Fund manager John Burbank, who manages about $4 billion in assets as founder and chief investment officer of Passport Capital LLC, spoke about his bearish view of the economy with Bloomberg TV's Margaret Brennan this morning.
Burbank spoke about his investments in the Saudi stock market as well as his positions in biotech and pharma companies.
On the price of oil and his Saudi investments:
"[Oil] is up 16%, more than any of the indices. It's a big problem for the rest of the world - central bank easing and liquidity providing presents a lot of problems for the average consumer here but also for emerging markets around the world."
"The one market it really helps is the Saudi market. We have 15% of our capital in the Saudi market - only about 1% is held by foreigners. It should be opening up this year. So we think unfortunately QE3, which is now being pursued in Europe and Japan, essentially in the U.S. with other programs, has negative feedback loops. And oil we think is the one. Gold goes up 10%, 20%, 50%, it doesn't cause any problems with people the way banking is done these days, but oil does... I don't think oil is going to stop until the economy breaks which is a real risk."
"The average consumer isn't doing well. Their income has been flat for almost ten years, but their costs keep rising. They had a benefit with natural gas being cheaper this year, but the oil price is now breaking out and it's breaking out because of all the liquidity in the world. The oil price is making new highs in euros and pounds and it may soon in dollars. That's a big problem."
On investing in Saudi:
"Right now, we have to use swaps. We've been in the market for about three years. Foreigners couldn't actually own Saudi stocks until August 2008. So we've spent quite a lot of time doing our research and understanding the market."
"[Saudi Arabia] is very sincere in opening up the market to foreigners. It reminds me of India in the 2003, 2004 time period before you could buy Indian stocks directly. Saudi, which is 70% of the G.C.C, and by far the most important, the most liquid market, is something that foreigners are going to want to own."
"Right now, you can't buy an ETF, you can't buy Saudi stock. It's obviously very difficult to buy a security directly. We have done that. We know that foreigners now are looking at the market. The market is about 11 times earnings with almost a 5% dividend yield in 2012, and that's on an unlevered basis. The Saudis have about $600 billion of reserves and corporates have very little debt. To me, there's a lot of systemic risk in the Western world...[but] in the Saudi market, they've been very restrictive. Banks have not wanted to make it easy to borrow money and buy stocks after the bubble that happened in 2005, 2006."
On tensions in the Middle East:
"If tensions with Iran means oil goes up, then that's good for the Saudi economy but not good for the rest of the world. Fundamentally, if there's a problem with Iran, it's a problem for the whole world...The biggest risk for Saudi is really a risk that the whole world bears, but actually Saudi benefits. Oil goes to $150, $200, it means the economy is going to grow even faster because the government has more money it can deploy in the economy."
"Saudi is not like an overbuilt economy. It's just opening up now. Building is going on. The Saudis are so conservative that they don't lend against land."
On the European Central Bank issuing more money:
"A lot of the risk has been taken out of the market, on a near-term basis. We're actually quite bearish. The only reason all this liquidity is coming into the market is because things are really bad. It's not because things are good."
"I don't believe in a global rally right now. It's a bounce back from oversold conditions last year. But I think the confidence in central banking is far overdone. It's hard to fight the Fed when prices are going in the other direction."
"It's hard to know where things are going to go. The point is, just because they're putting liquidity in the market doesn't mean the economy is improving."
On Passport's strategy:
"We're stock pickers. In fact, this is a great year to be long and short individual securities. In 2008, everything went down. In 2009, everything went up. In 2010, everything moved together and eventually ended up. Last year, things started separating. Our strategy is to be picking individual securities, companies that are not depending on economic growth."
"Biotech and healthcare is one of those sectors. There hasn't been an obesity drug approved in over 30 years and we thought Qnexa would have a good chance of being approved...We were one of I think four big holders in the stock. We think it can double again because we think a large pharma would probably like to own the company at some point."