I’ve often heard that good investors are a bit like journalists: doggedly collecting evidence and building an understanding of how all the pieces of a company or investment fit together. My guest this week is one of my favorite writers and journalists, Bethany McLean. Across her career, Bethany has covered many of the most interesting stories in business and investing, including Enron (which became the famous book and documentary, the Smartest Guys in the Room), Valeant, Wells Fargo, SAC Capital, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the great financial crisis, and most recently, fracking and the energy revolution.

Given how deeply she has investigated all of these topics-- and thought about the common threads across them all--this was an amazing conversation. When talking to her, you can feel how much she cares and how diligent and fair she is when analyzing a topic. In addition to all of the great stories already listed, we discuss the art of persistence and other lessons she has learned about businesses and people gone bad. I especially loved her evolving take on housing in America.

Please enjoy my conversation with Bethany McLean


For more episodes go to InvestorFieldGuide.com/podcast.

Sign up for the book club, where you’ll get a full investor curriculum and then 3-4 suggestions every month at InvestorFieldGuide.com/bookclub.

Follow Patrick on Twitter at @patrick_oshag


Links Referenced

Mindsets: Optimism vs. Complacency vs. Pessimism

Disgraced ex-BofA exec raises uncomfortable questions about #MeToo

The Hunt for Steve Cohen


Books Referenced

The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron

Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science

Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants

Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It's Changing the World

Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy

All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis


Show Notes

2:22 - (First Question) – Differences and similarities between investors and journalists

3:19 – What has more of an impact on business practices, exposing negatives or reporting positive

4:57 – first story that got Bethany intrigued with finding bad behaviors

6:19 – The process of getting to know the people who know more than the market

            7:43 Mindsets: Optimism vs. Complacency vs. Pessimism

8:18 – First short seller that garnered her interest

8:57 – The process that led to The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron

10:36 – How to ask questions

12:18 – Importance of preparation

12:49 – Commonalities among the motivations for people who do bad things

14:20 – Difference between a visionary and a fraud

            15:42 Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science

16:23 – Any standout frauds that told a really compelling story

17:33 – Looking into Valient

19:32 –Writing about the #MeToo movement

            19:34 - Disgraced ex-BofA exec raises uncomfortable questions about #MeToo

21:49 – Thoughts on the spectrum of chasing this story

23:26 – Ways journalist can fairly impact this movement

24:14 – The romance of owning a home in America and what it has meant for the market

            24:34 Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants

28:27 – What has changed on her thinking about housing

30:24 – What role does Fannie and Freddie have in the market today

31:13 – Her desire to look into energy

            32:26 Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It's Changing the World

35:05 – What have been the changes in energy market in the US

            34:40 Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy

37:01 – Where are we in the life cycle of energy production

38:27 – The more boring things that are actually the drivers of our economy

            38:29 – Technologies that shaped industrial revolution in America

39:42 – Where can people learn more about how our energy independence will impact other markets

41:10 – Why is Peter Elkin the best investigative journalist

42:24 – Most relentless she has ever been

43:58 – Who is doing it right

            44:38 All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis

45:36 – Her take on reporting the The Hunt for Steve Cohen story

49:01 – How her views have evolved over her career and lessons learned

50:40 – Are there ways to prevent success from leading people down a bad path

53:48 – The role of empathy in her career

55:13 – Kindest thing anyone has done for Bethany’s career


Learn More

For more episodes go to InvestorFieldGuide.com/podcast

Sign up for the book club, where you’ll get a full investor curriculum and then 3-4 suggestions every month at InvestorFieldGuide.com/bookclub

Follow Patrick on twitter at @patrick_oshag

United States


00:00:00this podcast is sponsored by CFA institute the global association of investment professionals whose mission is to lead the investor profession by promoting the highest standards of ethics education and professional excellence for the ultimate benefit of society CFA institute serves a global community of investment professionals working to build
00:00:17an investment industry were investors interests come first financial markets function at their best and economies grow the chartered financial analyst credential is the most respected and recognized investment management designation in the world the views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent the views of CFA institute hello
00:00:39and welcome everyone I'm Patrick Shaughnessy in this is invest like the best the show was an open ended exploration of markets ideas method stories and of strategies that will help you better invest both your time and your money you can learn more and stay up to date and
00:00:53investor field guide dot com and Patrick o'shaughnessy if the CEO of o'shaughnessy asset management all opinions expressed by Patrick and podcasts guests are still leave their own opinions and do not reflect the opinion of o'shaughnessy asset management this podcast is for informational purposes only and should not be
00:01:14relied upon as a basis for investment decisions clients of the shows the asset management may maintain positions in the securities discussed in this podcast I've often heard the good investors are a bit like journalists doggedly collecting evidence and building an understanding of how all the pieces of a
00:01:30company or an investment fit together my guest this week is one of my favorite writers and journalists Bethany McLean across her career Bethany has covered many of the most interesting stories in business and investing from Enron which became the famous book and documentary the smartest guys in the
00:01:44room to valiant Wells Fargo SEC capital Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac the great financial crisis and most recently fracking in the energy revolution given how deeply she has investigated all of these topics and thought about the common threads across the mall this was an amazing conversation when talking
00:02:01to her you can feel how much she cares and how diligent and fair she is when analyzing a topic in addition to all the great stories already listed if we discuss the art of persistence any other lessons she has learned about businesses and people gone bad I especially
00:02:14loved her evolving take on housing in America please enjoy this great conversation with Bethany McLean I've heard a lot of a lot of investors especially short sellers that investing is kind of like journalism in the sense that you're trying to understand constructed narrative and understand sort of every
00:02:31aspect of it have you found it interesting to interact with investors maybe even specifically short sellers as you think about business %HESITATION definitely that's one of the great pleasures of doing this as all that highly intelligent and interesting people you get to meet and I couldn't agree with
00:02:46that more I think the process of thoroughly researching an investment is really analogous to what I do I think the focus in the end is different I'll have more of an interest and the characters and the narrative where as they have to have more of an interest in
00:03:03the numbers and then the real difference is just what's actionable at the end of it for me it's creating a story out of it actually creating and narrative where as far an investor it's putting your idea to work and I have never had any interest in that a
00:03:18common theme you know having went back it was fun to go back and read your catalog read articles etcetera obviously a common theme is business is gone bad or maybe even like negative type stories people doing bad things I'm curious philosophically if you think that that does a
00:03:32greater service and catalyzes more change than positive stories or journalism how I wish I had a larger philosophical thought like that driving what I do but I think that my I think you're right I think I have made a career out of sort of business gone wrong but
00:03:48it actually wasn't really intentional and and in a way when I first started working at fortune I wrote this column called companies to watch which is essentially a stock picking column and I was supposed to pick three stocks every two weeks that we're gonna double triple quadruple in
00:04:01value you know in the next six months or so and it was incredibly easy to do that because there were no shortage of people coming by fortune in those days from executives who ran businesses too portfolio managers who own the stock to analysts to it by ratings on
00:04:15the stock and I had no cynicism and no skepticism in those days I thought somebody was saying and they were small so it must be true and had read up these stories only to kind of watch in horror as the stock would go in the opposite direction sometimes
00:04:28my phone would ring and it would be someone who is short the stock would be like basically you idiot how could you write something like that how could you be so clueless about this company that is clearly a fraud or you know clearly at best hope and dreams
00:04:40being sold as reality I just don't like being wrong I guesses and so I've started accidentally develop to this this focus on business gone wrong but I suppose it does play too played a part I just like to figure things out and so often when things have gone
00:04:54wrong when things are going to go out go wrong there's more to figure out what was the very first business that met this marker that first got you intrigued by something that was going wrong I am in a struggle to remember the name of it but back in
00:05:07the day at fortune there was a telecom company that I did a short piece about I can't believe I'm I'm not remembering the name but it was during kind of the heyday of of telecom companies in late in the late nineteen nineties and there was something wrong with
00:05:22how this company was bucking its fiber sales and I remember doing this piece with the help of an investor and called said you should take a look at this and it was satisfying to go against the grain and to feel like I was doing a service for people
00:05:37by putting out a viewpoint that they weren't able to get elsewhere whether that viewpoint was right or wrong at least it was well reasoned and it was something that they weren't able to get by reading Wall Street researcher reading the regular papers because that viewpoint was nowhere to
00:05:50be found and I guess that is one of the things I've always found fascinating about this is that we think this is the world it's awash in information and it is but selected pieces of information only travel in very small circles and often when there is a skeptical
00:06:05thesis about a company it is well known in a very small circle of people who have done the work and the story that's out there that's available to most investors is not that story and so I do feel like it's it worthwhile service to put that out there
00:06:20I'd love to talk to that process because it is amazing given the amount of information that grows each year that all of us investors have access to date on companies that there still are that there are no sins of the world I'm constantly and it just seems like
00:06:32that's never gonna chain there's always going to be these examples I'm so maybe talk like generically that process of like one of the early markers that you look for you mention curiosity is kind of the original driver but maybe you could use an example just kind of Tochter
00:06:46generically the process itself of getting into that small circle of people who may know more than the rest of the market I think it started for me back in the in the late nineteen nineties because I was just so tired of being wrong that I thought well if
00:06:58there is this if there is another side to this I want to know in advance I want to figure that out so I started trying to get to know short sellers and I find them fascinating people because there is usually a highly emotional component to what they do
00:07:11too there's a sense of there's a crusader type element to that personality a sense that a sense of righteousness which can be dangerous in and of itself but usually what for me I guess it begins with a company that's at the center of something and is being celebrated
00:07:25for something in there something wrong under the surface there something that doesn't add up either people don't understand it or they're something that isn't being explained and it just never fails to amaze me how often it is people are willing to believe in what they don't understand I
00:07:41read a fascinating piece by Morgan house all the other day and he pointed out that to be an optimist you have to believe in things that you don't understand because sometimes the innocent and explicable is just the thing that's one step ahead of all of us and so
00:07:54if you're never willing to believe in something you don't understand maybe that's a problem too Markham has a specific personality sat but it never fails to amaze me how often that is so that's that's usually that sort of thing that draws my attention celebration as a marker is
00:08:08a really interesting idea I certainly fairness obviously the CEO is all over the place and being celebrated like crazy I guess if you look back at a lot of the things you've written about the same could be said pretty interesting who is the first short seller that really
00:08:21caught your interest and you develop a close relationship with I guess it was probably Jim chain us and a guy who worked for him at the time who has since passed away name died Millat and I met Doug and just hounded him relentlessly because this was this was
00:08:37I guess the late nineteen nineties and I know who Jim channels was and while I wanted to have access to how he thought and so I called Doug maybe every week for like six months would you guys working on it anything interesting finally he's like on a hike
00:08:52or doing some work on this company called and run you tell me if you can figure out how it makes money so how long was that what became the smartest guys in the room how long was that process start to finish it was I guess in total it
00:09:03was a really lengthy process because I probably talked to Doug and then to jam at the end of the year two thousand and I ended up publishing a piece and fortune which I joke should win awards for that Annie gets tight on business history which is an Enron
00:09:17over priced yeah anyway and I think that piece was published in February or March of two thousand and one and Enron went bankrupt in the fall of two thousand and one and I started working on my book with a co author at fortune and that was ultimately published
00:09:32in the fall of two thousand and three so I guess I'll told us about three years is that the most memorable of the many experiences you've had with individual companies or people when doing comedy purporting that's hard to say I think it was the first for me so
00:09:46it ranks right up there because I had never really until that point I don't think I would have considered myself an investigative journalist at all you know I was wonky and numbers based and I had written sort of quantitative pieces I also did one on IBM in the
00:10:01late nineteen nineties that sort of looked at IBM by the numbers and now I'm remembering as we talk I remember doing that piece to they were one to kind of numbers pieces they weren't going out there and finding former employees and actually finding human narrative of what had
00:10:14happened they were purely numbers based so the Enron book and my first Enron story was that way too was really you know I didn't talk to former employees that wasn't that kind of peace it was purely a numbers driven here's what the documents say kind of peace so
00:10:28the Enron book was really my first experience with trying to get out there and finding people who could add color to the numbers so one of the things I've been most excited talking about just given this form had given that I talk to somebody interesting every week in
00:10:40this format is how to ask questions and how to extract information from people that maybe they aren't originally willing to give or give you a deeper more contextual story that is sort of the party line I'm just curious about how that process for you has evolved over the
00:10:56years if you started with and Ronnie Dunn a lot of that ever sense talk a lot of people about some complex and interesting businesses and topics maybe some thoughts on and your views interviewing people and just talking to people choice I think it's different by person because people
00:11:09are really different so I don't think there's a one size fits all recipe but I think it starts with you have to really really care and if you really really care what the other person has to tell you because you're passionately interested in what it is that they
00:11:23now I think that comes through and people respond to interest but then there are all sorts of variations and people some people really want to talk and they think it narrative form and they already have something they want to tell you and want to share some people don't
00:11:37like to talk and you have to draw them out with very specific questions some people will only talk once you know enough to ask really good questions and so then you have to feel it out as you go I did have this instructive experience early on I used
00:11:51to take my interviews I don't very often for various reasons anymore remember listening to one of my tapes this is early on in my journalistic career and the person would start to say something really interesting and not break it in with my own observation on my own question
00:12:05like my god this is terrible into the other thing I try to remind myself and it can be surprisingly hard but is just to be as quiet as possible and when you need to say something when you need to move the conversation along or circle it back or
00:12:16loop back then you do you try to be quiet somewhere to interview you there's a great line which I thought a lot about cents which is just this idea preparation like to really get something out of somebody you need to know a lot about their world or them
00:12:29in particular do you still generally find that that's true do you do that amount of preparation all time I do you need to know what's know about about them because I think there's nothing more off putting than having asked for somebody's time only to show that you haven't
00:12:42done your work and you don't know what is readily know about it just creates a barrier between two people that you don't want to be there I'd love to talk about sort of the end of a lot of the roads you've gone down which is people and people
00:12:54doing bad things and talk about their motivations and whether or not there are commonalities that you see across with hertz hubris or greed or kind of what the driving forces are that lead people to do really bad things is are there any commonalities across the you can kind
00:13:09of pull on I think it's an endlessly interesting topic because it's human nature and if it were ever as simple as people knowingly doing bad things because they I wanted to extract money from others the stories wouldn't be that interesting at the end of the day but they
00:13:24are always a mixture of some level of self delusion rationalization maybe greed but usually great in the service of ego not greed for money per se maybe some finality maybe some outright corruption and maybe even some idealism I think a lot lately about what separates a visionary from
00:13:43a fraud stir and sometimes I think it's actually a simple as whether it works and the hunter not whether it whether you're able to get away with it because it works in the hunt but when people convince others to believe they usually believe themselves and I remember saying
00:13:58at one point when I was working on the Enron book I was really struggling with this because I said some I was very close to I said but Jeff skilling he believed and having trouble with as he believed and this person looked at me and said Bethany the
00:14:10worst crimes in human history have been committed by people who believed and so these themes about human nature resonate not through business but they're human history and that's why I find them so fascinating you better this idea between visionary and fraud this is a really interesting by now
00:14:25and I'm sure the people listening will think about people like you on mosque probably friends is the biggest problem example of it for sure so maybe we could use the story of of Tesla specifically in a company that short sellers love to talk about a company that believers
00:14:38equity holders love to talk about I'm curious your take on this as it's kind of playing out live where we don't know the outcome yet obvious he could paint a picture one of two ways you could I have not written about Tesla so I don't know enough to
00:14:50know but I do find it e.on musk obviously says all sorts of things that aren't true and makes all sorts of predictions that don't come to pass in those details he is somebody you could see getting in trouble down the road and if you read actually Vance's great
00:15:06book on him the first half of it just lays out all the ways in which he skirted the rules essentially lied to people but got away with it and so I think in this case one of the lines between that the skeptics in the believer as he's lying
00:15:21he's not telling the truth this isn't happening in the believers who think somebody who's that brilliant and has that big a dream while they're just all these details don't really matter the details are unimportant you you know grungy little detail oriented people who can't see the big picture
00:15:37and it's really fascinating because that is exactly the crux of this debate I just finished this book called free radicals which is a really interesting book about all the frauds basically perpetrated by great scientists and there's this great line in it by Isaac Newton's biographer who talks about
00:15:53him throwing clouds and getting it wrong but throwing clouds of exquisitely crafted fudge factor in the eyes of the scientific opponents and says basically some of his most famous work was deliberate fraud he knew he was right about the idea and he just didn't want it didn't have
00:16:07the math skills to back it up and it makes you realize that this team is larger like everything is larger than the business world this idea of storytelling or narratives in business is just amazing because of the power that can create like litter you can create something from
00:16:20nothing with a great story and create your own momentum it looking back on all the things you've investigated was there a moment where there's sort of this this visionary fraud like you're not sure that stands out in memories are person or a situation where you really didn't now
00:16:34well I don't know that I can answer that at the moment in time but looking back at it it's fascinating if you think about Enron because Enron broadband which was a fraud for all intents and purposes for the nitty gritty reasons that short sellers focus on reporting of
00:16:50profits that were basically manufactured out of thin air as lies about the status of the business but Enron broadband was Netflix I find that incredibly interesting because if it hadn't been for all the other manifold problems and rounds businesses perhaps they would have gotten away with it in
00:17:06so it's it's unclear I'm not sure I wish I could identify that pivotal moment where you can tell the difference between who's a visionary and who's a fraud star but I sometimes think it's only clear in retrospect because the lock of whether or not at all works whether
00:17:20or not you get the time to work for it to work whether or not things break your way or don't break your way is often what determines that not the actions themselves that the cynical view I know and I'm still thinking through it but I wonder about that
00:17:32what was your experience looking into balance the valiant story is a fascinating one for me that because the big thing that is different about valiant in Enron even though they are similar in some ways but the big thing that is different between the two is that in the
00:17:46case of Enron what we usually think of as the smart money the big smart hedge funds who we all know they were all skeptical in the case of value there is a big divide in the investment community and some of the smartest investors out there were big believers
00:18:01and valiant and it was a part of the story that I couldn't understand as I was working on and I still can't understand today and when I say that Valentyn and Ron were similar what I mean is that they both had the same attitude toward the rules which
00:18:15is that the rules were meant to be manipulated the rules were meant to be used and manipulated and stretched to their limits not followed in any kind of linear way and of course both Mike Pierson and Jeff skilling were mackenzie alarms which is another fascinating element but that
00:18:31to me was the mystery of valiant I remember sitting with an investor who was a believer in valley into very smart investor it was right at the time the Martin Shkreli stuff was breaking and he was commenting on what an absolute jerk Martin Shkreli was and I said
00:18:44why is what Valiants doing any different any thought for a minute he said well that's that's a really good question and it was interesting that the behavior that in one person they some people saw as utterly reprehensible somehow was acceptable in the case of valiant and I think
00:18:58part of that is that Mike Pierson managed to spread this veneer of efficient capitalism over the whole thing you know we had these arguments will Shortz is gonna beside raise the price of these drugs insurance is going to pay for it and for the people who don't have
00:19:13insurance will figure out a way to get it to them and the cost of Cyprien is still cheaper than the cost of a liver transplant so in a capitalist economy that makes sense and those arguments just made people lose sight of this basic idea of right and wrong
00:19:28which is sometimes more fundamental than any of the sophisticated arguments you can layer on top of it really interesting article I think is for Yahoo finance recently on a bike and his name but I think it's %HESITATION meet Malick at bank of America and the much more nuanced
00:19:43version of the stories that have emerged around this me to movement would be fascinating to hear your perspective on writing that story how difficult it was to kind of tell that line in what's become you know we see a really important hopefully force for good but maybe highlighting
00:19:58how complicated these things can be right well that was an incredibly difficult story and I tried to highlight in the peace that there was a lot I didn't know I know I didn't know things and I still worry that he is a much worse guy than I knew
00:20:15but the peace raise some issues I am really interested in which is this idea can you be fair to women too for him particularly the world of finance has never been at all fair to and still be fair maybe a better way of putting it can you be
00:20:29fair to the person who is the accuser and still give a fair process to the accused what's the right degree of publicity around somebody who is pushed out for it from me two reasons to they deserve to have their names flashed across the press and their chance of
00:20:44future employment completely destroyed in today's world especially when it's not clear what the sin was what's the line and and all of these things and how do we think through it and I think the stakes are very very high because you probably talk to people I talk to
00:20:59people particularly at smaller shops that are run by an individual founder who say why would I hire a woman if there is %HESITATION equally competent or almost as competent man why would I take that risk and those comments are incredibly frightening to me and if the process if
00:21:16we don't figure out a fair process for dealing with this and I I've had women say to me the world's been unfair for so long what do you mean it has to be fair but I think the repercussions are are high so it's a whole bunch of very
00:21:26thorny philosophical issues that I've been wrestling with I worry that the a meat mallet case is a very complicated one and perhaps was not the right issue to explore just because they're so much I don't know it was a strange process because as I worked on the peace
00:21:41I became more and more aware of what I didn't know and that is the scariest thing for a journalist for anybody right when you know you don't know things there rather than go into the details of the story of just highly encourage people to read the story itself
00:21:53but it made me really think about this interesting spectrum of when you've got at core of movement which is obviously about something right and something that needs fixing and then the question is okay how do you implement that change and so I would just like to hear a
00:22:07little bit more about your thoughts on the spectrum right because on one and you I guess the fears becomes McCarthyism and on the other end it's everything is done well and and bad people are exposed so do you have any philosophical thoughts on like how to attack this
00:22:20problem or what I wish I did I think it's really complicated I'm worried that there's not a way to be fair to accusers and also be fair to the kids because if you are somebody bring a complaint against somebody his powerful you don't necessarily want to be identified
00:22:36you don't necessarily want the details to be public it's really really hard to speak up yet on the other hand if it's going to destroy it the person who's being accused not only their current job but their potential to get employment again in in today's world get them
00:22:52kicked off boards of charities that they've been involved in etcetera etcetera shouldn't the details shouldn't the accusation what the specifics of the accusation be noble so the person can defend against it and I I think it's a really hard bar for the press but I feel like you
00:23:07have to have the details from somebody in order to report at the specific details even if they are anonymous but at least you have to know the details instead of just generic this person is part of the me too movement but we don't really know why but I
00:23:21think it's a really hard line defined tonight worry there isn't a way to be fair to both part from just very clear detailed honest reporting or do you think there are other ways that journalists were or non journalists can positively affect this entire movement well I think it
00:23:35is and I think it's up to the individual journalists but I think by finding a line as to what should be reported and what shouldn't and I guess in my mind that there is that temporal aspect to it quantitative aspects to it Handa severity aspect to it by
00:23:52which I mean if something happened twenty years ago and it's one person and it's an allegation that they said something inappropriate you know what maybe that doesn't need to be reported if that something that happened two years ago and it's really severe and it's ten people saying it
00:24:09that yes obviously but again where you find the line in those things I I don't know so a common theme across as I was reading your books and articles is is just the power of institutions institutional and or shock plaques city around institutions that Sarah I love to
00:24:24talk about home ownership specifically this is a topic that I know you love and I'm have exported in some great detail I really enjoyed the short book you wrote on Fannie and Freddie and this is a bit of a walkie topic but I just think it's so interesting
00:24:37because beneath it all is this romance that the US has with owning homes and maybe we could start at the it with that very high level idea of that romance where it came from why we are different than the rest of the world in our desire for homes
00:24:52how we finance homes et cetera and talk about sort of the current implications of that sure so one of the things I was fascinated by when I did that book and thank you for saying you liked it when I remember when I went to a golden Sachs conference
00:25:03on housing finance when I was reporting the book in the Goldman Sachs PR guy was like what are you doing here it's like I'm writing a book containing Freddie and he was like well high there's something about the topic that strikes to most people is so walkie that
00:25:16even if they think they should be interested in that they just can't so anyway but one of the things I was fascinated by is that this romance with home ownership really goes all the way back to the eighteen hundreds the beginning of this country it's been something that
00:25:28president after president has stressed and I think part of it was the belief that in a sprawling desperate country ownership of land and ownership of homes with something that would unite people and literally give them a stake in this country so I I'm sure it has something to
00:25:43do with this being a nation of immigrants and a nation of immigrants from very different places that you actually there was a need for a stake in the land itself in order to unite people and then the creation of Fannie and Freddie and the ways in which our
00:26:00housing system essentially became a sort of and the irony of the world's most capitalist economy at least in theory having a government supported housing system is huge right and the way in which the happened is fascinating to because it's sort of accidental and I always love things that
00:26:18have come to seem inevitable but we're actually accidental and the way they were strangers cried what the so in the wake of the Great Depression nobody could get homes and there is this need to figure out the housing market mortgage finance it always been a huge problem that
00:26:31in this country because it's so huge so a local bank may not have the capital at one point in time to be able to extend a mortgage to people wears a bank somewhere else would've but mortgage rates varied wildly bite where you are located the availability of capital
00:26:47was was completely random and so there is this idea that you could set up an institution that would buy all the loans and buy a bottle loans from all the lenders around the country making them and therefore capital would always be available in interest rates would be more
00:27:00uniform but the fascinating thing was it was supposed to be a private company but the private market wouldn't wasn't interested and wouldn't step up to the plate so it became the government and that's how Fannie Mae was born and then Fannie Mae was essentially an arm of the
00:27:14government for a really long time and it was privatized during the Vietnam War as a way to basically get it off the budget so they're always these games with numbers that were part of it too I mean it wasn't privatized as any sort of grand philosophical thing it
00:27:28was purely just strategic and not even really strategic I mean purely just playing with the numbers right and so out of that was born this oddly hybrid creature that had all these elements of the government including this notion which I think is just also one of the best
00:27:45things ever which is this concept of an implicit guarantee the idea that Fannie and Freddie were backed by the government except they weren't really I mean how crazy in the annals of finance right that had the idea of an implicit guarantee hast is just insane so I always
00:27:59I found the two companies just completely fascinating and I've also been interested in my own evolution on them because I first wrote a really critical story about Fannie Mae and two thousand and five for fortune when it had first come under fire for all these accounting irregularities and
00:28:15I thought there's absolutely no reason for these two horrible companies to exist and some of that's true but I've change my mind about some of that over the ensuing fifteen years as well what's changed basically what he thinks so I think one of the things I've realized is
00:28:33that it's a little bit like that old Winston Churchill quote I think which is that capitalism is the worst possible system with except exception of everything else that's ever been proposed and I think the same is sort of true about Fannie and Freddie as you think about their
00:28:45horrible solution but they're better than everything anybody else can come up with at the end of the day I think whatever you may think of this concept of homeownership it's deeply ingrained in our psyche but it's also deeply ingrained in our practical economic realities which is that it
00:29:01is how most people have funded their retirement right and if they haven't funded their retirement at least people have gotten to retirement with a place to live and if you strip that away and you don't subsidize homeownership but you continue not to have a European like welfare and
00:29:17add for older people what do you do how do you take one away without replacing it with something else and homeownership as a force savings mechanism has actually worked pretty well until the financial crisis and so if you're gonna get rid of that or change it radically you
00:29:32better have a plan for the whole rest of it you can't just take it away and then say great we've gotten rid of this concept of home ownership and we don't have any government involvement in our housing finance system anymore are we great so I think that's one
00:29:46aspect of it that I think about a lot and the other is that that Fannie and Freddie have also worked really well this could be a criticism in some ways but to make mortgage as a kind of egalitarian thing in that yes that their differences for jumbo mortgages
00:30:00the very wealthy can get much lower rates than than you cut through a conventional mortgage by which I mean a mortgage that can be sold to Fannie and Freddie but overall for the great swath of American homeowners Fannie and Freddie have created a pretty uniform mortgage rate no
00:30:13matter what your income level and no matter where you live and I actually think that's an achievement and again one that if you're going to get rid of you better think about what the social consequences if that it's amazing when I was reading the book that homes are
00:30:27typically someone's primary asset to the nervous amount of money on them all of our time in them but no one really understands the system behind them there's a great line in the book that says it was a quote from somebody something like you know the rest of the
00:30:38world which I think has much shorter duration much more variable rate mortgages is socialized healthcare but then private market homeownership and we're sort of the inverse and I'd never really thought about it in those terms for like these are incredibly important things and it really is a differentiating
00:30:53aspect of US like economic structure in life what percentage is it of mortgages that are ultimately bought from the banks by Fannie and Freddie that by lenders companion Freddie I think it is close to it is still close to seventy five eighty percent I haven't looked at the
00:31:09numbers and not just Fannie and Freddie but the FHA and Jenny too but it's a huge number I mean the private market reject it out of the financial crisis and the private market by which I mean mortgages that are made and then sold to Wall Street in order
00:31:20to be packaged up into securities that market really hasn't come back and you can blame all sorts of things by that but that's that's the other thing that the financial crisis showed which is Fannie and Freddie always said great Wall Street you can package appear on mortgages but
00:31:34as soon as the economy turns bad as soon as there's a crisis you'll be gone and will be the only thing that's left and people who are skeptical Fannie and Freddie always said bullshit that won't happen I'll always be a market for mortgages and you know what Fannie
00:31:47and Freddie turned out to be absolutely right because when the financial crisis had if we hadn't had Fannie and Freddie the crisis would have been a million times worse because the entire mortgage market in this country would have shut down went to been able to move they went
00:31:59been able to sell their homes it would have been of magnitude worse and so that actually turns out to be true right the private market likes the mortgage market in good times and isn't as times turn bad in that money doesn't have to be here it's gone so
00:32:14the enter your you've just completed a another interesting investigation into something like the housing crisis that has contributed to a lot of the volatility in markets and business in the last couple decades and that's the world of energy specifically US fracking I think the books called Saudi America
00:32:28it's a great title I'd love to see a little bit about why you got interested in in that it sort of stood out in your list of things you've explored as as somewhat unique and different from some of the other things you've looked into so talk to me
00:32:40a little bit about what got you interested in that and and maybe some of the major conclusions having invest money we are having a dinner party at our house and the subject of my book came out my husband was just shaking is that is that only my wife
00:32:51think finance and then fracking seriously it was something I was always interested I found Aubrey McClendon an incredibly compelling character and I couldn't get to write about him because I think there's this little bit of a of a barrier that everybody on the coast is fascinated by what's
00:33:08happening in Silicon Valley and sees that as the driver of the American economy and I was like in a week you guys this thing that's happening and in Texas in these grungy areas of the economy that we don't want to look at this is far more important for
00:33:19the future of this country than what's happening in Silicon Valley and so we we need to look at this and delved into and understand it and I was looking for an excuse to learn more about it and to try to figure it out and I was fascinated by
00:33:32the contradictions and McClendon story because he essentially most likely died broke after me of being a multi billionaire did so much to reshape the face of an industry yet the company left behind struggle to survive and it burned her capital I mean a printer extraordinary amounts of capital
00:33:52to the tune of tens twenties thirties billions of dollars and that it's emblematic of this wider story in about less understood aspect of of the fracking revolution which is how dependent its ban on low interest rates in the wake of the crisis and the availability of capital to
00:34:08fund it because these companies that don't produce free cash flow they don't find themselves and that's just this fascinating conundrum at the heart of this that this thing that is terrorizing the world and you know reshaping our economy hasn't yet proven that it's really a viable does can
00:34:24you give a little bit of an overview maybe for those less familiar of what that revolution has been so we know how it's been funded which is really really cheap capital but the energy situation in the US today is drastically different from a can or the name of
00:34:37the author the published a book on twilight in the desert on peak oil and things have just literally could not have gone differently than he forecast is to talk about what that change has banned what's driven it and kind of white so interesting starting there that's one of
00:34:50the things I learned which is just so fascinating to me is that there is nothing like the energy market the oil market and specifically to show up at the fallibility of forecast because everything anybody says is wrong it's just that that that that the only thing you know
00:35:05about it is that it's likely to be wrong no matter how solidly reasoned and totally thorough it seems at the time wrong said yeah but when you think about the change over the last decade and it's really solely a result of this new technique of fracking which is
00:35:18really kind of a combination of two techniques which is horizontal drilling having a drill go horizontally instead of vertically and then fracking in order to get molecules to flow that wouldn't otherwise have been able to flow has completely changed the global picture we used to think we are
00:35:33running out peak oil we used to think where we had no natural gas may we're running out of natural gas and now the estimates are we have enough natural gas to last a hundred years and and what we started to export the stuff both the natural gas and
00:35:46and the oil which was unfathomable a decade ago that we would ever have enough to export and it's totally the veil ability of cheap natural gas is completely changing power generation in industry in this country because the US has one of the cheapest sources of natural gas globally
00:36:02so it changes our industrial picture going forward there's this contradiction at the heart of the whole thing in its best summed up by a quote I have in the book from my pal John Hampton he and his partner used to have this debate and his partner would say
00:36:15the oil and gas is real it's there and John would say yeah it's it's real but the economics don't work and so that's kind of the conundrum at the heart of this which is that because the economics of fracking are tough the decline rates on the wells are
00:36:28really high so it requires constant constant reinvestment it's really hard for these companies to produce free cash flow and so they've required in order for this fracking revolution to take place and for the immense quantities of oil and gas to be coming out of our ground it's required
00:36:45the availability of cheap capital both in the form of debt thanks to for the batteries are low interest rate policy but also in the form of pension funds desperate for a return right who have been willing to put money in private equity firms and into credit oriented hedge
00:36:58funds that have helped supply capital of these companies what do you think we are in that life cycle now not ask you to make a prediction maybe just a set of observations that you know the current state of things maybe when you finish your research process kind of
00:37:11wrote about that was that was a super frustrating thing about the book because I wanted to come up with an answer that was part of the motivating factor behind it was okay how is this going to shake out and I realize that's totally impossible it's totally impossible for
00:37:25a couple of reasons one is that you can't predict the price of oil or of natural gas so what doesn't work at sixty dollars a barrel would work hat hundred fifty dollars a barrel for sure right so to say this doesn't work is to say you can predict
00:37:40the future price of oil and the one thing I learned is that I'm sure as hell not doing that and then the second component of it is I guess they're actually think about second pundit component is there have been huge technological improvements and fracking in the available in
00:37:52the technology of getting this stuff out of the ground and the cost does keep coming down and so to say this doesn't work economically is also to say there will be no more technical progress and that you can't do either and then the third thing is that the
00:38:06history of the fracking revolution is that it has been way more resilient that its detractors ever believe this was supposed to be done when prices cratered in two thousand fifteen and two thousand sixteen and yet it came roaring back and so it's a short history is only a
00:38:22decade long history but the history so far says don't underestimate these guys officially interesting book actually as part of the process for thinking about this conversation which was that technologies that shaped the industrial revolution in America and this idea that the two most important things are source of
00:38:38energy and what the author calls are prime movers so the way that we basically move stuff that used to be our our own muscles and horses and it involved too you know steam engine and steam turbines and the internal combustion engine and all these things and I think
00:38:52people underestimate this whole idea of fracking in energy the importance of the fuel source the importance of the boring things like air conditioning and ultimately these are the drivers of maybe more so than that excel can value no scooter company whatever is the drivers of our economy they
00:39:08are and the person who was at the fracking entrepreneur sent me a picture of map of the economies of Haiti I think in the Dominican Republic you know one where there is energy and one where there is not much and the difference in living standards between the two
00:39:23countries and whatever you say environmentally it remains the case that hydrocarbons energy have banned the surest way to change the standard of living of a population throughout the access to hydrocarbons and so that's something I think about however you wish but it but it's a fact for people
00:39:41that are because this is an interesting investing question right like if this continues let's say that interest rates don't rise or the availability of capital doesn't crater said you know we can continue to be let's say energy independent or even exporters of energy and people are interested in
00:39:54how this might affect other things in the U. S. industry other sectors of the economy any other thoughts there or places that you might recommend people go to read because that could be an enormous for secular trend that affect people's investment well I it could I think what
00:40:10people are struggling to figure out and people who are much more well versed in this than I am because there's another thing out there that changes this entire picture which is renewables right and what the onset of renewables and when it's coming because as soon as it does
00:40:24the price of both oil and natural gas goes into such a secular decline just as it did with call as soon as you can see the end of the era of non renewables and then the whole picture changes and we can't see when that is but we know
00:40:36it's coming so that's another factor that influences the is on the factors that go into when renewables will be able to take over the world are as immensely complicated in calculus as the price of oil so there's there's no real way to figure it out time on that
00:40:53on renewables like I tried to I spent a little bit of time that was one of those crazy challenges of this book which is that every little piece of it instead of just being paragraph could have been a book in and of itself so I went down way
00:41:06more of a worm hole than I had realized I was going down when I started it semitic a job because of a line that I I saw somewhere to interview that you gave which when I forget the guy's name right you said that a gentleman named Peter Elkind
00:41:17was the best investigative journalist you knew yet I'm curious why that was the case so I don't know who Peter is but high praise here is my co author on the smartest guys in the room a long time fortune guy and when the Enron story broke it was
00:41:31our mutual colleague Joe Nocera who is like you have to write a book and I was I think thirty at the time and had done maybe a couple of three thousand word pieces for fortune as long as things I had ever written and so if I've made one
00:41:45good decision in my life that was not trying to do the book by myself Joe said when you work with Peter and he's based in Texas and he's a great investigative journalist and I remember thinking up quite and learn all the short cuts for doing this for a
00:41:58guy who's the best in the business and one of the things I guess the best thing I learned from Peter is test Doggett ness you just you call everybody who you think might talk to you if they don't talk to you call them again and you just you
00:42:10just don't give up just diagnose and relentlessness and just turning over every stone to see what you might find underneath it down and there's nobody better than Peter at that to a degree that I can't copy even though I I watched him do it but there is nobody
00:42:24better than Peter what is the most relentless that you've ever read pretty relentless on almost everything I work on in terms of trying to find answers to to how things work I will give up on a specific person before I think Peter would all call somebody a couple
00:42:44of times and then I'll call them again when I have more information that might get them to talk but I won't just call them every day until they talk to me because they just want me to go away I guess is pretty relentless when I did a story
00:42:57on Microsoft I had been told that bomber gates were no longer talking to each other and there is a feud between them and this was a few years ago but I couldn't use it unless I could could learn it from myself and it was very very difficult to
00:43:10get Microsoft to cooperate with the story and to get to bomber who had left a CL a little bit before this piece and I think I worked on that story for over a year how did you get them I finally convinced to Microsoft that I didn't have it
00:43:25in for them and that I was willing to listen and after spending time there and I got to meet such in the Dallas and I think for them it paid off for them to have trusted me because a story that could have banned how Microsoft is doomed was
00:43:43actually actually ended up being quite a bit more nuanced and I think correctly so because in the Dallas an incredibly impressive leader and probably what Microsoft needed and that helped me understand the culture and meet enough people that I was able to talk to bomber finally we've talked
00:43:59a lot about companies that have gone wrong with the most impressive company that you've ever seen you know I'm I'm almost frightened I I don't think I could answer that because unless I've really looked at it is that these past couple of years have been a strain of
00:44:14the most admired companies that you would have thought we're doing things right and we found out how hollow that leads from Wells Fargo to General Electric for hate so I guess rather than answer that with a specific company I would say that I think there are a lot
00:44:30of people out there particularly in small businesses who are doing their best to do it right every single day and I remember coming across when I was working on my book about the financial crisis and everything was negative coming across this guy named Dave sitting who ran a
00:44:44small mortgage broker out and that the time small in Arizona and he had gotten into subprime lending and after about a year and that he set it down because he was just like you know what my borrowers I can't the eva selling the loans on to bigger buyer
00:44:59and they were like just get us the loans that we don't care he was re underwriting them at his office and he was like but these my borrowers can't pay these back these don't make sense and so we shut down the business and then he watched for like
00:45:10a year and a half as all of his peers totally eclipsed him and you know had private chat said you were buying island said he was just you know plodding along on the regular old prime business but he he was right you know he was right and I
00:45:23think people make those decisions all the time in ways we never know about those absolutely right businesses they look at their customers and they say this isn't right for my customers this doesn't make sense and they don't do it and we don't usually find out about most of
00:45:36the stories we talked about ego and wealth and all these interesting potential drivers of people doing bad things nor the world where that is more concentrated than in the kind of cutting edge of the investment world people usually call this hedge funds maybe that's not the right word
00:45:50but it's more of a fee structure than actual hedging happens at a lot of these places you read of a fascinating story on what was then called SEC now point seventy two I would like to hear your take maybe on that story specifically but more generally speaking you're
00:46:03kind of general impression of our take on the very competitive very aggressive hedge fund world as it stands today maybe relative to your long experience with you know some of the smartest best investors in the world and often times when stories are written about places like this I
00:46:18know a lot of people who have done stints at point seventy two and to a person they are unbelievably smart unbelievably impressive and for the most part you know great people sell some curious your take on looking at that world today as it stands relative to your experience
00:46:33with that world through time I've always actually had a pretty good experience with most people who are part of that and a straight people are incredibly smart and usually really interesting and really interesting to talk to and I have the great luxury of most of the time not
00:46:48having to cover that world directly so I can appreciate the people for who they are and the conversations I can have with them rather than having to worry about that world I think it is competitive enough that if you are awfully good at what you're doing it's not
00:47:03like incompetent people are sitting there raking in these these mammoth fee is right if you can survive in that world then you're really good at what you do and it is viciously competitive and it is the choice among people who get hedge funds that money to pay those
00:47:20fees and to invest in something that is essentially a fee structure rather than an asset class for the most part I don't I don't have any grand philosophical take down of the hedge fund industry I thought the essay see story specifically was fascinating because there were always rumors
00:47:36throughout the world and throughout the very sophisticated world it wasn't as if it was just clueless prosecutors in the US attorney's office and journalists saying there's insider trading here that was always the rap on as they say among very sophisticated people into the firm well but what what
00:47:51is fascinating to me about the story is the line between what's legal and what's illegal and what's a legal way to get information and what's illegal edge and I think that line as much murkier than most people think and I get really annoyed when I hear anybody say
00:48:10as are the then US attorney did at the time which is that we want to make the market fair for individual investors we want to level the playing field it's never level their people have access to better information than you do they spend there all day and all
00:48:23night doing this it's not going to be fair and I think pretending that that there is a level playing fields and level access to information is actually a lie in and of itself and I thought the SEC story raise these really interesting issues because you could have argued
00:48:38it two ways at the time right one was if you can't get this guy for doing something blatantly illegal himself then do you try to go through the back door and destroy his firm or the flip argument is we've all been told we've all known this guy is
00:48:54up against a wider cross the line do you find any way you possibly can to take him down and I could debate that either way if your flight back on to your whole career and maybe ways in which your your views in general your methods have changed the
00:49:07most always interested by by that by people that do a lot of deep work and maybe start one way in and end up with a totally different set of beliefs about people or their process other big lessons that you would be willing to offer people especially those that
00:49:20might be different than when you started well I think one big evolution for me although it happened early on was this idea of how much people matter not just for storytelling but how much the personal aspect matters for the truth of the situation and I'd like I said
00:49:38was a math major and I think I was just much more numbers based and not really that interested in people one night when I started out and so I think that's one way that I have changed immensely is that now I do see people much more because it's
00:49:51the people who make a make up the numbers at the end of the day write the numbers don't exist without the people and so I think that's one big way that have changed I think I've become far more far more nuanced and my old age and much less
00:50:05willing to condemn somebody and much more interested in what drives people what makes them tick what's the line between good behavior and bad behavior how do otherwise good people find themselves doing bad things because at the end of the day that's what's really interesting bad people doing bad
00:50:23things is not that interesting good people doing good things it's really great I'm glad they're a lot of them but I don't know but good people doing bad things is ends these human aspects of self delusion and rationalization and the ways in which we fool ourselves I think
00:50:38are endlessly fascinating to me thinker ways that that can be guarded against this is something I think about a lot where success it seems like for many people creates like the seeds of a lot of these problems other systems of ethics or principles or things that that maybe
00:50:56you found helpful to be guiding lights of sorts they come with success that maybe can reduce the likelihood of of someone going wrong now everybody says the way around this is to have people around you who challenge it right and that's become kind of a touchdown of modern
00:51:11business the problem with that is that it's way harder than it sounds and most people who say they like to surround themselves by people who challenge them are completely full of it because nobody likes to be challenged and the reality is the more successful you are the less
00:51:27you like to be challenged and so the big red flag for me is actually when people say I really like to be surrounded by people challenge me because I think you only think you're being challenged you're actually surrounded by people tell you what you want to hear because
00:51:38otherwise you wouldn't like it but I think really being able to put that in place I mean really being able to put that in place is one great way but man that's hard because it's not only the person themselves being willing to be challenged it's the people who
00:51:51surround them being willing to do the challenge and human dynamics just don't allow for that very easily is so I think there's there's a whole interesting stew there that if you can get that right that's one big way and I think on an individual level as unpacking what
00:52:09makes you intellectually honest and I'll give you a little example I still today Jeff skilling was a master of two things one was a sort of intellectual intimidation that made people pretend to get things even when they didn't and the other was what somebody told me was that
00:52:24they can see data dump was just being able to speak to an enormous amount of information when he was asked a question such that you just really couldn't stay with them and order to say but you still didn't answer my question and I despite knowing those lessons will
00:52:37still pretend I understand things that I don't and it will still go along with things in a room because I don't want to be the person saying I don't understand but what makes me intellectually honest as when I sit down to write I realize I didn't understand it
00:52:50and that's what keeps me honest at the end of the day I won't necessarily be honest and conversation a Minnesotan I'm not naturally confrontational but I will be honest when I sit down and write and I'll be forced to see I don't understand this it didn't make sense
00:53:03to me and that's when I'll get tough and started again and go back to people and say now I this doesn't make sense and so I think whatever your math it is it doesn't have to be a confrontation in the moment but whatever your method is of knowing
00:53:17you didn't understand something or something doesn't sound right you just have to find it all sounds like taking what you've learned and then building something that your own from it and then opening it up to feedback like that's kind of the process that is and for me it's
00:53:31less I guess it is feedback ultimately because it's going to be public but it's also for me writing as an act of finding clarity and it's an iterative after that you try to write you realize you don't understand you go back and try to figure it out you
00:53:43try to write again you realize you still didn't understand something but it's an active fighting clarity love any thoughts you have on the role that and he has played in your career in your style in your effectiveness or just thoughts and empathy in general that's a really interesting
00:53:58idea and I guess when I said earlier in the conversation that you have to care that was my version of empathy you have to really care and beat carries and be open to what the person is is telling you what their point of view is and even if
00:54:11you can see where they are skewed and their point of view why it is that they would be scared and I think I gas by nature I think I am pretty empathetic I don't have a I often think that if I had ended up if after I had
00:54:24left Goldman which is where I worked right out of college before I went into journalism with an executive recruiter had said to me well not exactly intramural critics had said to me there's this fascinating energy company down in Texas that is doing all sorts of neat things and
00:54:38if I'd ended up working it and run in the finance department for Andy Fastow what I've been the person doing creative structures are what I've said hello this is wrong and I don't know the answer to that I like to hope that would have been the latter but
00:54:50I actually don't know and so if you try to visualize in order not to be empathetic you have to really believe you're a lot better than than other people but a fascinating thing about listening in silence made year old daughter just pointed this out to me which I
00:55:02thought was a great which is that you can actually make silent out of listen they're anagrams and it's so great because in order to listen you have to be silent right anyway prop from the mouths of babes so my closing question for everybody which is always interesting because
00:55:16I get such a wide variety of answers is for the kindest thing that anyone's ever done for you can I do to shore so I guess I'm gonna pick probably Joe Nocera taking an interest in my work from a work perspective Joe Nocera taking an interest in my
00:55:32work early on at fortune and helping me take the Enron story from a story into something that became a Buck and then you know a fundamental part of my career and I don't think if it'd been not for his level of interest and help along the way and
00:55:50for you know less credit than he got in the sense that he orchestrated the Buck but his name as an on it I think the path of my career probably would have been different and then on a personal level I guess I would probably say my husband because
00:56:06he always rises above and instead of taking petty little comments and making them into a big deal he dismisses the petty little comments and rises above and if you do that that sets a precedent where both people rise above and see the good and the other person in
00:56:26the other person's comments rather than the bad and it creates a virtuous cycle instead of the vicious cycle of squabbling and it makes life much better got all of that answer I will this is bad full of such interesting ideas kind of all over the map which I
00:56:42knew it would be so thank you so much for your time and and all you've done thank you so much for your interest everyone Patrick here again to find more episodes of invest like the best go to investor field guide dot com forward slash podcast if you're a
00:56:57book lover you can also sign up for my book club but investor field guide dot com forward slash book club after you sign up to receive a full investor curriculum right away and then three to four suggestions new books every month you can also follow me on Twitter
00:57:11at Patrick underscore OSHA act as H. T. G. enjoy the show please leave a quick review for us on iTunes which will help more people discovered best like the best thanks so much for listening

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