Burry did not think investing could be reduced to a formula or learned from any one role model. The more he studied Buffett, the less he thought Buffett could be copied. Indeed, the lesson of Buffett was: To succeed in a spectacular fashion you had to be spectacularly unusual. “If you are going to be a great investor, you have to fit the style to who you are,” Burry said. “At one point I recognized that Warren Buffett, though he had every advantage in learning from Ben Graham, did not copy Ben Graham, but rather set out on his own path, and ran money his way, by his own rules.… I also immediately internalized the idea that no school could teach someone how to be a great investor. If it were true, it’d be the most popular school in the world, with an impossibly high tuition. So it must not be true.”
Investing was something you had to learn how to do on your own, in your own peculiar way. Burry had no real money to invest, but he nevertheless dragged his obsession along with him through high school, college, and medical school. He’d reached
without ever taking a class in finance or accounting, let alone working for any Wall Street firm. He had maybe $40,000 in cash, against $145,000 in student loans. He had spent the previous four years working medical-student hours. Nevertheless, he had found time to make himself a financial expert of sorts. “Time is a variable continuum,” he wrote to one of his e-mail friends one Sunday morning in 1999: “An afternoon can fly by or it can take 5 hours. Like you probably do, I productively fill the gaps that most people leave as dead time. My drive to be productive probably cost me my first marriage and a few days ago almost cost me my fiancée. Before I went to college the military had this ‘we do more before 9am than most people do all day’ and I used to think I do more than the military. As you know there are some select people that just find a drive in certain activities that supersedes everything else.” Thinking himself different, he didn’t find what happened to him when he collided with Wall Street nearly as bizarre as it was. Stanford Hospital
Late one night in November 1996, while on a cardiology rotation at Saint Thomas Hospital, in Nashville, Tennessee, he logged on to a hospital computer and went to a message board called techstocks.com. There he created a thread called “value investing.” Having read everything there was to read about investing, he decided to learn a bit more about “investing in the real world.” A mania for Internet stocks gripped the market. A site for the
Silicon Valley investor, circa 1996, was not a natural home for a sober-minded value investor. Still, many came, all with opinions. A few people grumbled about the very idea of a doctor having anything useful to say about investments, but over time he came to dominate the discussion. Dr. Mike Burry—as he always signed himself—sensed that other people on the thread were taking his advice and making money with it.
Once he figured out he had nothing more to learn from the crowd on his thread, he quit it to create what later would be called a blog but at the time was just a weird form of communication. He was working 16-hour shifts at the hospital, confining his blogging mainly to the hours between midnight and three in the morning. On his blog he posted his stock-market trades and his arguments for making the trades. People found him. As a money manager at a big
value fund said, “The first thing I wondered was: When is he doing this? The guy was a medical intern. I only saw the nonmedical part of his day, and it was simply awesome. He’s showing people his trades. And people are following it in real time. He’s doing value investing—in the middle of the dot-com bubble. He’s buying value stocks, which is what we’re doing. But we’re losing money. We’re losing clients. All of a sudden he goes on this tear. He’s up 50 percent. It’s uncanny. He’s uncanny. And we’re not the only ones watching it.” Philadelphia
Mike Burry couldn’t see exactly who was following his financial moves, but he could tell which domains they came from. In the beginning his readers came from EarthLink and AOL. Just random individuals. Pretty soon, however, they weren’t. People were coming to his site from mutual funds like Fidelity and big Wall Street investment banks like Morgan Stanley. One day he lit into Vanguard’s index funds and almost instantly received a cease-and-desist letter from Vanguard’s attorneys. Burry suspected that serious investors might even be acting on his blog posts, but he had no clear idea who they might be. “The market found him,” says the
mutual-fund manager. “He was recognizing patterns no one else was seeing.” Philadelphia
As he scrambled to find office space, buy furniture, and open a brokerage account, he received a pair of surprising phone calls. The first came from a big investment fund in
, Gotham Capital. New York City Gotham was founded by a value-investment guru named Joel Greenblatt. Burry had read Greenblatt’s book You Can Be a Stock Market Genius. (“I hated the title but liked the book.”) Greenblatt’s people told him that they had been making money off his ideas for some time and wanted to continue to do so—might Mike Burry consider allowing Gotham to invest in his fund? “Joel Greenblatt himself called,” said Burry, “and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to leave medicine.’” Gotham flew Burry and his wife to New York—and it was the first time Michael Burry had flown to or flown first-class—and put him up in a suite at the Intercontinental Hotel. New York
On his way to his meeting with Greenblatt, Burry was racked with the anxiety that always plagued him before face-to-face encounters with people. He took some comfort in the fact that the
Gotham people seemed to have read so much of what he had written. “If you read what I wrote first, and then meet me, the meeting goes fine,” he said. “People who meet me who haven’t read what I wrote—it almost never goes well. Even in high school it was like that—even with teachers.” He was a walking blind taste test: you had to decide if you approved of him before you laid eyes on him. In this case he was at a serious disadvantage, as he had no clue how big-time money managers dressed. “He calls me the day before the meeting,” says one of his e-mail friends, himself a professional money manager. “And he asks, ‘What should I wear?’ He didn’t own a tie. He had one blue sports coat, for funerals.” This was another quirk of Mike Burry’s. In writing, he presented himself formally, even a bit stuffily, but he dressed for the beach. Walking to Gotham’s office, he panicked and ducked into a Tie Rack and bought a tie. He arrived at the big money-management firm as formally attired as he had ever been in his entire life to find its partners in T-shirts and sweatpants. The exchange went something like this: “We’d like to give you a million dollars.” “Excuse me?” “We want to buy a quarter of your new hedge fund. For a million dollars.” “You do?” “Yes. We’re offering a million dollars.” “After tax!” New York
Somehow Burry had it in his mind that one day he wanted to be worth a million dollars, after tax. At any rate, he’d just blurted that last bit out before he fully understood what they were after. And they gave it to him! At that moment, on the basis of what he’d written on his blog, he went from being an indebted medical resident with a net worth of minus $105,000 to a millionaire with a few outstanding loans. Burry didn’t know it, but it was the first time Joel Greenblatt had done such a thing. “He was just obviously this brilliant guy, and there aren’t that many of them,” says Greenblatt.
Shortly after that odd encounter, he had a call from the insurance holding company
White Mountain. White Mountain was run by Jack Byrne, a member of Warren Buffett’s inner circle, and they had spoken to Gotham Capital. “We didn’t know you were selling part of your firm,” they said—and Burry explained that he hadn’t realized it either until a few days earlier, when someone offered a million dollars, after tax, for it. It turned out that White Mountain, too, had been watching Michael Burry closely. “What intrigued us more than anything was that he was a neurology resident,” says Kip Oberting, then at White Mountain. “When the hell was he doing this?” From White Mountain he extracted $600,000 for another piece of his fund, plus a promise to send him $10 million to invest. “And yes,” said Oberting, “he was the only person we found on the Internet and cold-called and gave him money.”
In Dr. Mike Burry’s first year in business, he grappled briefly with the social dimension of running money. “Generally you don’t raise any money unless you have a good meeting with people,” he said, “and generally I don’t want to be around people. And people who are with me generally figure that out.” When he spoke to people in the flesh, he could never tell what had put them off, his message or his person. Buffett had had trouble with people, too, in his youth. He’d used a Dale Carnegie course to learn how to interact more profitably with his fellow human beings. Mike Burry came of age in a different money culture. The Internet had displaced Dale Carnegie. He didn’t need to meet people. He could explain himself online and wait for investors to find him. He could write up his elaborate thoughts and wait for people to read them and wire him their money to handle. “Buffett was too popular for me,” said Burry. “I won’t ever be a kindly grandfather figure.”
This method of attracting funds suited Mike Burry. More to the point, it worked. He’d started Scion Capital with a bit more than a million dollars—the money from his mother and brothers and his own million, after tax. Right from the start, Scion Capital was madly, almost comically successful. In his first full year, 2001, the S&P 500 fell 11.88 percent. Scion was up 55 percent. The next year, the S&P 500 fell again, by 22.1 percent, and yet Scion was up again: 16 percent. The next year, 2003, the stock market finally turned around and rose 28.69 percent, but Mike Burry beat it again—his investments rose by 50 percent. By the end of 2004, Mike Burry was managing $600 million and turning money away. “If he’d run his fund to maximize the amount he had under management, he’d have been running many, many billions of dollars,” says a
hedge-fund manager who watched Burry’s performance with growing incredulity. “He designed Scion so it was bad for business but good for investing.” New York
Thus when Mike Burry went into business he disapproved of the typical hedge-fund manager’s deal. Taking 2 percent of assets off the top, as most did, meant the hedge-fund manager got paid simply for amassing vast amounts of other people’s money. Scion Capital charged investors only its actual expenses—which typically ran well below 1 percent of the assets. To make the first nickel for himself, he had to make investors’ money grow. “Think about the genesis of Scion,” says one of his early investors. “The guy has no money and he chooses to forgo a fee that any other hedge fund takes for granted. It was unheard of.”
By the middle of 2005, over a period in which the broad stock-market index had fallen by 6.84 percent, Burry’s fund was up 242 percent, and he was turning away investors. To his swelling audience, it didn’t seem to matter whether the stock market rose or fell; Mike Burry found places to invest money shrewdly. He used no leverage and avoided shorting stocks. He was doing nothing more promising than buying common stocks and nothing more complicated than sitting in a room reading financial statements. Scion Capital’s decision-making apparatus consisted of one guy in a room, with the door closed and the shades down, poring over publicly available information and data on 10-K Wizard. He went looking for court rulings, deal completions, and government regulatory changes—anything that might change the value of a company.
As often as not, he turned up what he called “ick” investments. In October 2001 he explained the concept in his letter to investors: “Ick investing means taking a special analytical interest in stocks that inspire a first reaction of ‘ick.’” A court had accepted a plea from a software company called the Avanti Corporation. Avanti had been accused of stealing from a competitor the software code that was the whole foundation of Avanti’s business. The company had $100 million in cash in the bank, was still generating $100 million a year in free cash flow—and had a market value of only $250 million! Michael Burry started digging; by the time he was done, he knew more about the Avanti Corporation than any man on earth. He was able to see that even if the executives went to jail (as five of them did) and the fines were paid (as they were), Avanti would be worth a lot more than the market then assumed. To make money on Avanti’s stock, however, he’d probably have to stomach short-term losses, as investors puked up shares in horrified response to negative publicity.
“That was a classic Mike Burry trade,” says one of his investors. “It goes up by 10 times, but first it goes down by half.” This isn’t the sort of ride most investors enjoy, but it was, Burry thought, the essence of value investing. His job was to disagree loudly with popular sentiment. He couldn’t do this if he was at the mercy of very short-term market moves, and so he didn’t give his investors the ability to remove their money on short notice, as most hedge funds did. If you gave Scion your money to invest, you were stuck for at least a year.