Controversial Investment Guru Cathie Wood Wants to Help You Trust the Stock Market Again

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2021 Milken Insitute Global Conference
2021 Milken Insitute Global Conference

Catherine Wood, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Investment Officer of Ark Invest, speaks at the 2021 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., October 19, 2021. Credit - David Swanson—REUTERS—REUTERS

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Cathie Wood is CEO, CIO and founder of ARK Invest, a closely watched investment fund known for its prescient high risk, high reward strategy (Wood was early on Bitcoin and Tesla) and radical transparency (she explains her decisions to buy and sell in a public newsletter). ARK has had a wild ride in the last two years. Its flagship innovation ETF was up 150% in 2020, gaining Wood celebrity status, but has been down 38% in the past 12 months. Wood spoke with TIME about her long- and short-term predictions for the business world and what she has learned from her fund’s bumpy ride.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

In this era of unpredictability, are you leaning into the risk or are you leaning away?

Typically, we lean into it, and this time is no exception. We tend to concentrate our portfolios towards our highest conviction names, during risk-off periods [times when most investors are selling off risky stocks and investing more safely] in particular. One of the reasons we do that is because in the traditional asset management world, portfolio managers and analysts tend to diversify during risk-off periods to get closer to their benchmarks. So typically, they will be selling our names and we will be waiting to buy them.

What are the big trends you’re watching for in 2022?

Well, we’re very excited about the five innovation platforms around which we have centered our research that are scaling exponentially. DNA sequencing, which we think is going to transform healthcare completely. Robotics is the second, especially adaptive robotics, which can work alongside human beings. Many people might worry about the impact of robotics on jobs, but as we’ve learned through this pandemic, there are major labor shortages, especially in the jobs that are very rote, which are perfect for robots. The third platform is energy storage. I wouldn’t have predicted that the coronavirus would trip the switch for electric vehicle demand. But you’ll notice electric vehicle sales have been taking off while gas powered vehicle sales have stalled. Then, our latest work is informing us that artificial intelligence training costs are dropping at a 60% rate per year. And whenever a cost for an important technology drops that quickly, we get a lot more of it. And then finally, blockchain technology. I think the latest development is in De-Fi, decentralized finance, which we think is going to take a lot of share from traditional financial services companies, and NFTs, non fungible tokens, which are really putting a lot of power back into the creator’s hands. It has been fascinating to watch NFTs proliferate this year, and we think they’re going to continue to do so in 2022.

Anything worrying you about the coming year?

Because of all the supply chain issues that we have been facing, businesses might have scrambled a little too much in the last six months, and I do think we’ll see some inventory issues next year. We’re seeing consumption growth in the U.S. has started to disappoint. Consumer sentiment, as measured by the University of Michigan, has dropped back to a level we last saw at the depths of the coronavirus. I think consumers are upset at inflation and are going to cut back a bit, especially now that their saving rate has dropped to 8%. And then in China, I think that the government’s actions are going to slow that economy down more than most economists anticipate. So I think there could be some cyclical concerns next year.

Looking back, did you learn anything from your fund’s not-so-good performance in 2021?

Well, in 2020 the coronavirus accelerated the pace of innovation and the pace of uptake of innovation. This year, we had the rotation into cyclical stock, meaning out of some of our technology-oriented stocks and into energy, financial services, materials and industrials. But we have a five-year investment time horizon, so we take all of this in stride.

You focus, as you say, heavily on tech. How can you be sure there is no tech stock bubble?

If we were in a bubble, our strategy would be very strong and it hasn’t been. What I like about 2021 is the stock market didn’t continue to favor our strategy alone, it broadened. That does not characterize a bubble, which tends to favor a few groups of stocks. The other thing is that really strong bull markets that are not in bubbles tend to climb walls of worry. And we’re seeing a lot of worry. Many skeptics are saying that growth rate is going to continue to decelerate. We don’t think so. If you look at tech companies’ growth rates, yes, they were supercharged during the heart of the coronavirus. But for example, Zoom is still growing—it grew 35% in the last quarter, which is a very strong growth rate relative to the economy’s growth, which was less than 10%.

Recently you drew some drew some flak for predicting 40% growth in the next five years for ARK. Critics said that sets you up for failure if you underperform. How do you respond to that?

They said the same thing when we put out our original forecasts for Tesla and Bitcoin. They considered them very bold forecasts, and a setup for disappointment. And if anything, it’s been quite the opposite. We have to be very careful; when we mention any number, we’re referring to our highest conviction names across ARK’s innovation universe. We want to be very careful not to mention any specific funds, which from a compliance point of view, we cannot do. But we have research to support the numbers that I suggested. We have a high degree of confidence in it.

It would be easy for any retail dime-store investor to be able to mirror your strategy, because it’s so transparent. What is the purpose of the emphasis on that?

After the 2008-2009 market meltdown, the financial services industry lost a lot of trust. And we’re trying to be part of bringing trust back. We’re democratizing investing in innovation. Many times retail investors felt left out of some of the biggest opportunities, which seemed to only be in the private markets. One of the reasons I started ARK was because I saw such magnificent opportunities in the innovation space in the public equity markets. And they were priced much lower from a valuation point of view than they are in the private markets. The same is true now. We wanted to bring transparency and democratization into investing in innovation; we consider ourselves the closest you’ll find to a venture capital firm in the public equity markets.

I’d be interested in your take on the investors behind meme stocks, like AMC or GameStop. Some people have speculated this is revenge for 2008, when, as you said, people lost a lot of faith in the institutional investment industry. Are these investors disruptors and innovators, or are they bullies?

I would ask the same thing about the people shorting our strategies. This is what makes a market. We’re all taking calculated risks. And there are all kinds of risks to take. Meme stocks are not our kind of stock. But I was watching the calculated risks that the people buying those stocks were taking. What they were doing was asking, ‘Hey, which stocks are the most shorted out there? Maybe those people are going to be wrong.’ That’s what makes a market now. We tend to base all our investment decisions on our research. Some people base their investment decisions on technicals. These individuals were simply taking a look at how incredibly shorted these stocks were, all by the same kind of hedge funds. I’m not going to criticize it.

One of the criticisms leveled against people in finance is that their work increases wealth inequality, which is one of the trends dividing American society. People who have money are able to make a lot more money without much more work. I wonder if you feel you are in any way contributing to fighting that, or if there’s a part of you that worries that you are making it worse.

I cannot tell you how many people have come up to us—even now after our strategies are down—and thank us because we were able to help them pay off their children’s education, or increase their quality of life. Those are some of the best days to be honest. I also think that allocating capital to innovation increases the probability of success, that this innovation will reach many more people. These technologies are going to scale, and as they scale, costs come down, enabling more and more people to access them. The most obvious one is the cell phone. There are billions of people in the world who have access to financial services over mobile phones that have never been able to tap into a bank. The President in El Salvador is giving $30 of Bitcoin to every eligible adult. And what we’ve seen there is that, roughly, whereas only 1.2 million people have access to financial services, 3 million people now have access to new banking services and new financial services, thanks to blockchain technology. So in my book, the more we can allocate capital to innovation, the better we can make people’s lives around the world.

One of the reasons that you and your success draw a lot of attention is that there are not many women in financial services at your level. Even today, something like 97% of the money in hedge funds, for example, is controlled by white guys. I wonder if you think there’s a reason for this? And if there’s anything you think should be done, or if this needs to be addressed?

I think our industry is a wonderful industry for women, if they can move into a situation where their performance is measured objectively. And the way to do that is, if possible, to move towards asset management positions—portfolio managers, but also to research analysts, their contributions can be measured objectively as well. I’ve been in the business for 44 years. I’ve seen this time and again, when we go through a bear market, a lot of women drop out. What you will see is both a husband and a wife with children are in the financial services industry when we hit a risk-off period and one of the spouses will say to the other, ‘Hey, honey, you know, your salary doesn’t even cover our childcare or wardrobes.’ And usually one drops out, more often than not the woman. If there’s a couple making that decision, I would ask them respectfully to just evaluate their partnership. They’re both in this together. As far as my own experience and advice, it has been: work hard, keep your head down, make your boss look brilliant. If your boss does not give you growth opportunities, I would then suggest leaving and getting into a [better] situation. Because I really do think our industry is fantastic for women.

I notice that you’re a person of faith. Faith is described in the New Testament as the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen. Does that echo your investment strategy?

That verse I read and bookmarked many, many times as I started our business, because this has been a walk of faith and an important one, and I was meant to do it. But when it comes to our investments, I set up the firm in order to focus exclusively on innovation. And I set up what I believe is the best research team when it comes to innovation in the world. Our faith, I suppose, was that we could attract people who would want to do this, because we have not hired, with a rare exception, anyone from the traditional financial services industry, except for [director of research] Brett [Winton] and me. The reason it’s worked is that it’s much easier to teach a biochemical engineer how to read financial statements than it is to teach an MBA biochemical engineering.

Do you have a method for figuring out who among these wonky geniuses has a good eye for analysis and the temperament to be able to make the big calls?

They know what they know. And they know what they don’t know. That’s the most important thing. The people who do not end up working well in our firms are those who think they have to know everything. That’s just not an honest or a realistic way of approaching our world. There are some people who are very academically oriented, who cannot take the day-to-day stress. And a few of those people have left ARK. Those who stay love the excitement of our industry, love trying to figure out where is the truth. What destresses it for those who choose to stay is our five-year investment time horizon, such that in a year like this year, they’ve not been ruffled at all. It has been keeping your eye on the prize; if we’re right, we are going to have very satisfied investors. In another firm, with our performance this year, my sense is the pressure would have been extreme. It has not been extreme at ARK because of that five year investment time horizon.

What has the current situation made you want to do in terms of philanthropy?

In 2021, I started a foundation focused on education through the lens of innovation. We are developing the curriculum, it will go into pilot test in the middle schools and St. Petersburg, Fl., Pinellas County, next fall, and then we hope to make it a part of the curriculum the following fall. We want to prove that innovation is the great leveler. My parents sacrificed everything they had to give us our education—they’re Irish immigrants—and I think I’m taking a leaf from their book and just saying, ‘Okay, how can I give back?’ I’m funding this completely right now.

How much are you prepared to spend?

We’re going to do this until it works. If we can, we’d love to roll this out throughout the country, if not the world, you know, because innovation does inspire people. That wow effect that I had when I studied economics is what we want to see in students. I was just in awe of Professor [Arthur] Laffer and how he understood the way the world worked and the problems that he was helping the world solve and I wanted to be a part of that. And there’s nothing like being an inspired student. I do think that’s linked to success long term.

But do you have a ballpark figure of how much this is going to cost?

Well, right now the run rate, just for this first year is a million dollars. And it’s going to scale significantly from there.

You’re a big investor in artificial intelligence. Do you think AI will ever put the financial services and analysis businesses out of work?

AI is based on data, which is historical. If the world is going to pivot and change away from that history, AI is going to have to adjust. So I think the human brain, in terms of a future-oriented strategy, will stay ahead of artificial intelligence for quite some time. Now, do I think that it could displace most of funds management at some point? I think the way our business got off track is they only considered quantitative strategies to be scalable, because you could put a computer on them, and then charge a fee. Well, those days are ending. That’s not how our business works. That’s not how it worked when I entered it, and it’s not the way it will work. I think that any position that involves human relationships—like handling people’s money, and especially high net worth wealth advisors—any relationship-driven job is going to be very difficult to displace, because in that relationship, many advisors are playing part psychologist. ‘Do I understand this individual’s risk profile? I need to get to know this person, because I need to understand how much risk this person is willing to take. And I need to be able to explain this to them consistently, and constantly.’ The more a position in the financial services industry is relationship-driven, the more secure that position will be.

Your investment strategy is about disruptive technologies. But not all disruption is great for everybody. There are people who owned taxis, who worked at cinemas, who find social media isolating, who like being able to fix their car. Is there ever a point where you think, ‘When I invest in this, some people are going to be left out.’ And if so, I wonder how you process that?

We think a lot about that. That’s one of the reasons I’ve started this foundation. We want the educational system to get on the right side of change, so that there will be fewer people left out. Typically, innovation solves problems. And sometimes, as you say, they can create others. But typically, innovation is better, cheaper, faster, more creative, more productive. On the other hand, it does displace people. I think corporations will have no choice but to train people to do specific jobs and create specific certificates for specific jobs. I think the educational system is going to change dramatically given the amount of change that we’re going to see ahead. But I think also that the opportunities are so great, that if we do train people and retrain people and get them on the right side of change, their lives are going to be so much better than what otherwise would have been the case.

I think parents know, inherently, that the ground is shifting underneath them and their children. We give away our research, all of it. We want grandparents and parents to read our research and influence their children, even have their children tune into our webinars or podcast, or read our newsletters and, you know, even join our brainstorming sessions if they’re that interested. That’s one of the reasons we’re so open and transparent. We want to say, ‘Hey world. Look at what’s about to happen. It’s so exciting. But make sure you get and stay on the right side of change.’

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