Episode #416: Jan van Eck, VanEck – Thematic Investing, Gold & Digital Assets, and Financial History
Guest: Jan van Eck serves as the President & CEO and an owner of VanEck, which offers value-added exposures to emerging industries, asset classes and markets as well as differentiated approaches to traditional strategies. ask rep for aum
Date Recorded: 5/4/2022 | Run-Time: 1:03:14
Summary: In today’s episode, Jan shares the origin story of the firm and its’ tie to gold dating back to the 1960’s. Then he shares his macro framework, criteria for launching a fund, and why the firm has starting getting exposure to venture capital.
Then he shares what led him to go down the crypto rabbit hole and launch ETN’s abroad. He shares his big picture thoughts on the crypto ecosystem, his frustrations on how regulators are treating stablecoins, and what his thoughts are on when the Bitcoin ETF will be approved.
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Links from the Episode:
- 1:27 – Intro
- 2:23 – Welcome to our guest Jan van Eck
- 3:43 – Events that formed Jan’s views as a market participant
- 8:24 – Why there’s suck a lack of ownership of real assets
- 11:16 – How Jan’s views have evolved over the past 20 years
- 14:25 – What year he first began to learn about crypto
- 22:57 – New economic models and being the first global asset manager to issue an NFT
- 27:26 – Parallels between crypto and the wild cat banking era of the 19th century
- 32:47 – Jan’s thoughts on stablecoins and frustrations with the current regulatory environment
- 38:37 – Predictions on a Bitcoin ETF
- 43:08 – Jan’s partnership with the USC Marshall School of Business
- 45:13 – Private investing
- 48:46 – What the best tie they’ve put out lately has been
- 49:46 – Things he’s excited and nervous about as he looks out to the future
- 51:49 – Red Light; thoughts on the market sentiment in his circles today
- 54:24 – The importance of critical thinking and what he teaches he students; The Three Little Pigs – Wold’s Perspective
- 56:08 – Jan’s most memorable investment
- 58:27 – Does Jan have more exposure to gold or crypto?
- 58:49 – Learn more about Jan; LinkedIn, Twitter; Financial History Lessons
Transcript of Episode 416:
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Meb: What’s up, everybody. A really fun show today with one of my favorite humans on the planet. Our guest is Jan van Eck, President and CEO of VanEck, an investment management firm that manages over $80 billion.
In today’s show, Jan shares the origin story of the firm. It’s tied to gold dating back to the 1960s. Then he shares his macro framework, criteria for launching a new fund, and why the firm has started getting more exposure to venture capital.
Then he shares what led him to go down the crypto rabbit hole and also launched ETNs abroad. He shares his big picture thoughts on the crypto ecosystem, his frustrations on how regulators are treating certain coins, and what his thoughts are when NF, the Bitcoin ETF, will be approved.
Now before we get to the episode, I want you to think of just one person who you know who would love to learn a little more about how crypto affect the financial services industry. Send them this show. They’ll be glad you did. Please enjoy this episode with my friend Jan Van Eck.
Jan, welcome the show.
Jan: Great to be here, Meb.
Meb: You’re wearing a different outfit than the last time I saw you online. I think you’re dressed up as Thomas Jefferson or something. What was the outfit?
Jan: I can’t believe you said this. This interview is over. Hamilton.
Jan: Not Jefferson.
Meb: Sorry. I went to Virginia. So I was just channeling a little TJ. Are you guys done with a financial literacy history class? I watched a bunch of those. They’re really well done. They’re still up on the website?
Jan: I’m going to start again this summer. I teach 16 classes to our summer interns. We have about 30 summer interns. And a little shout out to UVA. I got a lot of help with a UVA Darden Professor, now a UVA PhD, Scott Miller. So I’m actually speaking with his class tomorrow at UVA. So I definitely am still into the history thing.
Meb: Virtually, I assume.
Jan: Virtually. Yep.
Meb: Too bad. Springtime in Virginia, that’s 99% of the reason I went to Virginia is I visited on a spring day. And there were just beautiful girls in sundresses running around the campus and kids were throwing football and Frisbee. And I was like, “This is what college is like. This seems actually pretty nice.”
So springtime, you should change your mind and head down there. Although it’s got to be pretty nice. What’s the vibe like in the Northeast right now?
Jan: It’s good. It’s been a little rainy. But it is definitely springtime. We’ve had the forsythia out already and the trees are blooming. So it’s beautiful.
Meb: You mentioned education. This is interesting because you, probably, more than any other fellow CEO, I assume you’re CEO, of an ETF company really has roots in history in monetary and financial history.
We talk a lot about history on this podcast. I just did a tweet yesterday where we say, for so many investors that, “If you don’t understand the past, it’s one of the reasons you behave so poorly.” So we’re talking about 60/40 as an allocation.
And we said, “How big do you think the drawdown for 60/40 was?” Historically, what’s the worst? Because this year, it’s one of the worst starts ever. And if it stopped today, it’d be one of the top five worst years ever for 60/40.
I say, “What do you think is the worst it’s ever been?” Right now, it’s down around 13%. Zero to 20, 20 to 40, 40 to 60, over 60, 80% of people plus got it wrong, underestimated how bad it was. Because it was really bad back during the Great Depression, down well over 50%, I think, is over 60%.
Anyway, to get the depressing stuff laying the ground foundation. But long-winded question, which is more than anyone you have your feet steeped in history. You do a little cosplay dress up like Hamilton. But this goes way back. I think your old man even had a professor that probably started to…skew being the wrong word…inform your views as a market participant. You want to give us little history, origin story?
Jan: Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right. So my father saw the opportunities, and he started the company in 1955 by investing in – You’ll love this, Meb – cheaper international stocks at higher growth rates.
Meb: And that was before anyone was doing it.
Jan: The same year as Templeton, not as good a marketer. And then, yes, while he was in his 40s, he decided to get a PhD in Economics at night at NYU. And he studied under an Austrian economist and basically got convinced that based on our monetary policy during the Vietnam War, it was going to break the link to gold. So in 1968, he basically sold 80% to 90% of the fund to buy gold mining shares.
Just to put that in historical context, I think what I look for, and the value out of history to me is looking at the future. Because who cares about the past? And saying, “All right. How crazy can the future be?” That’s what your stat before was, “How crazy could these markets go?” And just to lay out all the scenarios and then worry about the probabilities later.
I think if you’re attuned to history, you realize things can change dramatically. And so, anyway, gold at the time had been pegged to the U.S. dollar for the entirety of U.S. history. It had been reset during the Great Depression, but it was basically fixed the whole time.
So he was betting on a big paradigm change. And, of course, you can make fun of these traditional things like, how do you measure the volatility of an asset when it doesn’t move in terms of the price of dollars or anything like that? But that professor influenced him.
And the other history note that I’d like to point out in the context of crypto is, and I don’t know if you know the answer, why couldn’t he invest in gold bullion? Why did he have to invest in gold mining shares?
Meb: It’s illegal for a while.
Jan: Exactly. It was illegal for decades.
Meb: Which is crazy, listeners. People are always talking about investing in the U.S., investing abroad, and things that sound very un-American. The concept of not being literally allowed to own gold bullion. I bet if I did that poll, majority of people would fail the test.
Jan: And the evolution of investing in gold bullion, and it’s not a small part of what we do. In the 1970s, so there was this mutual fund, which was the best in the industry for the decade of the ’70s. But also everyone was buying gold futures.
All the Merrill Lynch offices had Series 3, and they were selling futures product. And it wasn’t until many years later that we had the Gold Bullion ETF, which became the vehicle for people investing in gold bullion. So anyway, a little bit market history.
But that’s the way I sort of say, Is VanEck a value shop, growth shop? Really, we’re a macro shop. We’re saying, “Okay. All these data trends are really nice. This Bloomberg data is very great if you look at the last 20 years or whatever.” But you have to look at the financial markets really operate in the context of the world, where you have politics, you have the growth of China, and you have major technology trends.
We will spin up a fund when we say, “Hey, you know what? The world is changing, and investors need exposure to this kind of asset class.”
Meb: Yeah, it’s interesting. As you look back to the 1970s, and perhaps there’s some analogies today, we’ll see. But for the historians out there, and the people that lived through it, that was a really hard/impossible decade as an investor. If you didn’t have gold, or you didn’t have some sort of real assets, it was a really tough 10 years to survive.
And it’s fun to poll people that own real assets today and including gold, and almost no one does. I love to kid and joke that it’s only my Canadian and Australian followers, the people that are really…then, of course, perhaps India, and maybe China.
But as you think about, before we move on to the modern monetary, how do you talk to investors about gold and gold miners today and/or real assets? What’s the discussion? Because it will inform a lot of our later discussion. But how does that plan as a macro guy who doesn’t know what the future is going to hold? How do we think about it?
Jan: Let me just take a step back. The commodity markets are kind of these really stupid markets. They’re just mean reversion. And all you see, and all I’ve seen in my career is, let’s say, commodity prices go up, takes a couple of years. Then those oversupply, takes a couple of years, then prices crash. Commodity companies get starved of capital. They have to sell their stupid projects that are over too many mines or whatever it is, and then they really have to focus on return on equity.
And we’re at that point in the commodity cycle. Forget everything else going on in the world. We just went through a 10-year bear market in commodities. Energy companies are so capital disciplined. It makes your eyes hurt. And so, I think you’ve got this great setup for a many-year bull market in commodities because we have this energy or resource transition.
We all want to cleaner environment. And so we’re demanding more of some metals. We are demanding that they be produced more environmentally friendly way. So you’ve really got more demand for a lot of these commodities and less supply. And you’re starting after a 10-year bear market.
So I realized at this point, we’re a year or two into a bull market, but I think that’s the broader lens for getting economic and monetary policies. Just looking at the ridiculous mean reversion of the commodity cycles.
Meb: Yeah. Let’s continue the timeline. You got to live through the equity boom in the ’90s, which was my favorite bubble. And then, you guys have a sprinkling of a little bit of everything. MOO is still probably my favorite ticker of y’alls. Disclosure, of course, listeners, we own some VanEck funds, short even more. Just kidding. I’m not shorting their funds. But, well, there’s a bunch.
How many names are in the … in the U.S.? Sixty-four, just kidding.
Jan: Yeah, something like that.
Meb: Didn’t mean to put you on the spot. I had it online. Talk to us a little bit about how your views have evolved really over the past 20 years. You guys got started launching ETFs in 2006. So we’re on 15-plus years as an ETF firm now. What’s the majority of the biz now? You guys still do a fair amount of bonds on the traditional side, right?
Jan: We do. But ETFs are about 90% of our assets.
Meb: Wow. Well, so you’ve been pretty good at disrupting yourself. So walk me through what’s been the progression over the past 15 years.
Jan: I think our ETF business, I can describe it. And then I’ll tell you what I care about. The first ETFs we launched were just first to market. Because I came from the mutual fund world. And every mutual fund world, people would go to conferences, copy each other. And before you knew it, you had 150 mutual funds of any kind of flavor you can imagine.
The good thing about being relatively early with ETFs is we could launch something where there was white space. There was no rush to ETFs. It’s kind of crazy to believe. There was no Vietnam ETF. There was no AgShare ETF. So a lot of them were just first to market. And I just wouldn’t do it if we were second to market.
We did have the fortune of being able to buy the Merrill Lynch HOLDRS products. So SMH and OIH, which are well known semiconductor and oil services, are actually weren’t started by us. We took an antiquated trust structure and did a huge one-time conversion/create, and that was 2011.
But after a couple of years, we said, “Listen, from a business perspective, if we have a better idea and an asset class. Let’s go for it.” The second set of ETFs that we’ve done, Meb, is trying to go for some kind of market inefficiency in a space. And the two leading ETFs we have there is a Wide Moat ETF, which is based on Morningstar Equity Research that says, “Listen, you just want to buy companies with a competitive advantage, number one. And number two, you want to buy them when their stocks are down.”
And as, you know, every stock goes down 30% during almost every year. You wonder why, but they do. And so they have a pricing methodology that tries to pick up those stocks at better prices as they rebalance every quarter.
Meb: And more importantly, a great ticker.
Jan: Yeah, great ticker. And then Fallen Angel was our high-yield concept, which is not ours. It’s been around for decades. And it basically said, “It’s better to own bonds that originally were investment grade, but then got downgraded to junk than bonds that were originally issued at junk.”
And the concept is basically, it’s a really a good company, a solid company just having a really bad hair day. And the homeruns there in the last 10 years, where the energy collapses of ’15, ’16. And then during the financial crisis, because those bonds got thrown out and you were just buying them at 30, 40, 50 cents on the dollar. And then, obviously, oil recovered. Like, you kind of knew that was going to happen.
So that’s another type of, I’ll call it smarter beta. Not that smart beta concept that we apply to 50 asset classes, it just works for high yield.
Meb: So you guys built this diverse line-up with some really interesting ideas. I’m still mad at you guys for closing the Coal ETF, Jan. I loved writing about that in the past because if you go back in the French-Fama database, a lot of the records of extreme volatility were set by the Coal ETF for a number of years down in a row. I think it was something like six years in a row that French-Fama industry was down and a great ticker to boot, by the way. So shame on you. But you got plenty of other great funds.
And so as you develop this line-up, you guys are one of the bigger players. You also tend to, as you mentioned, continually disrupt from mutual funds and separate accounts to the Merrill sort of products ETFs. You started getting interested with the crypto bug. But when did that little spider bite you? What year would this have been?
Jan: Well, like you, we want to read broadly and look at everything that’s going on in the world. You don’t want something not to be on your radar screen. And then, you have to filter and decide, “Okay. Am I going to spend time or attention studying something or is it just a short-term fad,” right?
So some of our ETFs misses have been as good as our hits. I don’t know if you did, but I hope you don’t have one. But we thought about doing a SPAC ETF, of course, when SPACs came up. And we’re like, “No, they are going to go away. We could launch a SPAC ETF, but it doesn’t really make sense.”
So the crypto bug was on my radar screen. But it was in early 2017, when I said, “You know what? This thing could really eat into our gold business in GDX, GDXJ.” And we have an active gold fund as well. So is it real or not? And the only way to answer was to hit podcasts, hit white papers, and do the research yourself. Because I asked my colleagues and they were like, “I don’t know.”
So that was basically it. In the early 2017, we said Bitcoin could absolutely be a competitor. I looked at silver. I don’t know how you look at it. But I think there’s so many buyers who are looking for a store of value, hedge against monetary inflation that they own both. The overlap is very high.
Meb: I would say they are now or they’re starting to as prices continue to escalate. I don’t know how much people have really cared until they get shocked into caring. But I like to think, and we say this a lot on the podcast, but I like to describe the way we think about most of financial asset opportunity set as hoping to be agnostic. But being agnostic with the full set, most people come into this with just two possible choices, which is U.S. stocks and U.S. bonds.
And you know, the world is your oyster. So not only is it foreign stocks, but also foreign bonds, which no one on the planet allocates to, certainly, but is technically, I think, the largest asset class in the world.
And then real assets, each one is like unlocking a new door. And if you don’t have, and people are finding this again this year, here we are in May. And if you don’t have a traditional real asset exposure or “other things” than U.S. stocks and bonds, it’s getting to be a little funky, funky year for you.
By the way, actually, I was trying to look this up. This is a fun quote on Twitter. I said, “In the past 100 years, stocks and bonds have only declined together twice.” And that sounds like a false statistic. But when either one is up, 80% of the time, just the math of it, and then that’s anti-correlation and not including the share of the three, on a real basis, it’s worse, of course.
Jan: Twice meaning what?
Meb: On a yearly basis, yearly basis. Sorry.
Jan: Oh, yearly.
Meb: Yeah. But okay, so you start to look into, thoughtfully… And by the way, just give you credit. And you and I have shared some wine and some far-flung locales of, what is this, Cape Cod, San Sebastian, Spain, maybe Iceland, part of the ETF Illuminati and get to wax philosophy.
But let’s hear about this journey on the crypto side. Very few people out there spend time really looking at their beliefs and trying to tear them down and/or think about how to look at the opposite. Most people spend all day looking for confirming beliefs. And so, to most people with some big gold funds would probably say, “Well, no, you should spend all your day just hawking gold and not thinking about other things.” But here we are.
So let’s walk through it. Let’s get deep in some of the topics on the crypto world. Mic is yours. Where should we begin?
Jan: Before I get there, just to extend what we were talking in terms of what I think both you and I rebel against is just the Morningstar-style box, which is only kind of U.S. equities, large cap, small cap, growth to value. And over VanEck’s history, the biggest value we’ve given investors is by saying, “Hey, wait a minute. Add this to your portfolio. Add gold to your portfolio in the ’70s. And you not only reduced risk, you increased your return a lot with a small allocation.”
And then before I got into crypto and ETFs, I was really big into emerging markets and China. Same thing, the first decade of investing in emerging markets did really well and really benefited your portfolio. Not to jump to the end of the crypto story, but one of my big cautionary tales about crypto is, with every disruptive technology, and I’ll explain why this is disruptive. You have to worry that all the appreciation happens early in the cycle.
So even though I love talking about it today, I love thinking through the implications. I’m very worried and I was very worried at the end of last year how a lot of growth stocks, including crypto, were overvalued. And in the private markets, I absolutely still think that there’s way too much money chasing crypto venture capital and follow on.
To your point, why should we care about crypto at all? And I’m going to walk through three different reasons. Because crypto is really a catch-all phrase, which does a disservice to explaining what is interesting.
First of all, only 13% of people in the world born this year are born into a country with a stable open financial system, right? So I think a lot of Americans are like, “Why do I care about those coin and all this kind of crazy nonsense?”
Well, if you’re in Argentina, where your banking system has literally taken all your money out of your bank accounts, once every decade, you’re going to keep cash under the mattress. And it does make sense.
Hey, if you can keep it on your phone, and a mix of some kind of cryptocurrency, but also stable coins, the U.S. dollars, the reserve currency of the world, that really matters to a lot of people in this world. Whether you’re in China, or Ukraine, or whatever, you want to be able to take your money out of the country. And again, that’s not always available to you. So anyway, that’s point number one. And that’s really a Bitcoin point.
The second point is just why the blockchain is so important to finance is the fact that you can take the basic transaction of buy and sell of the stock. And I’m using my hands to show that there are so many databases that just have to mimic the same transaction. The buyer, the seller, the stock exchange, the custodian bank, and on and on.
And so that’s insane. There should be one true transaction. And that’s where the theory of the blockchain, I really think, has disruptive potential. And all it is, is making things more efficient.
You don’t want people at every company that touched that simple transaction to check the data. I’ll give you a different version of the same story. When in the mutual fund industry, back in the ’80s, all of finance was just automating paper records. In the 1960s and ’70s, everything was paper.
So right before 4:00, people would be calling our mutual fund operations department. And if it was a buyer, it was a blue slip. And if it was the seller, it was a red slip. And then you’d add those up on an adding machine. And then you call Merrill Lynch say, “Well, we have X amount of buys.” And they’d go, “Oh, well, we have Y amount of buys for you.” And they’re like, “Okay, let’s go through every transaction one at a time.”
Anyway, the blockchain really says that whole structure doesn’t make sense. It really makes sense to have these transactions in one place, and then build things on top of them. And so that’s kind of my…
Meb: Yeah, I mean, look, there’s the hope. And I think we’ll eventually get there. A lot of the first iteration of some of the crypto ideas always get frustrated because it’s some of the various brokerages or funds out there. You see the challenge of just charging like ginormous fees. And it goes to show, it’s a great business. Look, Coinbase is…I don’t know how big they are now, market cap, but a great business to be in.
Eventual, you’ll see, I think democratization. I was laughing as you were talking because when we started, we had a fax in our trades. And this wasn’t ’98. This was 2010 or something, just antiquated processes.
Okay, I’ll let you keep going. Why do we care? Keep going.
Jan: I will say a couple of things. So the other aspect of the blockchain and decentralized applications is that you can create different economic models. So if you and I participate in Facebook, it’s a very simple model. We get paid nothing. Post our data. We get to use it. But the monetization happens by Facebook shareholders.
There’s a whole variety of different ways as you think about creative platforms, whether it’s music, photography, other kinds of art, where you can create different splits between the artist and the distribution platform. In the kind of traditional world like Shutterstock, like, they take 80% of the revenue for the first 100 pictures that you sell. It’s not really fair.
Anyway, there’s a lot of creativity that can happen through these decentralized applications. Not every payment needs to go through MasterCard and Visa. And so this, again, is the promise of the technology.
And then the last dimension, I think that’s interesting, and I’m not an expert, but NFTs have this potential of representing value digitally. Even though I think right now it’s really hard for us to figure out beyond digitally native art, what the uses are.
But just to give you an idea, Meb, of how wacky this world is, earlier this week, we were the first, I think, global asset manager to issue our first NFT. And so we created a sign up.
Meb: And it’s just a picture of you in Alexander Hamilton dress.
Jan: To use NFT talk, what it actually will look like won’t be clear until after we distribute it in about a month.
Meb: Oh, cool. Can we still sign up or no?
Jan: You weren’t making bad guesses there, young man.
Meb: Did I miss the drop? Or is it still ongoing?
Jan: So the signup, we were going to just a distribute 1000. The signup started earlier this week, guess how many people have signed up and given us their Ethereum addresses to receive an NFT if they were chosen to get one?
Meb: Oh, man, it’s like “The Price is Right.” The answer is either going to be 1 or, like, 5000.
Jan: Yeah, it’s like 15,000 now. We didn’t even send an email out or anything. It was the head of our community just sort of talked about it online. So anyway, that’s…
Meb: That alone, look, in my history of investing, looking back on my mistakes, and more importantly, my whiffs on a lot of big winners, one of the mistakes I’ve made many times and probably will continue to, but I’m starting to retrain myself, is people are very quick to be dismissive of an idea, which is natural, to be cautious and critical about investments.
But also, I think it’s really important to be curious, particularly when a lot of people, and especially my nerd friends, as an engineer, I’m allowed to say that the nerds, follow the nerds. But when people are really passionate about something, and that’s a great example, is like you guys, just in passing analysis, and you get 15,000. That’s not something to be, in my opinion, dismissed. That’s a very real large community o interested participants.
Jan: There are a lot of smart people in the space.
Meb: And as long as it’s not a bunch of Chinese bots.
Jan: Well, it looks and I don’t think we know how it’s going to evolve. And so I’m not promising that Ethereum is going to… We do focus on what we call the smart contract protocols, because everything needs to be built on top of that.
So if we were to do an ETF, I’d do a smart contract ETF with Ethereum, Solana, Cardano, all those ones, because it’s just a database technology and stuff. It has to run on the databases, and they’ll charge a small transaction fee and there’ll be the winners.
Meb: I saw a reference in my notes about, “It’s a historian hat you put on, parallels to the Wildcat banking era of the 19th century.” What does that mean?
Jan: Well, people and policymakers talk about the financial risks associated with the crypto ecosystem. So this is talking about the crypto ecosystem. Like it or not, it’s a trillion-and-a-half-dollar asset class. And there’s a lot of trading that goes on. And it is paradoxical.
The spreads for trading these digital assets, Meb, are obscene. In 2017, there was literally a 20% price difference of Bitcoin in Japan compared to Hong Kong.
Meb: Why didn’t we start just a little, our brokerage, Jan. We were sitting around chatting over wine. We should have stopped talking about von Mises and just started a basic crypto ARB fund. And that would have been that.
Jan: It’s crazy.
Meb: You know why I didn’t? I’ll tell you why. I’m sorry to interrupt you. But so many of us are informed by our prior belief systems and experiences. And I remember I used to spend time as a young 20-something trying to arbitrage sports betting lines on online gaming. And the problem that I had was not that the models worked or not, the problem I had was that I was worried that if you start moving real money and all of a sudden, this sports book in, I don’t know, Barbados, or somewhere else just disappears into the ether, it’s not the model problem. It’s a transactional experience problem.
So back to thinking about similar early days of the Wild West of crypto. It was like a too hard pile. But clearly people have figured it out are now billionaires. So, it’s good for them.
Jan: It’s funny. I had a different prior. I’m just like, inefficiencies like that don’t exist for very long. So by the time I get myself organized, it won’t exist anymore. And here we are, 2022, and these firms are still making, gushing hundreds of millions of dollars. Why do you think FTX can afford to buy a basketball arena, ads in the Super Bowl, building a campus in the Bahamas? I mean, it’s just crazy.
So that ecosystem is out there. And there’s a lot of wealth and a lot of investment in building applications that will hopefully be useful to people.
Meb: As we think about where we are in 2022 and talking about crypto in general, any more broad thoughts on use cases or some topics. I know a big one is kind of the central banks. From a historian’s perspective, we probably think a lot about the Fed here in the U.S. Everyone loves talking about the Fed.
But from, you mentioned the kind of use case of, “Hey, I want to distance myself from the central bank.” We have some initial small use cases of some countries doing it. But what’s the thinking there?
Jan: I got side-tracked, my fault. I’m talking about comparing that risk. So people say, “Oh, these crypto currencies, they’re crazy risky. And they’re hacks.” And so let me just talk about the hacks.
So are there risks with a traditional financial system? Because people say, “Oh, these like stable coins, like these are private currencies, that can implode just like private banks went bankrupt in the 1800s in the United States.”
And so the point I make, and we know this but I’ll try to pull up a graphic, is very simple, which is, commercial banks are risky because of one part of their balance sheet, which is their loans. It’s always their loans. And we’ve set up this institution that’s leveraged, and the risks with almost every bank in history is, are they too concentrated in one industry?
So during the Great Depression, almost all the banks in the Midwest, they’re all agriculture. So of course, if you had a dust bowl, they’re all going down.
The second systemic risk is loans are illiquid. You lend money for a year or 10 years. But bankers have deposits that they want their money back the next day. So that’s why you need the lender of last resort.
So you have this really risky system, if you have commercial banks with this mismatched balance sheet, and that’s why you need a JP Morgan, the private lender of last resort.
The crypto world is kind of different. So far, you have stable coins that are 100% backed. So they’re like a money market fund. I can’t see how they present any kind of systemic risk. The risk is really in futures contracts on cryptocurrencies.
So you can go and get 20 times leverage on cryptocurrencies at Bitmax and other places. There’s a lot of futures contracts in the United States. Those are collateralized. And most often, they’re over-collateralized. So you can make a million-dollar bet in Bitcoin leverage, but you better have a million dollars in stable coins or other kinds of collateral.
And the great thing about the crypto ecosystem is there’s no calling anyone, faxing anyone. Because they’re a computer code, they can go straight into your account 24/7 and take that money.
Meb: Explain real quick the underpinnings of stable coin for the listeners who may not be familiar. And is the risk, the actual companies are just not doing what they say they’re doing. Where they say they’re backed, and then it turns out, they may not be. Is that a valid concern? Or is that something that you think can be dismissed?
Jan: It’s a valid concern, but it’s absolutely not happening. Tether or Circle, which are the biggest offshore and onshore. But stable coins are simple. People were trading Bitcoin 24/7 or on Saturday or on Sunday. And they wanted to go to cash. There was no way to go to cash. Their bank was closed.
So someone came up with ideas like, “Well, why don’t I create effectively a tokenized money market fund? So I can sell Bitcoin and buy the stable coin.” And so that’s what that is, very logical.
But anyway, the only risk that comes about from this ecosystem is if you have a lot of volatility, and you’re not sufficiently collateralized, that’s a risk. But you’ve seen tremendous draw downs in crypto and you have not seen a systemic break. That’s the real risks that are out there.
There are some JP Morgans. There are several times when people have written checks over $300, $500 million to bail out. One was a stable coin in ancient history. Even this year, there was a hack.
But there are some really wealthy people, like we talked about, that weren’t like us. They actually created some trading shops. And so they have bailed out some of these protocols from hacks. But that’s a discussion of the systemic risks in the ecosystem and why they’re very different from the private banks of the 1800s.
Meb: It’s interesting to think about what is the role as we go forward? Do you think stable coins may see increased adoption? Like is the use case more for that sort of concept than perhaps the more volatile bitcoins of the world? How do you think about it if you had to handicap that concept?
Jan: First of all, just a caveat, I have no idea how this is all going to play out. I think it’s still super early days. It’s 10 years ago. We couldn’t have predicted TikTok.
Meb: We would have called it Vine, in which is now a gravestone somewhere. So, it’s always fun to watch the creative destruction of marketplaces and some of the ideas that are too early and then don’t survive, or the ones that just didn’t execute right and someone else comes along, and here we are with TikTok.
Jan: But to answer your question, I think every aspect of finance will shift one extent or another to the blockchain technology. So borrowing, lending, no reason that shouldn’t happen online. Faster, better risk metrics, it’s just a matter of time and law.
Stock exchanges, why do we have T plus 2? Why do we have hedge funds? They can take the same risk. Well, I guess, they lie about it. That could have been solved. So I think stock exchanges like Coinbase that do instantaneous transactions and instantaneous settlement, it’s a better system. It’s a lower risk system. Why wouldn’t that work?
Why aren’t stable coins better money market funds? They’re good payment methodologies. Crypto companies can move money from the U.S. to Mexico for 1% of the transaction value. Western Union is taking 10%.
Everything can be done cheap. It’s just like all technologies, cheaper and faster over time. I don’t know how it’s going to play out. And I’m not saying investors can make money for it either. I very much believe it’s a cool technology. But like a lot of growth investments, they were way overvalued at the end of last year. And I’m not sure we know when the bottom is going to happen, and which companies are going to win.
Meb: Good. Well, overlay our trend-following ideas. That’s my solution to something that’s exceptionally hard to value is say, “Let price be your guide on the trend side.” We touched briefly on this central banking concept. Do you think about this all, CBDCs, ideas around going surfing down in El Salvador? What do you think about there?
Jan: Well, those are different things. If I think that Bitcoin is a cousin of gold as a store of value, I don’t see why central banks don’t buy some Bitcoin. Why wouldn’t Russia buy some Bitcoin? Why wouldn’t China buy some Bitcoin? They know that we would seize it. And our bank accounts, we’ve just done it. So that’s a different point.
I think as far as the Fed coming out with a stable coin, I think the chances of that are almost zero, for a couple of reasons. First of all, can you imagine the Federal Reserve trying to come out with a cutting-edge technology? And I mean, that’s kind of funny just to say out loud.
But from a policy perspective, there’s privacy. And there’s also the commercial banking structure. And on the privacy side, we do not, as Americans, want the government knowing every one of our financial transactions. And Congress has kind of had this discussion over the last year or two. And $10,000 seems to be the number.
Yeah, we want to know over that or 5000, but ballpark. But below that, no, I don’t need to know that Meb bought a stick of gum at the checkout counter at Los Angeles airport. That’s too much information. It can’t be trusted. And then that’s the privacy angle.
And then, as far as the commercial banking structure, if the Fed were actually to have, let’s call it a window to retail directly, which they would with a stable coin, they’re really competing with central banks. Why wouldn’t you just own that stable coin as opposed to keeping your money at Wells Fargo or wherever you keep it in California?
So they’re starting to evolve a competitive dynamic that I just don’t think they want to get into? I think they like the banking system the way it is, structurally. Sorry. So that’s sort of my diatribe on why central bank currencies aren’t going to happen in the United States.
Meb: We’re recording this during, I think, some central bank discussions going on. We also have the Kentucky Derby coming up. So you have a handicap. You’ve continually been boxing with the powers that be trying to get out some funds in the U.S. You got any updates to the extent you can talk about them for our listeners.
I have a 2013 tweet that says, “I don’t think a Bitcoin ETF will come out by year end. If anyone would take the other side of the bet, let’s do a dinner bet. I love sushi.” And then I would retweet that basically every year for the past eight years now.
And I was expecting it to be for a couple years ago. I wasn’t expecting it to be almost a decade later still talking about this…What are your thoughts here? 2022, the magic year?
Jan: Not anytime soon.
Meb: Oh, boy. Jan, it is depressing people at the beginning and at the end of this podcast. Come on. What’s the main concern?
Jan: Well, I mean, the SEC is holding a Bitcoin ETF hostage to them getting jurisdiction over the underlying crypto exchanges, which they don’t really have now. There’s no good legal basis for it. They didn’t have jurisdiction over the underlying gold bullion markets either.
But they went ahead.
But that’s the position. They’re locked in. There’s so much litigation happening now, Meb, they can’t really change. Tell those legislation now, it’s an election year. We do try to talk to policymakers a little bit because we’re enthusiasts about the technology innovation and better outcomes for investors. But I just don’t think that legislation happens in an election year. So maybe next year, we’ll have to see.
Meb: All right. You guys have famously said, “Okay. U.S., enough with you. We’re going to look abroad.” What’s the environment been like outside our shores? Give us some perspective as a world traveller, fund manager in all the far-flung locales. What’s the crypto vibe elsewhere?
Jan: Well, right now we have 13 single token or multi-token exchange traded notes in Europe. Switzerland first, and then Germany have really embraced digital assets as an opportunity. So they’re listed on the Deutsche Börse and available throughout Europe. That’s a friendly environment.
And then, in the Americas, my favorite country is Brazil. So I don’t know how closely you follow that. But the central bank actually came out, not with a stable coin, but with a protocol for exchanging Reals, their local currency, between bank accounts, called the PIX technology, I guess. I don’t know what the right word is.
The vast majority of Brazilians now have adopted that. So I can send money to your bank account instantaneously for free. I don’t need an app. There’s just this sort of open source made available. I wish… Why doesn’t our country do something like that? So I’m really intrigued by Brazil, in that sense.
As far as what’s an offshore location for what’s going to be the New York or Miami, if you will, of crypto outside the United States? Right now, it’s uncertain. But Bahrain is kind of the dark horse. Because Singapore, like the United States, has crypto regulations. But they’re not approving anyone. A crypto bank, a bank that buys and lends digital assets, could get an OCC charter, but they’re not granting any. So what’s the point?
We have a BitLicense in New York, and there’s 20 firms that have it. What’s the point of having legislation if no one gets approved? So I don’t know if it’ll be Germany. But definitely, those are the other offshore locations.
Meb: It makes sense some of those locales are a little more receptive, given the monetary history of a lot of those places, Brazil and Germany, certainly, and Switzerland, perhaps from a neighbor experience.
What’s the future look like as you divert resources? Is this the thing you’re going to continue to expand in these foreign markets and just deal with the U.S. when that day comes? I guess you don’t really have a choice.
Jan: Yeah, we don’t have a choice. We’ve been launching some partnerships in the U.S. because we can do that, offer that to accredited and institutional investors who would just learn and have fun? Like the NFT, I think, is in that category, along with, I’ll just repeat my again, my cautionary tale, which is, what matters is growth investment and growth can be challenged. We’re in a different investing environment.
Love to learn about the technology, we may even build some stuff ourselves. But I don’t… I’m not saying go buy, buy, buy.
Meb: You could say that. It’s okay. You guys just did some right down the road for me, partnership, set up a new initiative down at USC. Tell us a little bit about that.
Jan: The short version is that I’m on the advisory board of USC Marshall School of Business, and my wife went there. I went upstate to another accredited university, like they like to call it, the tree as a logo. But you can tell how enthusiastic I am about blockchain. And I just feel that USC needed to get organized. And so we wanted to promote education there.
The USC is really well situated because of its arts in LA, and gaming history. So it really is a natural for them to try to do as much as they can. But sometimes, technology moves so fast. Technology moves 100 miles an hour, and universities move at 5 miles an hour. And so we’re just trying to help them.
And, for example, I think most people, even in finance, they don’t know who would be the biggest prime brokers for digital assets. The names of those firms, like you might say, “Well, Coinbase probably might have a shot.” I’ve heard of Mike Novogratz at Galaxy.
But there are companies like Celsius and Nexo. No one’s ever heard of these companies, yet they’re giants in the borrowing and lending in the digital assets world. So they’re more likely to be the Goldman Sachs of the future than the traditional names.
Meb: When’s the Business for Blockchain Conference going to be?
Jan: Well, listen, I think that we’re definitely going to have a couple of events in Southern California, whether they’re on campus or not. And we want to combine them. There are a lot of events in the industry, and we want to combine it with that. It makes sense. There’s an NFT conference in Los Angeles.
The one that was had last year was excellent. Anthony Borquez ran that with a lot of founders in the gaming community. It was really cool. And I think DeFi is another area where it makes sense for USC to get involved.
So if I had my way, they’d have at least two events. And you’re definitely going to be a speaker, Meb.
Meb: You guys do private investing, too? What’s the story there? And it’s blockchain’s only focus.
Jan: We were lucky to have some money at the company because we’ve grown over the last couple of years. And, you know, a year and a half ago, I said, “How do you build a research team around the blockchain,” right? You’re not going to hire a software engineer to come and just look at Bloomberg all day long. No one’s got five years of crypto experience.
So we said, “Think about it as building out your research network. We want to shorten the space between us and software developers.” And venture capitalists are a link to software developer communities. That’s really their job. And they all have different strengths.
So we’ve invested in about six of them. And it’s great. We have great idea exchange. And obviously, we need to translate that into something that’s valuable to our investors. One of the problems, and we used to do hedge funds before we did ETFs, is I think of asset management, Meb, as often active as a diseconomies of scale business. Meaning, if you’re a stock picker, at a certain point, the more money you have, the lower returns are going to be. And venture capitalist definitely that way.
If you’re early stage and you’re writing million-dollar checks to companies, you can’t have a billion-dollar venture capital fund. That makes no sense. You’re not going to make any money for your investors. So that’s the business issue of it is, how do you do venture capital investing that’s more than friends and family? You do some of your own.
Meb: Well, that’s why I’m so successful, Jan, is I have little to no money. And so, I have no constraints whatsoever on my capital. I can invest. No, I’m up over 320 companies at this point, almost a decade in. And about, not quite a dozen are in that world of blockchain-y. Some are a little tangential in that space.
I’m traditionally drawn to picks and shovels and things that generate cash flow. So I actually love participating from that standpoint. And it’s super interesting to me.
Jan: But if you don’t offer it as a fund, is my point.
Meb: I would like to. And the challenge, as you know, of being the beauties, of being a public fund manager is, all of a sudden, the regulatory bodies, once you start doing things, just rain down compliance everywhere. And so being a private fund manager, there’s all these extra steps I have to go through. And it’s just, until we get to y’all size, it’s a pleasant distraction. I would love to offer…
Everyday people email me and say, “Can I just tag along with the investments you do?” And I say, well, to date so far, you can’t. Maybe in the future, I’m hopeful. But hopeful the accreditation rules change too, which seemed to be getting looser and looser.
Jan: But my point is, even if USC or UCLA said, “Meb, here’s 200 million.” You couldn’t do that.
Meb: I could spend it “Brewster’s Millions” style. Could I invest it? No. I could find a way. That seems like a fun challenge.
I often talk about the public markets. I mean, look, it’s the Fed day. And it’s just a constant deluge of just negative information and just smashing you with just on and on, just noise.
But the beauty of following a lot of start-ups in the private markets is, it’s the opposite. It’s just nonstop optimism. You wake up every day with people that are just motivated and optimistic to save the world. And it’s a great thing to participate in, especially as a nice balance between the negativity of public markets and noise.
So it’s a lot of fun, more than anything. What’s been the best tie you guys put out lately?
Jan: I’m really frustrated. Maybe you can use your power. So we never got last year’s tie off the ground. It was the celebration of the retail investor. So we had Cathie Wood, who gave her consent. We got Howard Lindzon, who early into Robinhood and have founded Stocktwits and created the Cashtag with $ sign in front of a stock symbol and social media. So he was okay.
But we wanted Elon Musk, and he still hasn’t responded to us. I guess, he’s busy otherwise now. So, but that tie will come out whenever we get his consent.
Meb: It was perfect. You could just have last year’s tie. I call it, the work-from-home tie, and there’s just no tie. This vintage was nothing so…
Jan: Oh, we already did that.
Meb: Oh, you did?
Meb: That’s funny. Awesome. Yeah, I was going through my closet the other day and I was like, do I just give away all these at this point? Maybe keep one for sentimental reasons. I’m looking forward to the world cranking back open.
You’ve a curious mind. Every time we talk, I feel like we could just go for hours on a million different topics. What are you excited about? What are you nervous about? Frustrated? Keeping you up at night? What’s on your brain?
Jan: Meb, I want to know how low the markets are going to go.
Meb: Well, you don’t want to ask me that because I’m like Pollyanna over here. And that’s a giant caveat for me. As I say, I can tell you my personal Happy Hour opinion, which is I think the market is going to take a big fat messy dump and a waste. But the giant asterisk, caveat, yada, yada is none of that plays into how we manage money whatsoever.
That’s the first asterisk because we’re quants and rules-based, yada, yada. The second asterisk, however, is that all of our models that can be tactical, and I’m speaking specifically to U.S. stocks, market cap-weighted, are all as negative as they could be across both measures of value, and trend.
And so, my personal views align with my model views, that can change quickly and that’s the beauty of being agnostic and rules based. If the price ramps back up, and we’re hitting new highs again, the models will adjust eventually. It’s a beautiful day in Los Angeles, but things look dark to me for market cap weighted, expensive stuff.
So I said this on Twitter the other day, and 50% declines, it’s normal and the multiples where we’re at… I think it’s not out of the question if inflation hangs up around here for longer. So if you’re young, this is incredibly optimistic news. Because you can invest at lower prices. If you’re old, I’m sorry. So it goes.
Jan: Is it going to be in 2022? Because I’ve been saying 2022 is not the year to make money. It’s the year that gives us a good buying opportunity. I just…
Meb: I think so, Man. Like, you never know on the timing. I’m the world’s worst timer. I sold a bunch of my farmland the week before farmland started its ascent into the double digits of crop prices. So what do I know?
But we wrote a long piece called “Red Light.” But it was all the indicators. Yellow light being valuation on and on and on and on. And I said the yield curve, retail craziness we saw last year, inflation multiples, and the one final boss was trend. The trend was still up or bouncing around. And it’s certainly negative now.
The one thing that, at least, for short term to me, is a curiosity is sentiment. The sentiment is actually really bad across the board on equities, which is usually a good time to invest. So I’m a little curious about that. Why sentiment is so bad? Because we’re only down 12% 13% on stocks, not 20, 40, 60. So I’m not real sure what how to think about sentiment today.
You’re getting good ideas, good thoughts. What’s the sentiment like and the conversations you’re having?
Jan: I’m a contrarian, too. But when I look around, I’m not sure things are as bearish as that, I get… First of all, there are different people in the world. Right now, gas prices are really crushing a lot of Americans. So forget investor sentiment and whether they’re investors. But I really feel for this inflation because it’s really crimping a lot of pocketbooks.
And housing prices going up and interest rates is going to affect young families as well. I used to say, the car of the economy was coming in at 200 miles an hour last year, and it had to slow down. And it’s slowing down. And it doesn’t feel particularly good.
I think it takes longer for us to get this exuberance out of our memories. I always have to go to one of my colleagues because I’m itching to buy. And I know, I’m with you. I think it’s…
Listen, it wasn’t a fun first four months, and now we’re in May. And sell in May and go away. And so you’re looking at the second half of the year, but I’m kind of itching to put cash to work.
Meb: But that’s the challenge. And that’s why I like to think in trend terms. You mentioned the commodity spike, which is bad here in LA. It’s local. We’re all the national news stories. It’s always the local LA gas station because it’s seven bucks right now.
But what really creates a ton of stress is on the food prices. And you see some people talking about it on Twitter and elsewhere. But that creates massive geopolitical stress in Middle East and Africa and a lot of countries, and of course, here too.
But food prices make up a much bigger portion of daily expenditures in some of these countries and the price of wheat going from 4 to 14, back down to 10 now. But still, this is Arab Spring levels. So I’m hopeful that comes down, but if not, it is problematic for sure.
So Jan, and we talked about a lot today. Let’s bring this back full circle. As a student of history, as you’ve taught this class, we love coming up with ideas and historical stories or concepts that drive home a point.
Is there anything in your class that you teach, or any particular ideas or concepts you think is a great lesson learned or something you can impart Jan’s wisdom to the listeners or investors out there you think is particularly interesting?
Jan: You know, the one thing in working with the students, it’s not really a history idea, it’s just the importance of critical thinking and questioning what you’re being told. And that sounds silly. But I do think a lot of college classes and a couple kids that just went through college are structured of, “Here’s a pile of information, read it, understand it, and be able to regurgitate it.” But not in a class of 150. There’s no opportunity to rip it to shreds.
And so plenty of the things I did last summer, is I took a two-page indictment. Actually, it was an LA person who was indicted by the federal government. It was a little story about what the person did wrong. And I said, identify all the things in here that just don’t make sense. And the students had a lot of trouble with that. And then I’m like, that’s your critical skill thinking.
And maybe people are taught that at work a little, a bit of learning it, but that’s really super important. And I think that’s why teachers are important because that’s a back and forth. That’s, “Hey, Meb, you think that. Why do you think that? Does that really make sense? Can you argue the other side?” And I think that critical thinking thing is super important.
One factoid out of this thing was the person was indicted, and so was the 24-year-old assistant. I asked my interns, “What do you think that 24-year-old knew? Did you think he knew about this federal law that he was violating? He just set up a meeting. Like, does that seem fair to you?” Anyway, that’s my answer. Critical thinking.
Jan: Well, I’ll give you Meb’s real world example with a five-year-old, it was big, bad wolf book, three pigs, whatever it is. Anyway, there’s a book written from the standpoint of the big bad wolf. So you get both sides of the perspective. I think there are two of them. So I was trying to read it to my son and impart a similar lesson of trying to think critically about the big bad wolf. And why he may not be so bad.
But a lot of the actual superhero Marvel/Avengers sort of movies, I think, do a pretty good job of framing a lot of the critical thinking about this black and white good guy, bad guy, shades of grey, and thinking kind of about some of these ideas and questioning your prior. So, lesson learned, go read some comic books, listeners.
Jan, a couple more questions, and we’ll have to let you go into the East Coast afternoon. Most memorable investment for you – good, bad, in between, positive, negative. What comes to mind?
Jan: It’s looking for the big dips. So after the financial crisis, personally, I just, in 2009, I just was able to buy a lot of stuff cheap. And that’s what I’m looking for now. I’m not a good seller. But I’m a pretty good buyer.
Meb: Well, there are a lot of places that are down big, just not necessarily here. Well, some of the stocks are. If you look at some of the NASDAQ destruction. But certainly, we’ve done a lot of research, the down 60, down 80, down 90 opportunities can be pretty fertile areas for investments, the close your eyes, hold your nose strategy. That’d be a good ETF idea.
Jan: Sometimes, they say they don’t ring the bell when oil futures went negative. Remember that? Come on. That’s so obvious.
Meb: It’s crazy to see the sentiment you see on both sides, and just how quickly you can turn it. That wasn’t that long ago. And here we are, oil, well north of 100 bucks again. And it’s just sort of a crazy example of markets that we live in. It’s normal.
Market returns being extreme and that sort of stuff happening. But it’s hard to emotionally distance and take a long-term perspective, of course, but that’s what matters.
Last question. It’s going to be a tough one for you. What is your bigger allocation? Gold or crypto?
Meb: Oh, wow. All right, Man. You heard it here first. But you own both, I assume.
Jan: Yeah, but crypto, I’m including venture capital stuff. So that’s kind of maybe not fair.
Meb: That’s fair. All right, Man. Best place people go if they want to watch your dress-up videos. They want to watch your funds, what you’re writing about, your NFT drop. What’s the best spot?
Jan: I’m on social media. So, @JanvanEck3. I don’t tweet that often.
Meb: Who took the first two? Are they burner accounts from your family?
Jan: I’m looking for them. I’m on LinkedIn, if you need to get a hold of me. We did distil five history classes that are on our website. So those are free to watch. I didn’t give them. Professors did, but I think they’re really awesome. They are not professionally produced like your stuff, but still, they’re fun to listen to.
Meb: I think they’re really well done. I love this stuff on there. We’ll link to in the show notes link.
Jan: And I do macro-outlooks once in a while, like I did one on YouTube at the Capital Link. I gave a keynote last October, which I got most things pretty right, so I’m happy that I mention that.
Meb: Yeah, I listened to it this morning. It’s great.
Jan: Well, Market Call, I want to put this in there, did say that Bitcoin could fall 90% at the end of 2017. My call now is I do think the downside correction is 50%. I think there are more institutional buyers. So we’ll see. That would be the mid-30s from all-time highs. So far that’s held but…
Meb: What is all-time high? Was it 60s?
Jan: Yeah. Just a little above. Yeah. It depends on what data you look at.
Meb: Good. We’ll have you back on. And if you get out a spot ETF, I’ll buy you a sushi. That’s the long-standing bet. So we’ll make it a deal when you guys host your business conference, Happy Hour, we’ll go to a sushi restaurant.
Jan, it’s a blast. I look forward to seeing in the real world. Thanks for joining us today.
Jan: Honour being on. I’ve loved your stuff for years, Meb, you know.
Meb: Podcast listeners, we’ll post show notes to today’s conversation at mebfaber.com/podcast. If you love the show, if you hate it, shoot us feedback at themebfabershow.com We love to read the reviews. Please review us on iTunes and subscribe to the show anywhere good podcasts are found. Thanks for listening, friends, and good investing.