Betting Big on a Secular Shift
Featuring John Burbank
Published on: May 17th, 2019 • Duration: 16 minutesJohn Burbank, CIO of Passport Capital, joins Michael Green of Thiel Macro to discuss how he utterly changed his thesis on the global markets. Burbank sold every position he had and did an about-face with his fund’s strategy in 2012. Shifting from investing in commodities to investing in human capital at the perfect time was a bold call for Burbank to make, but the move has paid off handsomely. This video is excerpted from a piece published on Real Vision on June 1, 2018 entitled “John Burbank’s Bullish Views on Crypto, Saudi Arabia, and Tech.”
JOHN BURBANK: It wasn't easy. I didn't actually have an answer for what should I be doing. But a couple months later, I came up with a, not that I knew it was right, but was like I think the structure of technology being surrounded by it here and investing in some of it at that point, I thought the structure of technology, which does not mean revert, it's like a very fast changing thing with a lot of non-linear outcomes, I thought the structure of technology was favoring the highest quality, human capital, which is essentially the opposite of commodity.
In 2011, after being invested over 10 years in, 10 years in energy and eight years in mining. Gold, I've been invested for nine years. I had this weird experience where the three commodities I was long all went up, but the equities associated with those commodities, all were down. Like gold was up 17% in 2011, and the gold equities were down 17%. Just don't make any sense.
And the top I remember, was I think Osama bin Laden was killed, I believe. And I also remember reading a Wine Spectator, I think the top in Bordeaux prices was April of 2011. But what happened was, there was a top in sort of things associated with growth. And I guess you could say there was a risk that was removed.
But the spot commodity actually acted quite differently from the equities. And equities were discounting the future or perceptions of the future, it was almost like Chinese were sellers in 2011 or something, but the market didn't know. And anyway, but after 10 years and evaluating post-crisis what the macro situation was and how much growth could we really get out of the world, Europe was a challenge.
I just came to the conclusion, we weren't going to get enough growth in the world. Not enough to support it. And actually, I should trust the equities and not the commodities that I was long. If you're long in on commodity equity, you're really long with commodity equity, you know? You think you're long with commodity, but you're really long the pricing and liquidity in the equities.
And it was very difficult. I sold every position I had, except for two. One was a refiner and one was a specialty chemical company, got acquired a few years later. But I just got out. And I took a real about-face, and my team thought I was kind of crazy. And as I think of, it was probably a right brain moment. I didn't know that I was right, but I thought there was a good chance I could be, and I had to re-evaluate the world. And so that's I did.
And by the beginning 2012, I came up with a different conception of how I should be oriented. Because I'm always looking for what is going to be different five years from now. It's just the way it works. It's like the markets are totally repriced five years later. And I thought this was the end of an era. 10 years for me of being invested in commodities. And so that's where I got to a belief that human capital was what one should be long. And I was just the opposite of commodity.
MICHAEL GREEN: It's actually, I mean it's difficult to convey to people how hard that is for a professional investor, particularly somebody who had the industry footprint as yourself, right. I mean, your clients had heard for years.
JOHN BURBANK: Right.
MICHAEL GREEN: How commodities were an under-appreciated investment. The dollar was a problem. That China was going to go to the moon, et cetera. And as you mentioned, your team probably resisted quite strongly. And probably built a team that had mining experts and very little a human capital. And so that was, it's a remarkable change.
And it also creates conditions in which paradoxically, from an institutional standpoint, it creates a tremendous amount of uncertainty. You must have received not just pushback from your team, but your investors probably said quite sharply, what are you doing? I mean, gold is, gold is at all time highs. And oil is back to above $100 a barrel. And these stocks are incredibly cheap. If you think of them as investing in the commodities. Am I incorrect in that assumption? Or was that something you really faced?
JOHN BURBANK: It's true. But this is a left brain and right brain activity. Your right brain is spotting patterns, and using intuition and sort of animal senses. And your left brain is logic and the lawyer and the accountant and I find that, I think I have a good mix of the two. And I find that too many people in investing and finance who are left brain focused and can miss signals. But I don't know, it wasn't easy. I didn't actually have an answer for what should I be doing.
But a couple months later, I came up with a, not that I thought I knew I was right, but it's like I think that the structure of technology being surrounded by it here and investing in some of it at that point, I thought the structure of technology, which does not mean revert, it's like a very fast changing thing with a lot of non-linear outcomes, I thought the structure of technology was favoring the most, the highest quality, human capital, which is essentially the opposite of commodity, the opposite of lowest cost available commodity.
And by thinking about that, and being around it here, and knowing that the cost of creating technology was just getting cheaper and cheaper, I came to conception that maybe the surprise is how valuable, how much more valuable the best, the A students in the classes, is what I said, that really should just belong to A students in the class and short the rest of class, it doesn't matter.
Whereas commodities, you're looking for that something needed that has a very below cost and is cheap to transfer. But doesn't actually require tremendous ongoing sophistication. So that was like a set of ideas and thoughts that had sort of evolved and emerged. And then I realized by selling, I was making way for it.
The biggest problem was that I ran a diverse sectors and had many different teams. And I didn't decide to abandon the mining team and abandon the energy team. Energy peaked last in 2014. But anyway, but I do know that markets every five years look completely different than they did five years before. And security prices move so much, that it's always this new recognition of change.
And I focus on change. That's the thing that is dependable. But it happens in different ways in different areas. It was until 2013, the beginning 2013, that growth really took off. And then that's when tech really started to do better, I'd say. It wasn't so clear that tech was absolutely the thing to do I think.
MICHAEL GREEN: Well, it definitely wasn't. You mentioned something that I think very few people are able to articulate as well as you just did, which is that technology does not mean reverting. And so you and I both came of age bracketed on either side by technology bubble. So the '96 to 2000 time period. You and I both looked at that.
JOHN BURBANK: Makes you think it's been reverting, but that was-
MICHAEL GREEN: Yeah, I mean, the assumption was, OK, valuation is what matters. And if we look at things like mining companies, they were deeply neglected, and therefore they are value.
JOHN BURBANK: And they were, but mainly because of 20 years since the top and China was coming and people didn't know is what ended up happening. And the dollar got cheaper, and was also place to avoid the carnage of-
MICHAEL GREEN: Oh, the tech--
JOHN BURBANK: Yeah, the 2000s.
MICHAEL GREEN: Yeah, I think that's absolutely correct. And I think that's what we've paradoxically seen, is that value has actually now had its longest run of underperformance. It had a very brief window basically from 2000 through 2006, in which it made up a lot of lost ground. But if you actually look at that approach to investing, it's been an unmitigated disaster.
JOHN BURBANK: Yes.
MICHAEL GREEN: For the past 30 years.
JOHN BURBANK: Yeah.
MICHAEL GREEN: And it always sounds far more rational. I mean, who wouldn't be pro value? I mean, who wants to be the momentum guy. That makes you sound like a moron. But really, there is, there's something deeply insightful about that idea that mean reversion is kind of silly, and the idea that energy is expressed by a petroleum or other sources is going to be as large of a purchase component of our purchasing basket as it was historically.
JOHN BURBANK: Mm-hmm.
MICHAEL GREEN: It's very hard for people who made a lot of money and who built up a notable reputation on that basis. So you mentioned you made this transition and you didn't abandon your teams, your mining team, et cetera. And you were 100% right. But what challenges did that create for you organizationally? I mean, how do you think about that transition decision not to just wipe the board and move on in a different direction?
JOHN BURBANK: Well, part of it was you can always be short things that you were long. But you do also need your team to believe in these things. And again, I had this belief idea that this was potentially a big transition. And so I started to do that, be short commodities instead of long. And see them as a hedge to things with growth and more human capital.
But running a diverse funds where you want the vol to be relatively low, it's hard to, , you have limits on how much you, we had limits on how much we could put in any one sector. So I actually had no risk base imposed limits on where we could put capital. And I would have been better off retrospectively saying this is my belief. And when I validate this hypothesis, I'm just going to go focus on this. And forget the other stuff.
I believe that's the right thing now, because, I think, what I've noticed for a long time is, although the economic growth may be OK, and right now it's good, but I don't expect it to be that great. The change, the change is actually increasing, regardless of economic growth, because structurally, as tech advances, it releases new information.
In fact, the new information growth is tremendous. And that new information therefore, eliminates, creates realities and recognitions that you didn't have before. And so it changes people's behaviors. So I think now I would've been better off saying I'm going to go with, when I really got to believe this was the case in 2012, I'm just going to focus on this, because that would increase my chances of understanding it and getting return from it.
But it would have added to my risk level. And it would have been a meaningful change. And so what I did personally, was essentially start investing much more heavily with my own capital to test this hypothesis. And I had a belief that San Francisco real estate was going to do really, really well. I was the biggest bull that I knew. Because I thought human capital is what really meant the most, and the density of human capital. Human capital basically attracts other human capital
And I thought, so I'm going to test this with my own capital and not diversify, and get more feedback, more information and see how it went. And so it did go well. I didn't put a huge amount of time into it, but I tested it with my human capital, my own personal capital. And essentially, what I'm doing now, is essentially saying, I am not going to allow the drag of things that are not interesting or that fit my hypothesis slow me down.
I'm actually going to focus my attention, which is limited like everyone's, on what I think about the hypothesis, of what I think is going to be the next five years. And so I learned I actually would have been better off abandoning more and betting on this belief, at least working as hard as I could to validate the hypothesis.
And even though I know people want to put you in a box, they want you to do something repeatable, they don't really want you to diverge from that. But markets change. They learn, they learn, they reprice, and then the world is actually a different place five years later, 10 years later. And tech is a, globalization has created a different place, tech's a different place.
The thing that absolutely threw me out of this, was central banking. Central banking essentially created a non mean reverting supply of liquidity, which you could say removed a certain prudency of those who are looking for change in liquidity that create change in the price, and the desire to be aggressive or conservative as a mean reverting thing. And allowed, in a way, this progress towards this ever increasing tech-enabled future to happen even faster.
And so the limitations, the human limitations of not wanting to prevent that made me think, I'm not going to subject my career and capital, investors' capital to getting that behavior correct, when this trend in tech is only getting more powerful. I find it now hard to have a discussion about almost anything without including technology as part of it.