A Fascinating Look at Dr. Michael Burry’s Investment Strategy by John Szramiak was originally published on Vintage Value Investing

Dr. Michael Burry was one of the heroes of Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which tells the story about how he correctly predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse in 2008 and decided to bet against Wall Street, earning billions of dollars in the process.

In the 2015 film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book, Michael Burry was played by Christian Bale. Apparently Christian Bale captured Michael Burry’s personality – as a socially awkward but clearly brilliant investor – perfectly (Bale was even wearing Burry’s actual clothes in the movie). And Michael Burry is part of the reason why both the book and the movie were so good – his personality and his bet on the housing crisis in 2008 and 2009 are fascinating.

While The Big Short focuses on Michael Burry’s bet on the housing crisis, which is what he’s most famous for today, Burry was actually an incredibly talented investor before that. In fact, I think the story of exactly how Dr. Michael Burry got started investing in the first place is just as interesting as his big short.

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Dr. Michael Burry’s Story:

You see, in the late 1990’s, Michael Burry was just doing his residency in neurology at Stanford Hospital and Clinics. While off duty at night, Burry would focus on his hobby: investing. He also discussed his ideas on his own blog, in early internet chat rooms, and on other message boards and sites, including Silicon Investor and MSN Money.

Mind you, Michael Burry was a self-described value investor from the beginning, at a time when value investing couldn’t have been less popular. But Burry did well investing for his own account, and the ideas he discussed online gained him a small following on these early message boards. After he finished his residency, Michael Burry decided that he was going to start his own hedge fund. Joel Greenblatt – a famous value investor who had been reading (and profiting) from Burry’s posts – promtly contact him, offering Burry a million bucks to help seed Burry’s new fund.

Eventually, Michael Burry made his famous subprime trade and went from a completely unknown (but very successful) stock picker to one of the most famous fund managers in the game. And the rest is history.

I recently stumbled across one of the original articles that Michael Burry wrote in 2000 for MSN Money. Feel free to download a copy of this article below:

In the article, Dr. Michael Burry describes his investment philosophy and exactly how he went about picking stocks. Basically, Burry is a big time value investor and follows many of Ben Graham’s and Warren Buffett’s strategies, including:

  • Invest with a margin of safety
  • Perform bottoms-up, fundamental analysis
  • Look for great stocks in disfavored industries
  • Portfolio management is as important as picking stocks

Of course, Michael Burry’s put his own spin on their ideas. I’ve broken down Burry’s investment strategy in more detail for you below.

Margin of Safety

 

Dr. Michael Burry is a true Graham-and-Dodd style value investor. According to Burry:

“I really had no choice in this matter, for when I first happened upon the writings of Benjamin Graham, I felt as if I was born to play the role of value investor.

Burry believes that it’s critical to understand a company’s value before laying down a dime. His main goal is to protect his downside so that he can prevent a permanent loss of capital. Consequently, all of Burry’s stock picking is 100% based on the concept of margin of safety (see my article: What is Margin of Safety?).

Michael Burry says that if you focus on intrinsic value and invest with a margin of safety, then you don’t have to worry about specific, known catalysts (an event which causes investors to finally recognize a stock’s true intrinsic value, and causes the stock’s price to “pop”) before you make an investment. According to Burry, “sheer, outrageous value is enough.”

Bottoms-Up, Fundamental Research

 

Michael Burry says that his “weapon of choice as a stock picker is research.” Burry doesn’t care about the level of the stock market, and he has no restriction on potential investments: they can be large cap stocks, small cap, mid cap, micro cap, tech or non-tech. It doesn’t matter – as long as Burry can find value in it, it becomes a candidate for the portfolio. That being said, Burry says he’s found that out-of-favor industries provide great opportunities to buy shares of best-of-breed companies at steep discount.

So how does Burry find value investing opportunities?

He uses stock screeners to screen through large numbers of companies by looking at the EV/EBITDA ratio (acceptable ratios for Burry vary with the industry and its current position in the economic cycle).

If a stock passes his loose screen, Burry then looks harder to determine a more specific price and value for the company. This involves looking at true free cash flow and taking into account off-balance sheet items.

Burry tends to ignore price-earnings ratios and thinks that return on equity is both deceptive and dangerous. Burry prefers minimal debt.

“Rare Birds”

 

Michael Burry also invests in what he calls “rare birds.” These are mostly asset plays, but also include arbitrage opportunities and companies selling at less than two-thirds of net value (net working capital less liabilities; i.e. Ben Graham’s net-net stocks, or companies that are selling for less than their liquidation value).

Burry also mixes in the types of companies favored by Warren Buffett – companies with a sustainable competitive advantage, as demonstrated by longstanding and stable high returns on invested capital – if they become available at good prices. These can include technology companies, if Burry is able to understand them. However, like the other rare birds Burry invests in, Buffett-style investments are hard to find, so Burry considers these longer-term investments.

Portfolio Management

 

Dr. Michael Burry believes that portfolio management is just as important as stock picking. Good portfolio management requires an investor to answer several essential questions: What is the optimum number of stocks to hold? When to buy? When to sell? Should one pay attention to diversification among industries and cyclicals vs. non-cyclicals? How much should one let tax implications affect investment decision-making? Is low turnover a goal?

Burry says that in large part, the answers to these questions are “a skill and personality issue, so there is no need to make excuses if one’s choice differs from the general view of what is proper.” Here is how Burry manages his portfolio:

What is the optimum number of stocks to hold?

“I like to hold 12 to 18 stocks diversified among various depressed industries, and tend to be fully invested. This number seems to provide enough room for my best ideas while smoothing out volatility, not that I feel volatility in any way is related to risk. But you see, I have this heartburn problem and don’t need the extra stress.”

When should you buy a stock?

“As for when to buy, I mix some barebones technical analysis into my strategy — a tool held over from my days as a commodities

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