time jobs, and the transition from high-paying jobs to relatively low-paying service jobs, all combine to make the headline rate a poor measure of employment health. Support for our statement is provided by the data on real wages, which have been stagnant during the entire post-crisis period.These figures for trends in real wages avoid the distortions we have described above, and are consonant with the polling numbers which show that Americans believe their country is on the wrong track and that the future prospects for themselves and their children are poor.

Deleveraging.

The 16th Geneva Report on the World Economy (published in September of this year by the Centre for Economic Policy Research) says that the total burden of global non-financial debt, private and public, has risen from 60% of national income in 2001 to almost 200% after the crisis in 2009 and to 215% in 2013. Contrary to widely held beliefs, the world’s leading governments and financial institutions have not yet begun to de-lever, and the global debt-to-GDP ratio is still growing to record highs, even before taking into account entitlement programs.

*  *  *

Nobody can predict how long governments can get away with fake growth, fake money, fake financial stability, fake jobs, fake inflation numbers and fake income growth. Our feeling is that confidence, especially when it is unjustified, is quite a thin veneer. When confidence is lost, that loss can be severe, sudden and simultaneous across a number of markets and sectors.

It’s a Xanax World (Bill Gross) Janus, by Bill Gross

The Romans gave their Plebian citizens a day at the Coliseum, and the French royalty gave the Bourgeoisie a piece of figurative “cake”, so it may be true to form that in the still prosperous developed economies of 2016, we provide Fantasy Sports, cellphone game apps, sexting, and fast food to appease the masses. Keep them occupied and distracted at all costs before they recognize that half of the U.S. population doesn’t go to work in the morning and that their real wages after conservatively calculated inflation have barely budged since the mid 1980’s. Confuse them with demagogic and religious oriented political candidates to believe that tomorrow will be a better day and hope that Ferguson, Missouri and its lookalikes will fade to the second page or whatever it’s called these days in new-age media.

Meanwhile, manipulate prices of interest rates and stocks to benefit corporations and the wealthy while they feast on exorbitantly priced gluten-free pasta and range-free chicken at Whole Foods, or if even more fortunate, pursue high rise New York condos and private jets at Teterboro. It’s a wonderful life for the 1% and a Xanax existence for the 99. But who’s looking – or counting – even at the ballot box. November 2016 will not change a thing – 8 years of Hillary or 8 years of a non-Hillary. Same difference. Central bankers, Superpacs, and K street lobbyists are in control. Instead of cake, the 49.5% (males) will just have to chomp on their Carl’s Jr. hamburger and dream of a night with 23-year-old Kate Upton lookalikes that show them how to eat it during Super Bowl commercials. And if that’s too sexist, then Carl’s is substituting six-pack hunks instead of full-breasted models to appease the other 49.5% (females). It’s a Xanax society. We love it.

But I kid my readers – (that’s what comedians say on TV when they approach an edge). Kidding aside, however, if the 99 think they’ve got it good (bad) now, just wait 10 or 20 more years until their bills really come due. Of course by then, the 1% likely won’t be doing so well either, but there’s the hope that each and every one of them (us/me) can sell before the deluge. I speak specifically though to liabilities associated with the Boomer generation: healthcare, private pensions, Social Security and the unestimable costs of global warming, but let me leave the warming of the planet out of it for now. Let me try to convince you with some hard, cold facts, many of which are U.S. oriented but which apply as well to much of the developed world, because we’re mostly all getting older together. Demography rules.

Explaining this demographic countdown requires an impolitic concession that the world’s population is gradually aging, some at a faster rate than others (Japan, Italy, Taiwan!) but mostly in developed vs. undeveloped countries.

And it is the elderly that require more services and expenses than newborns, although at first blush it would seem that an infant in diapers requires more attention and healthcare than a 70-year-old retiree. Not really. To focus on some U.S. centric mathematical realities, several years ago Mary Meeker in a 500 page, softbound edition entitled “USA Inc.” put together a series of U.S. Treasury and other government reports that outlined just how dire America’s future demographic is in terms of financial liabilities. It is one thing to put readers to sleep with a 2030 forecast for aging boomers, as shown in Chart 1 but another to use the government’s own present value of these debts as of 2016. If financial market observers seem aghast at current Greek or Puerto Rican debt traps, they would surely take a double dose of Xanax when confronted with this: Fact – The U.S. government has current outstanding debt of approximately $16 Trillion or close to 100% GDP. The present value, however of Medicaid ($35 trillion), Medicare ($23 trillion), and Social Security ($8 trillion) promised under existing program totals $66 trillion or another 400% of GDP. We are broke and don’t even know it, or to return to my opening analogy, we are having our cake, eating it at the same time and believing that a new cellphone app will be invented in the near future to magically deliver more of the same. Not gonna happen folks.

Some politicians like Paul Ryan who argue for balanced fiscal budgets are intelligent sounding but relatively clueless. “Austerity – if not now, then when?”, he would argue in Reaganesque twitter. “Let’s slow down or even stop the inexorable clicking of the debt clock: 16 trillion, 17 trillion, 18 trillion”…he would add. Well yes, every little bit helps, Mr. Ryan, but the fact of the matter is (a great political phrase, is it not?) that reducing the growth rate of current government debt does little to help what in essence is a demographic not a financial problem: too few Millennials to take care of too many Boomers. Social Security “lock boxes” or Medicare/Medicaid “trust funds” which in essence represent “pre-funded” liability systems, cannot correct this demographic imbalance, because financial assets represent a “call” on future production. If that production could possibly be saved like squirrels ferreting away nuts for a long winter, then Treasury bonds or purchasing corporate stocks might make some sense. But they can’t. Future healthcare for Boomer seniors can only be provided by today’s Millennials and even doctors yet to be born. We cannot store their energy today for some future rainy day. Nor can we save food, transportation or entertainment for anything more than a few years forward. Each of those must be provided by a future generation of workers for the use of retired Boomers. And as Chart 1 points out, the ratio of retirees to workers – the dependency ratio – soars from .25 retirees for every worker to .35 over the next 10 years or so.

Chart 1: United States Elderly Dependency Ratio

 

There’s your problem, and neither privatization nor any goodly number of government bonds deposited in the Social Security “lock box” can solve it. While these paper assets may “pay” for goods and services, their value will be market adjusted in future years to exactly match the quantity of things we buy, and that quantity will be substantially a function of the available workforce and the price they command for their services. This is another way of saying that the value of Treasury bonds and even private pension held stocks will be marked down in price as they are sold to pay for future goods and services, and that the price of these goods and services will be marked up (inflation) to justify their reduced demographic supply. Productivity gains are often advanced as a solution but productivity gains have been shrinking in recent years, and even so, employed workers cannot be expected to hand over future advances to retirees without a fight. Having more babies would also turn the trick, but at the moment, making fewer seems to be the going trend.

Investment implications? Well it is true that if much of the developing world is younger demographically (think India), then developed nations could and should transfer an increasing percentage of their financial assets to emerging markets to help foot the demographic bills back home. Long-term then, as opposed to currently, think about increasing your asset allocation to the developing world. It’s also commonsensical that if higher Millennial wages are the probable result of a shortage of healthcare workers relative to Boomer requirements, then an investor should go long inflation and short fixed coupons. U.S. 10-year TIPS at 80 basis points seem like a good hedge in that regard. And of course in terms of specific equity sectors, healthcare should thrive, while liability handcuffed financial corporations such as insurance companies as well as the bonds of underfunded cities and states such as Chicago and Illinois, should not. Other countries have similar burdens. The Financial Times reports that the UK pension industry faces a 20-year wait until they might have enough cash to meet their liabilities in 2036. Until then, they cannot. In general, it seems demographically commonsensical that Boomers have in part been responsible for asset appreciation during the heyday of their productive years and that now, drip by drip, year by year, they will need to sell those assets to someone or some country in order to pay their own bills. Asset returns will therefore be lower than historical norms, especially because interest rates are close to 0% in developed countries.

Demographics may not rule absolutely, but they likely will dominate investment markets and returns for the next few decades until the Boomer phenomena fades away. The 1% – in addition to the 99 – will need extra doses of Xanax, or additional slices of cake, to cope in the next few decades. Let the games begin.

The next financial crisis (reflections of Michael Burry via Jessica Pressler)

Michael Burry, Real-Life Market Genius From The Big Short, Thinks Another Financial Crisis Is Looming

If The Big Short, Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the 2008 financial crisis and the subject of last month’s Vulture cover story, got you all worked up over the holidays, you’re probably wondering what Michael Burry, the economic soothsayer portrayed by Christian Bale who’s always just a few steps ahead of everyone else, is up to these days. In an email, which readers of the book will recognize as his preferred method of communication, the real-life head of Scion Asset Management answered some of our panicked questions about the state of the financial system, his ominous-sounding water trade, and what, if anything, we can feel hopeful about.

The movie portrays all of you as kind of swashbuckling heroes in some ways, but McKay suggested to me that you were very troubled by what happened. Is that the case? 

I felt I was watching a plane crash. I actually had that dream again and again. I knew what was happening, but there was nothing I, or anyone else, could do to stop it. The last day of 2007, I couldn’t come home. I was in the office till late at night, I couldn’t calm down. I wrote my wife an email and just said, “I can’t come home; it’s just too upsetting what’s happening, and I didn’t want to come home to my kids like this.” As for punishment of those responsible, borrowers were punished for their overindulgences — they lost homes and lives. Let’s not forget that. But the executives at the lenders simply got rich. 

Were you surprised no one went to jail?

I am shocked that executives at some of the worst lenders were not punished for what they did. But this is the nature of these things. The ones running the machine did not get punished after the dot-com bubble either — all those VCs and dot-com executives still live in their mansions lining the 280 corridor on the San Francisco peninsula. The little guy will pay for it — the small investor, the borrower. Which is why the little guy needs to be warned to be more diligent and to be more suspicious of society’s sanctioned suits offering free money. It will always be seductive, but that’s the devil that wants your soul. 

When I spoke to some of the other real-life characters from The Big Short, I was surprised to hear that they thought that financial reform was pretty effective and that the system was much safer. Michael Lewis disagreed. In your opinion, did the crash result in any positive changes?  

Unfortunately, not many that I can see. The biggest hope I had was that we would enter a new era of personal responsibility. Instead, we doubled down on blaming others, and this is long-term tragic. Too, the crisis, incredibly, made the biggest banks bigger. And it made the Federal Reserve, an unelected body, even more powerful and therefore more relevant. The major reform legislation, Dodd-Frank, was named after two guys bought and sold by special interests, and one of them should be shouldering a good amount of blame for the crisis. Banks were forced, by the government, to save some of the worst lenders in the housing bubble, then the government turned around and pilloried the banks for the crimes of the companies they were forced to acquire. The zero interest-rate policy broke the social contract for generations of hardworking Americans who saved for retirement, only to find their savings are not nearly enough. And the interest the Federal Reserve pays on the excess reserves of lending institutions broke the money multiplier and handcuffed lending to small and midsized enterprises, where the majority of job creation and upward mobility in wages occurs. Government policies and regulations in the postcrisis era have aided the hollowing-out of middle America far more than anything the private sector has done. These changes even expanded the wealth gap by making asset owners richer at the expense of renters. Maybe there are some positive changes in there, but it seems I fail to see beyond the absurdity.

How do you think all of this affected people’s perception of the System, in general? 

The postcrisis perception, at least in the media, appears to be one of Americans being held down by Wall Street, by big companies in the private sector, and by the wealthy. Capitalism is on trial. I see it a little differently. If a lender offers me free money, I do not have to take it. And if I take it, I better understand all the terms, because there is no such thing as free money. That is just basic personal responsibility and common sense. The enablers for this crisis were varied, and it starts not with the bank but with decisions by individuals to borrow to finance a better life, and that is one very loaded decision. This crisis was such a bona fide 100-year flood that the entire world is still trying to dig out of the mud seven years later. Yet so few took responsibility for having any part in it, and the reason is simple: All these people found others to blame, and to that extent, an unhelpful narrative was created. Whether it’s the one percent or hedge funds or Wall Street, I do not think society is well served by failing to encourage every last American to look within. This crisis truly took a village, and most of the villagers themselves are not without some personal responsibility for the circumstances in which they found themselves. We should be teaching our kids to be better citizens through personal responsibility, not by the example of blame.

Where do we stand now, economically?

Well, we are right back at it: trying to stimulate growth through easy money. It hasn’t worked, but it’s the only tool the Fed’s got. Meanwhile, the Fed’s policies widen the wealth gap, which feeds political extremism, forcing gridlock in Washington. It seems the world is headed toward negative real interest rates on a global scale. This is toxic. Interest rates are used to price risk, and so in the current environment, the risk-pricing mechanism is broken. That is not healthy for an economy. We are building up terrific stresses in the system, and any fault lines there will certainly harm the outlook.

What makes you most nervous about the future?

Debt. The idea that growth will remedy our debts is so addictive for politicians, but the citizens end up paying the price. The public sector has really stepped up as a consumer of debt. The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is leveraged 77:1. Like I said, the absurdity, it just befuddles me.

The last line of the movie, printed on a placard, is “Michael Burry is focusing all of his trading on one commodity: Water.” It sounds very ominous. Can you describe this position to me?

Fundamentally, I started looking at investments in water about 15 years ago. Fresh, clean water cannot be taken for granted. And it is not — water is political, and litigious. Transporting water is impractical for both political and physical reasons, so buying up water rights did not make a lot of sense to me, unless I was pursuing a greater fool theory of investment — which was not my intention. What became clear to me is that food is the way to invest in water. That is, grow food in water-rich areas and transport it for sale in water-poor areas. This is the method for redistributing water that is least contentious, and ultimately it can be profitable, which will ensure that this redistribution is sustainable. A bottle of wine takes over 400 bottles of water to produce — the water embedded in food is what I found interesting.

What, if anything, makes you hopeful about the future?

Innovation, especially in America, is continuing at a breakneck pace, even in areas facing substantial political or regulatory headwinds. The advances in health care in particular are breathtaking — so many selfless souls are working to advance science, and this is heartening. Long-term, this is good for humans in general. Americans have so much natural entrepreneurial drive. The caveat is that it is technology that should be a tool making lives better in the real world, and in line with the American spirit of getting better and better at something, whether it’s curing cancer or creating a better taxi service. I am less impressed with the market values assigned to technology that enhances distraction. We don’t want Orwell’s world, but we don’t want Huxley’s world either.