Michael Burry: Notes from Vanderbilt Speech

One of our favorite investors of all time, Michael Burry, who I personally have been following for quite some time, gave a speech tonight at Vanderbilt University entitled: "Missteps to Mayhem: Inside the Doomsday Machine with the Outsider who Predicted and Profited from America’s Financial Armageddon". Distressed Debt Investing was there (we have our tentacles everywhere) and are pleased to bring you notes from the speech. Enjoy!

As indicated by the lecture’s title most of Dr. Burry’s material was a blow-by-blow account of how and why the housing bubble occurred and how he profited from the resultant crash. To put his presentation in context, it is worth noting that the audience was comprised of people from many different academic and professional backgrounds. As such, much of the content was already familiar to those who’ve read Michael Lewis’s The Big Short and/or his Vanity Fair article. I assume the Distressed Debt Investing community is familiar with these works so my notes are focused on things I thought were not discussed in those works and interesting anecdotes that provide insight into his thought process.

To begin I was impressed with the turnout. I’ve heard that Vanderbilt’s Chancellor series is popular, but I was surprised that the approximately 500 seat lecture hall was well beyond capacity with at least 100 people sitting in the aisles or standing along the walls. The audience was very diverse with several doctors (Burry was a Vandy med school graduate), a priest and a fairly even mix of students and professionals.
  • Dr. Burry began by semi-joking that of all the top fifty finance people he’s met, none were as smart as most of his med school classmates
  • He was attracted to investing because he was evaluated on performance not whether or not he looked people in the eye or was socially adept
  • Being looked down on by more credentialed professionals is a hallmark of most trailblazing success stories, noting how John Bogle openly criticized him in a Forbes article
  • He has always been attracted to “ick investments”
  • Aside from being short $1.8 bln notional of sub-prime CDS he was also short $6.6 bln of corporate CDS in names including AIG, Wamu, Countrywide, Fannie and Freddie
  • Due to Wall Street marking against him and his growing investor unrest he was forced to sell his corporate CDS and side pocket his subprime bets
  • When he was first buying protection on sub-prime CDS he was making a psychological bet on the first real defaults, which he expected to soon start, causing the broader mortgage market to collapse. By late ’05, when defaults actually started occurring EVERYBODY should have seen what was coming
  • Instead technical factors—most notably the deep CDS offer from synthetic CDOs and correlation traders—pushed the mortgage basis even tighter
  • He really went after Goldman noting that e-mail have subsequently been disclosed that revealed GS orchestrated a short squeeze “to cause maximum pain” to existing shorts in order to pile on the trade themselves at better levels
  • Paulson and Bernake grossly underestimated the problem. He is amazed that Paulson didn't realize the extent of sub-prime exposure given his tenure at Goldman
  • He notes that many people at different government agencies saw the crisis coming—even more so than he did—but weren't listened to
  • He expects easy monetary policy into the next presidential term
  • QE “seems” to be working but is really just a big gamble
  • QE2 brings the governments motives into question
  • The “Toxic Twins”: fiat currency and an expansionary Fed will be a disaster
  • Glass Stegall needs a 2nd go
  • We are building a debtors’ prison for our children. Legacies are a fatal burden in a fast changing world
  • Don’t tolerate blind faith, figure things for yourself
  • Open a bank account in Canada
  • When asked how to improve the mortgage industry he said that the first step would be eliminating the government’s stance that they should incentivize home ownership. People are smart enough to make their own rent/buy decisions. He would also require originators to hold 50% of their production on their balance sheets.
  • He was very reluctant to reveal details of what he is investing in now
  • He has bought some farmland, but for very specific factors including currency (didn't really expand on this)
  • He has funded some venture capital type investments in Silicon Valley; noted that Silicon Valley is the only place where pure capitalism exists today
  • There are opportunities in small caps because they have lost sponsorship at most sell-side firms
  • Doesn’t think large caps are as cheap as others do
  • Hard to determine when people will lose faith in USTs
  • You don’t have to be the smartest analyst, he was 50th percentile at best in his med school class; you just have to be most dogged
  • Read every line item until you get it


DJH,  4/06/2011  

Outstanding. Thank you very much for posting these notes.

Adrian Meli,  4/06/2011  

That big of turnout and no current investments?

Paul 4/06/2011  

What reason did he give for opening a bank account in Canada? that bullet point seems fairly random.

Anonymous,  4/06/2011  

Big turnout, but a broad based audience so I don't think he was comfortable sharing a lot of ideas w/ people who may not fully understand what he was saying.

The Canadian bank account comment followed his diatribe on how grim the long-term prospects for the US govt/financial system were b/c of budget deficits, QE, etc. It was delivered as a joke, but I think he was at least partly serious.

Hester,  4/06/2011  

Thanks for posting this

Anonymous,  4/06/2011  

My interpretation of the bank account comment was that you don't want to have your free cash balances in US dollars

Anonymous,  4/06/2011  

Thanks Hunter.

Morgan,  4/06/2011  

Very Cool.

Anonymous,  4/07/2011  

great stuff...just recently read some stuff on Burry/Scion's still existing site.

like this gem from 06...

NVI 4/07/2011  

What an interesting read!

Thanks for posting!

The New Value Investor

Anonymous,  4/07/2011  

Can anyone describe what "ick investments" is? It was mentioned in the fourth bullet point.

Anonymous,  4/07/2011  

He talks about "ick investments" in the Vanity Fair article. Basically it means things that he thinks are gross when he firsts discovers them, but w/ more research turn out to good opps. These have included bankruptcies, recovery trusts, etc. Basically things w/ complexity and/or hair on them that most investors don't want to deal with.

Anonymous,  4/14/2011  


Someone posted a video of the speech:



hunter [at] distressed-debt-investing [dot] com

About Me

I have spent the majority of my career as a value investor. For the past 8 years, I have worked on the buy side as a distressed debt and high yield investor.