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.