Ron Paul — Republican presidential candidate, GOP congressman from Texas, father of Sen. Rand Paul, libertarian, and dogged foe of the Federal Reserve — is touching down in Los Angeles on March 20 for a fundraiser. If you think Paul, with his desire to return the U.S. to the gold standard (bimetalism, actually, using gold and silver) and his tendency to subject Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to lengthy disquisitions on inflation, is a litle bit different, just wait until you get a dose of the guy who's hosting this Bel Air shindig, at the former residence of Jennifer Lopez.
He's Mark Spitznagel, a very successful hedge-fund manager whose Universa Investments is based in Santa Monica. There are hedge-fund managers and there are hedge fund managers. Spitznagel is definitely in the latter category. He plies his trade in an exotic corner of the industry, making huge bets on statistically improbable events, now colloquially known as "black swans," after the 2007 book of the that title by Nassim Taleb.
Taleb and Spitznagel were partners is a previous fund that was organized along the same lines. Their ultra-contrary mantra was to lose money on most of their bets, but win big when that black swan came along — both by profiting from negative positions and by buying up assets on the cheap once the financial earthquake had occurred.
Taleb is out of the business now (he'll also be appearing at Paul's L.A. fundraiser, however), but Spitznagel is very much still in it. This is from a 2011 Forbes profiles of Spitznagel:
When things do go very wrong for the underlying markets, however, they go very right for Universa. As the Standard & Poor's 500 dropped 38.5% by the end of 2008, the fund increased its investors' money tenfold. Spitznagel says that investors generally allocate about 1% of an investment portfolio to fund such a "black swan protection protocol."
Such returns and general fear among investors have helped Universa grow to $6 billion in assets from $300 million when it launched in 2007. Its 15 or so investors, subject to $50 million minimums, include several sovereign wealth funds.
Spitznagel considers himself a kind of inverse Warren Buffett, a "value investor" who unlocks unforeseen value embedded in rare and often disastrous phenomena. If that sounds thoroughly out-there, then consider his preferred term for his investment technique: "time arbitrage." Kind of makes him sound like the Dr. Who of hedge funds.
Beyond all this esoteric moneymaking — which obviously does work, or at least has worked, although whether it's truly "black swan" investing is debatable — Spitzanagel is an enthusiast of the Austrian School of economics. This is where the Ron Paul connection comes in. But Spitznagel goes well beyond being an eccentric rich guy who dabbles in the sort of economic thinking that Paul spouts on the stump. Spitznagel is arguably Paul's main economic theorist/popularizer outside an academic context, with the publications to prove it.
If Ron were to win, you could see Spitznagel as Treasury Secretary (Spitznagel is in his early forties, and remember, though Ron Paul may be getting on in years, Rand Paul waits in the wings). And if Paul — Ron or Rand — ever did win a race to the White House...well, you'd probably have to call that a black swan.
If you want a quick download of Spitznagel's anti-Keynesian views, check out this piece for Project Syndicate, which mashes up what initially seems like a fairly adolescent reading of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" with a very Ron Paulist contempt for the Federal Reserve. Or you can review this piece from the New York Times, in which he complains about the actions of the Fed's Bernanke, scrutinizing them unfavorably through the lens of poker. There's more than a whiff of Ayn Rand in there, as Spitznagel seems far more concerned with the struggles of the heroic investor than the responsibility of federal institutions to the economy as a whole.
Still, plenty to chew on. You have to give it to Ron Paul — there's not a lot of intellectual frivolity in his acolytes, even if there is a tendency to spin off into realms of fairly loopy, me-first speculation.
I have to admit, if there's one political fundraiser I could attend, this would most definitely be it. Who wouldn't want to debate monetary policy in the house where J-Lo once slept?