The “greatest money making machine in history”, a man with “Jim Roger’s analytical ability, George Soros’ trading ability, and the stomach of a riverboat gambler” is how fund manager Scott Bessent describes Stanley Druckenmiller. That’s high praise, but if you look at Druckenmiller’s track record, you’ll find it’s well deserved.
Druck averaged over 30% returns the last three decades — impressive. But what’s even more astonishing is the lack of volatility… the guy almost never loses.
He never had a single down year and only had five losing quarters out of 120 altogether! That’s absolutely unheard of. And he did all of this in size. At his peak, Druck was running more than $20 billion and he was still managing to knock it out the park.
When you study Druckenmiller you get the sense that he was built in a laboratory, deep in a jungle somewhere, where he was put together piece by piece to create the perfect trader. Every character trait that makes up a good speculator, Druck possesses in spades… things like:
§ Mental flexibility
§ Independent thinking
§ Extreme competitiveness
§ Tireless inquisitiveness
§ Deep self-awareness
Maybe he’s a freak of nature or perhaps a secret Jesse Livermore / George Soros lovechild… or maybe he’s just a relentlessly determined trader who’s been on a lifelong path of mastery. Either way, it behooves us to study the thoughts and actions of one of the game’s greatest. And with that, let’s begin.
On what moves stocks
In Jack Schwager’s book The New Market Wizards, Stanley Druckenmiller said this in response to the question of how he evaluates stocks (emphasis is mine):
When I first started out, I did very thorough papers covering every aspect of a stock or industry. Before I could make the presentation to the stock selection committee, I first had to submit the paper to the research director. I particularly remember the time I gave him my paper on the banking industry. I felt very proud of my work. However, he read through it and said, “This is useless. What makes the stock go up and down?” That comment acted as a spur. Thereafter, I focused my analysis on seeking to identify the factors that were strongly correlated to a stock’s price movement as opposed to looking at all the fundamentals. Frankly, even today, many analysts still don’t know what makes their particular stocks go up and down.
The financial world is chock full of noise and nonsense. It’s filled with smart people who don’t know a damn thing about how the world really works. The financial system’s incentive structure is set up so that as long as analysts sound smart and pretend like they know why stock xyz is going up, they get rewarded. This holds true for all the talking heads and “experts” except for those who actually trade real money. They either learn the game or get competed out.
Being one of those who compete in the arena, Stanley Druckenmiller was forced to learn early on what actually drives prices. This is what he found:
Earnings don’t move the overall market; it’s the Federal Reserve Board… focus on the central banks and focus on the movement of liquidity… most people in the market are looking for earnings and conventional measures. It’s liquidity that moves markets.
Liquidity is the expansion and contraction of money, specifically credit. It’s the biggest variable that drives demand in an economy. It’s something our team at Macro Ops follows closely.
The federal reserve has the biggest lever on liquidity. This is why a trader needs to keep a constant eye on what the Fed is doing.
This is not to say that things like sales and earning don’t matter. They are still very important at the singular stock level. Here’s Druckenmiller again (emphasis mine):
Very often the key factor is related to earnings. This is particularly true of the bank stocks. Chemical stocks, however, behave quite differently. In this industry, the key factor seems to be capacity. The ideal time to buy the chemical stocks is after a lot of capacity has left the industry and there’s a catalyst that you believe will trigger an increase in demand. Conversely, the ideal time to sell these stocks is when there are lots of announcements for new plants, not when the earnings turn down. The reason for this behavioral pattern is that expansion plans mean that earnings will go down in two to three years, and the stock market tends to anticipate such developments.
The market is a future discounting machine; meaning earnings matter for a stock, but more so in the future than in the past.
Most market participants take recent earnings and just extrapolate them into the future. They fail to really look at the mechanism that drives the bottom line for a particular company or sector. The key to being a good trader is to identify the factor(s) that will drive earnings going forward, not what drove them in the past.
Stanley Druckenmiller said in a recent interview that his “job for 30 years was to anticipate changes in the economic trends that were not expected by others, and, therefore not yet reflected in security prices.” Focus on the future, not the past.
Another thing that sets Druck apart is his willingness to use anything that works; as in any style or tool to find good trades and manage them.
Another discipline I learned that helped me determine whether a stock would go up or down is technical analysis. Drelles was very technically oriented, and I was probably more receptive to technical analysis than anyone else in the department. Even though Drelles was the boss, a lot of people thought he was a kook because of all the chart books he kept. However, I found that technical analysis could be very effective.
I never use valuation to time the market. I use liquidity considerations and technical analysis for timing. Valuation only tells me how far the market can go once a catalyst enters the picture to change the market direction.
Druckenmiller employs a confluence of approaches (fundamental, macro, technical and sentiment) to broaden his view of the battlefield. This is a practice we follow at Macro Ops. It doesn’t make sense to pigeonhole yourself into a single rigid scope of analysis… simply use what works and discard what doesn’t.
How to make outsized returns
Avoiding loss should be the primary goal of every investor. This does not mean that investors should never incur the risk of any loss at all. Rather “don’t lose money” means that over several years an investment portfolio should not be exposed to appreciable loss of capital. While no one wishes to incur losses, you couldn’t prove it from an examination of the behavior of most investors and speculators. The speculative urge that lies within most of us is strong; the prospect of free lunch can be compelling, especially when others have already seemingly partaken. It can be hard to concentrate on losses when others are greedily reaching for gains and your broker is on the phone offering shares in the latest “hot” initial public offering. Yet the avoidance of loss is the surest way to ensure a profitable outcome.
Once you’ve earned the right to be aggressive and can bet with the house’s money (profits), you should plunge hard when that high conviction trade arises and push for outsized returns.
The trader’s mindset and handling losses
The day before the crash in 1987, Stanley Druckenmiller switched from net short to 130% long because he thought the selloff was done. He saw the market bumping up against significant support. But through the course of the day he realized that he made a terrible mistake. The next day he flipped his book and got short the market and actually made money. You see this type of mental flexibility in all the greatest traders. And Druckenmiller is one trader that epitomizes it perhaps better than anybody else.
One of the best parts about this game is that as long as you stay alive (protect your capital) you can always make another trade. Stanley Druckenmiller said the “wonderful thing about our business is that it’s liquid, and you can wipe the slate clean on any day. As long as I’m in control of the situation — that is, as long as I can cover my positions — there’s no reason to be nervous.”