Episode #371: Frank Holmes, U.S. Global Investors, HIVE Blockchain – JETS, Bitcoin vs. Gold, & How To Play Supply Chain Issues
Guest: Frank Holmes is the CEO and chief investment officer of U.S. Global Investors (NASDAQ: GROW). Mr. Holmes purchased a controlling interest in U.S. Global Investors in 1989 and became the firm’s chief investment officer in 1999. In 2017, U.S. Global Investors made a strategic investment in HIVE Blockchain Technologies, listed in Toronto, and Mr. Holmes was appointed non-executive Chairman of the Board. In 2021 he now serves as Interim CEO and Executive Chairman of HIVE (TSX.V: HIVE) – the first and only publicly-traded company that mines both Bitcoin and Ethereum on an industrial scale.
Date Recorded: 11/3/2021 | Run-Time: 1:02:44
Summary: In today’s episode, we’re talking ETFs and crypto! Our guest starts by sharing what piqued his interest in crypto and why he chose to go down the mining path instead of pursuing a Bitcoin ETF. He offers some macro perspective on crypto and how it differs from gold. Then we turn to the ETF space and hear about his hit ETF, JETS, which focuses on the airline industry and caught fire in 2020 after the March decline as retail interest skyrocketed.
Be sure to stick around until the end when our guest shares the thesis behind his newest ETF around the marine shipping and air freight industries.
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Links from the Episode:
- 0:40 – Sponsor: The Idea Farm
- 1:09 – Intro
- 2:04 – Welcome to our guest, Frank Holmes
- 2:56 – How can a gold investor also support Bitcoin?
- 4:49 – What first interested Frank in gold and cryptocurrency
- 7:36 – How to think about the crypto industry in the years ahead
- 11:07 – Driving forces behind the expansion and adoption of cryptocurrencies
- 13:23 – Issues that need to be resolved and walls that stand in the way of crypto
- 18:14 – Are there any safe assets left?
- 22:04 – What led Frank to launch the JETS ETF
- 27:57 – Philosophy, construction, and the weight methodology of JETS
- 32:31 – Why short lending is such an important feature of many ETFs
- 38:03 – Thoughts and philosophy of Frank’s active gold fund
- 43:36 – Why gold isn’t doing better today and what will cause the next jump
- 48:11 – Stepping into a new frontier with a shipping ETF (ticker SEA)
- 52:05 – What’s so interesting about Dubai and what Frank’s up to on that side of the world
- 54:48 – Frank’s plan for the near future
- 56:39 – Frank’s most memorable investment
- 59:19 – Learn more about Frank; usfunds.com/funds, firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcript of Episode 371:
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Meb: What’s up, everybody? Great show. Our guest is the CEO of not one but two companies, U.S. Global Investors, an investment manager with both ETFs and mutual funds and HIVE Blockchain, the first cryptocurrency mining company to go public. Today’s episode, we’re talking gold miners and crypto. Usually, that Venn diagram doesn’t overlap a lot. But our guest offers some macro perspectives on crypto and how it differs from gold. He then explains why he chose to go down the gold mining path instead of pursuing a Bitcoin ETF. Then we turn to the broad ETF space, hear about their hit ETF Jets, which focus on the airline industry and how it caught fire in 2020 after the March decline as retail interest skyrocketed. Be sure to stick around till the end when our guest shares the thesis behind his newest ETF around the marine shipping and air freight industries. Please enjoy this episode with Frank Holmes. Frank, welcome to the show.
Frank: Great to be with you.
Meb: You’re a little bit ahead of the trend. Everyone and their mothers seems to be all the investment and world seems to be moving to Texas and South Florida now. You are a Canadian that long since flown the coop to San Antonio, how come? Why are you a Canadian in Texas now?
Frank: I’m a TexCan. Y’all come back, ay? And I’m a dual citizen and I love it here. I always have. So San Antonio is a special city. It’s a military city. It has two major loops around it. It has a crisscross highway system. In the event there was ever an invasion, the Air Force bases around the city all of a sudden take over the highway system. It’s an incredible infrastructure city. So I live 10 minutes to my office, 10 minutes to downtown and 10 minutes to the airport. I can’t do that in any other major city in America.
Meb: I like it there. Well, you’re going to be a lot of fun to chat with today. Because there are elements of you that I feel like being a Canadian, we’re going to have to talk about gold. All my Canadian friends, it’s like, I think you exit the womb with a taste for the shiny metal. But you’re a bit of a rarity too because I feel like you have some interest in the blockchain world. And the Venn diagram, I feel like those two usually kind of dislike each other. Is that an oversimplification? Like, how does a gold investor also be a cryptocurrency fan? Give us the pitch on why that’s the case.
Frank: What I’ve noticed is that the hardcore gold bugs and hardcore crypto Hornets, Bitcoin Hornets are called on the Twitter world, they read from the same Old Testament. They read from the same book of history, governments destroying the government with money printing. They go back to this one chapter after another every conference you go to. Now when it comes to Ethereum mining, it’s much more of the geeks that are basically behind Ethereum. There is that difference. Now when we talk about gold and Bitcoin, I look at, like, lawyers. So we have two lawyers that went to the same law school. One comes out, and that’s a defense lawyer. The other one is a strike lawyer, a litigator. The Bitcoin enthusiasts are really like litigators. They’re going to get rich fast. They’re going to make a big score and they’re going to tell you about it. As soon as they made that score, they’re going to put it, like lawyers do, on their billboard ads all over San Antonio, four, four, four, score, score, score, like that aggressiveness. The gold investor reads it from asset protection. It’s more about recalibrating, rebalancing and having a 10% to 15% weighting is just wise and prudent. But they both read from the same book.
Meb: And so, tell me a little bit about your journey in this part of the world. And we’re going to talk about all sorts of different things in the investing world. But tell me a little bit about this sort of gold interest that has eventually led to also this crypto interest and kind of walk me through the timeline.
Frank: Like you have a nice hat on. I got many hats here and I wear them. I noticed from my global resource funds that I was travelling all over the world, and then all of a sudden a third of my auctions to fly had dropped. Again, we just shrunk and the price of my tickets had doubled. And I’ve got Tom Lydon telling me, “You’ve got to get an ETF. You’ve got to get in the business.” So I said, “What about a quant approach to pick at airlines?” And we launched the Jets ETF. And after that, I wanted to go and launch a Bitcoin ETF. And I realized quickly in $1,000 in our legal bill, it was not going anywhere because of the SEC’s rightfully concern of anti-money laundering laws and KYC. So I went to Canada and met with the OSC, they call their Launchpad, and the same thing, same narrative. So I had this knowledge and friends call me about launching a crypto mining company and I said, aha, when you mine, you mine the virgin coin. That means for Bitcoin, for listeners, every 10 minutes, it’s like a jump ball, you got to touch that ball. And if you’re fortunate enough to touch that ball because you have strong, fast computers then you get a piece of that. And every 10 minutes, today, 6.25 coins that are there that you try to get a piece off. And those coins pay you a new coin, a brand new coin. And that’s the virgin coin. So you never have to worry about AML concerns. It’s never been in cyberspace. It’s never been to Russia or North Korea. This is a clean coin. And so I said you know what? Getting in the mining business, and hodling, owning those coins and put them on your balance sheet, this would be like an ETF. And that was sort of the original concept. So it launched it in September of 2015. Rather than put money into marketing and launching an ETF, I launched HIVE Blockchain Technology and it became a darling. It was the first and ushered in other companies like Hut 8 came in and then other people went to Canada to raise capital.
That was the beginning of it. And it was the fastest money I ever made and lost. On paper, my 5 million was worth 100 million and then it’s down to 2 million the following year because of the crypto winter, but the business really I found was fascinating, the concept. And we focused really very early on an ESG strategy, evergreen only. So we’re mining in Iceland, geothermal, Sweden, hydroelectricity. And during COVID, we got two great opportunities we purchased in Quebec, which is hydroelectricity and New Brunswick.
Meb: But stay on the crypto topic while we’re here for a minute because this is sort of a fascinating time. It’s early November. And we’ve seen a lot of you mentioned the winter. That reminds me a lot of when I graduated college, I moved to San Francisco directly after the Internet bubble popped. That was my experience, starting when everything felt very bleak and ash was everywhere. But you mentioned the crypto winter. Well, that’s not where we are today. It feels like most of the coins or Bitcoin and Ethereum are hitting all-time highs. What’s the sort of state of affairs? You mentioned expanding and HIVE has also been on a tear. What does the next year, two years, three years look like for someone who is an early entrant into this field? What’s the state of the industry?
Frank: I’m going to go back and before I jump into that answer that question to give context for you, with my journey of trying to launch this ETF. I went to consensus big conference in 2017 in New York City, and here is the CEO of Fidelity speaking. She never speaks at investment conferences. But she’s speaking at a crypto conference because she’s a big believer and blockchain is the future for a solution for no failed deliveries or the whole crisis that happened in 2008. And Abigail Johnson speaking to this event was what they say she’s worth 3.5 billion. This is pretty serious that she doesn’t speak anywhere else. And so something big is happening. And I started attending some of these other conferences. Wherever you went in the world, these conferences since 2017, ’18, ’19, ’20 didn’t matter. Really, they were in Zoom or they were in person. They were sold out. And I was just shocked by that, where people are spending thousands of dollars to attend, and I could be in New Zealand, Singapore. I could be in Bogota. I could be in Miami, New York, London, England, Switzerland, Germany, they’re packed. So that told me something big is happening around the world with all this sort of crypto phenomena. And I think that it went through that dry spell but it didn’t stop all these conferences and meet rooms and meetings.
And so you’ve seen now as money printing has picked up after COVID, all of a sudden this space has been highly educated on what happens with excessive money printing and the concern over modern monetary theory being approached by the G7 countries as a cartel, that you see this huge growth. And I think that for us, what we’ve been doing is buy more equipment. Now we get into the shortages, the shipping shortages, the logistics shortages that are taking place today. I think that for HIVE Blockchain, so far, touch wood, we’ve had the least amount of shareholder dilution in financings. We have the highest returns on invested capital and we’re the only company mining both Bitcoin and Ethereum, and putting both of those assets on our balance sheet. And our future is to expand our footprint in Sweden, from mining Ethereum. And the same time we’re expanding rapidly, our Bitcoin footprint. And today, our revenue is $800,000 a day, which is huge for us as we’re the most profitable company, I believe, I’m told on the Vancouver Stock Exchange, both revenue and profit-wise, so we expect our footprint, our production to triple over the next two years.
Meb: And what’s driving that? You mentioned it’s very much a global phenomenon. And tied to this is this ESG element where you’re talking about in reference. Tell us a little more about what’s going to kind of drive this expansion the next few years. Is it all Bitcoin Ethereum story? Is it all trying to find low-cost energy? What are the real drivers for you guys?
Frank: Well, the big driver is for us is to get green energy, that’s really key, and that’s been our focus, not coal, or anything that’s touched with coal. And so we have to go to northern areas. That’s why we’re in Sweden, and we’re in Iceland, and we’re in Canada at this stage. We’ve turned down to go to Russia. Rule of law is always difficult. A lot of other countries, you have to be really careful of rule of law. And what’s interesting is the new technology that the call cooling where they can cool like a radiator cools a hot engine. They’re cooling these chips. It’s in Texas. And Texas has been the biggest recipient, a big boom in economic activity in Texas, because we have all this stranded excess electricity. And what people don’t realize that globally, 1/3 of all electricity created evaporates. It’s inefficient. It’s not used properly. So we have lots of excess wind energy. And now they’re going to do solar energy. We have lots of electricity coming from gas, where surplus gas is being flared and set off. So now it’s going to go into mining Bitcoins, so, therefore, they have 24/7 use of this. What we’re doing in Sweden is the build-out. We’re going to recycle the energy to create a greenhouse. And therefore, you don’t have to ship your fruit and vegetables from Spain and Italy up to Northern Sweden. We just do right in our greenhouse with that excess heat. I’m really thrilled about how you create a complete ecosystem. You’re validating a transaction, you need inexpensive electricity, want green energy you have… Like in Sweden, for classic, we have like 13,000 hairdryers, assuming 1,400 Watts, very noisy, blowing off lots of hot air. Now we can take that hot air and recycle it. And now we’re only 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle and we create a greenhouse. So for us, this is a very exciting sort of future where energy does not evaporate and get wasted. It keeps recycling.
Meb: I think it’s hard at this point to not see the bull case for this space. I don’t think that’s always necessarily been true or as clear as it is today. As we flip the script, like any good investment manager or analyst, what’s the bear case here? I don’t want to say keeps you up at night. But what are the issues that need to be resolved or what’s the walls in the path of this becoming the vision that you kind of foresee in the future?
Frank: Well, I think there’s two things that happens that are very fortunate, the SEC, during the crypto winter, Clayton was in charge, and he did a great job cleaning up Dodge because there was all these kids that were floating these tokens and they were really selling securities. And there was lots of hype with them. He cleaned all that up. So that was very positive because I was really shocked when I first got in the business. The ethics of a lot of these young kids is very different than what I’ve had to grow up in the securities world. And now, the head of the SEC, well, he’s taught blockchain and crypto at MIT. So he understands how to embrace it. I’m really confident we’re going to get some smart regulations in how to use this but let’s talk differently in something else. It’s really important here. Demographics, In my research and what I found was that all these kids, these millennials and Generation X’s and Y’s, they have been playing on video gaming. And if you’re a good gamer, you’ve been rewarded with digital money and that software. And if you’re really good, you going to be invited to go and compete across the nation around the world. So the next 20 years is going to transfer from baby boomers $10 trillion over two millennials and other Generation X and Y’s, and they’re all used to digital money. So they embrace this very differently than my age. My baby boomer, I’m a little older than you, and when I try to talk about Bitcoin, I get sort of glazed look from my peers and ask me, what am I smoking? And I think it’s really interesting that we’re now talking about NCAA having gaming, these evolutions taking place. One of our analysts was in China a couple of years ago and he had forgotten his razor blade. So he went out. He could not find it with a credit card or cash. It was only with his basically WeChat digital money on his phone that he could get razor blade. So the Chinese are much more evolved on that path of digital money.
All governments actually want digital money because they can track even tipping. They track everything. So I do think we’re going to see that swing going there. And I think that blockchain, which was created by the telecom industry, and like in 1991 to move money. It’s what they call triple entry accounting and it’s another level of accounting. There’s been no significant contribution to accounting since the Medicis, with double-entry accounting. So blockchain is triple entry accounting, encrypted. It means the whole world can see it. And they can see when you and I did a trade and they can see how much we traded. They just don’t know it’s you and I. That’s what a regulator wants to know. But I think they’re going to find a way around this and I think they’re going to push for digital money. And I think that that’s why crypto prices are going higher.
And the adoption, what happened last year was not only the supply side of Bitcoin halved, that is every 10 minutes, We went from 12.5 Bitcoin reward 1,800 a day down to 900 a day or 6.25 points. And that’s supply shrinkage. And then PayPal came out and allows you to buy fractals, and you never had to open a brokerage account, like, you know, the buyer ETFs, you have to go to a broker. On PayPal, these kids to turn around and take their $1,200 check from President Trump and putting it in through PayPal and buying Bitcoin, a fraction, and it went up 10-fold for them. And then they sell some of that to go to Best Buy to buy a TV or Amazon, have it delivered. That world is so different and the numbers are so much bigger when you go to fractals and the adoption process. And the other one was Robinhood. And we saw this happen with Jets ETF, where a lot of these millennials are much more sophisticated, than when I first got in the business, you had Money Magazine, Kiplinger, you had to wait once a month to get your magazine. You didn’t have the Internet. They’re much more sophisticated going and looking at Google and researching.
And that’s why many of them piled in and we saw the volume exploding the Jets ETF, and that attracted that institutional money coming in because you have to have volume to get bigger numbers and they start to grow one another. We saw that with HIVE. We saw where we went up. I think since 2020 $1,000 is worth $41,000. And it was the beginning, it was a lot of millennials that were not only buying crypto, they were also buying HIVE as a proxy for that and they were buying your ETF and the Jets ETF.
Meb: Man, there are so many different directions we could go at this point. Before we leave sort of the crypto space, there’s something you mentioned that I think is actually a fascinating topic that is starting to get some discussion. In the past couple of years, we wrote an article about it and then it became pretty popularized with a different conclusion, but you referenced it, which is this concept of safe money and what you put on your balance sheet. A long-term gold investor has this mindset that’s a little different than someone who puts 100% of their money in T-Bills or short-term government debt all around the world. Looking back in history, you can make many arguments and we have that that’s actually not the safest Treasury asset when you include the eroding effects of inflation. Talk to us a little bit how you think about balance sheet. You mentioned at HIVE, which is obviously a little closer to the fold where that’s the business that it’s in. But how do you think about that sort of treasury concept, safe assets, what to hold there, and position sizing in what amounts?
Frank: Well, what has happened, and you’ll know this from being in the fund business, is the push by the SEC for everything to be marked to market and then taking securities that do not have enough liquidity, whatever the model is and put them in a basket and then have a second review. But this whole push up everything going mark to market, it was part of the crisis that happened in 2008. The day basically, the law came into making things mark to market was in January of 2008. And what do we see? Bear Stearns all of a sudden went bankrupt. We saw this sort of concept of how do you price these, etc. And then Shapiro comes in and she sort of puts it that on hold. In addition that President Obama comes and puts a lot of money and ignites the bottom in 2009 and the economy, Mark to market really all of a sudden was put in a backburner.
But in the past couple of years, it’s become once again, a really important part of the accounting world, and GAAP, and the SEC wanting as any liquid asset to be gold mark to market. So what does that mean? Well, I have earnings, and what portion of my earnings are from operating a business? And then now, investments can play a very volatile but a huge opportunity for growth in my earnings. So now you have a bifurcation of investment earnings and operating earnings to give you consolidated net earnings. And you’re seeing companies like Michael Sailor who’s brilliantly taken his company and gone into buying Bitcoin, which shows up on the balance sheet, and he believes is going to go to a million dollars. And that’s his hedge model. And so with that, he will get mark to market. He says his revenue is 500 million a year.
He makes $75,000. But he can make now in a quarter $7 billion, literally. It’s remarkable what he can make on that swing in torqueing his investment income. So I think it’s a combination of regulatory, pushing everything mark to market. I think that Palantir, they bought gold almost right at the bottom. That shows up like Treasury Bills on your balance sheet. So you’re able to make a capital gains opportunity and still stay as a public company. So I think that that’s probably going to grow, that some of these companies will try all of a sudden try to buy certain assets. So, cash is not going to give you a high return, but only Bitcoin is going to give you a big potential for a huge return and owning gold.
Meb: That’s a fascinating topic. And I think once people go down the rabbit hole of what to do with your safe assets, and how to think about investing, and everything else wrapped in there, it’s hard to go back thinking in different terms. So, as we sort of leave this sort of crypto universe, you’ve hit the ball out of the park there. But damn if you haven’t done the same in the ETF world. You mentioned trying to do a crypto ETF, which is funny because we’ve been long time observers and had the same thesis you did. We have some tickers reserved in the space but said, “Man, I really don’t want to light a ton of money on fire.” As much as I love our lawyers, you guys, Morgan Lewis, you’re the best, we have an old tweet from 2013, I said, “Anybody want to take a bet that a Bitcoin ETF will make it to market? I’ll do a dinner bet. I prefer sushi.” And so that bet was eight years going in the U.S. And maybe you could consider the future as one now as that counts. I don’t know. I think spot is the determinant. But I’m in the same mind space you are there. Now, there are 1,000 horses in the race. But you did something I think really thoughtful, which is what we tried to do too, which is try to think where no one else is, where you don’t have 50 competitors. But really, there’s an unmet product-market fit. So, let’s talk about Jets first. What was the thesis there? That’s been a massive success, multiple billion now, how’d you come on the decision to launch that dude?
Frank: Well, as I mentioned earlier that my ticket prices were going up, my options to fly were shrinking. And I said someone’s got to be making money on this. And I’ve got Tom Lydon whispering in my ear, “ETF, ETF.” So, my son went out. It was funny because he said, “Nice ticker is JETS, no one has it.” And it makes a story easy. And what we did it was to create a quant approach to the structure. And now they call it smart beta 2.0. So it’s not just factors for picking stocks is the portfolio construction was really important. And for us to beat our bogey and our bogey was a New York Stock Exchange global airline index. So we basically like a basketball team posts up against another one or a football team. And we did I think about 8,000 hours we calculated of regressional work of looking at what were the factors. And what was interesting in that research, that time period is that all the airlines had gone through bankruptcies, except for Southwest Airlines. And they were all still flying. And all of a sudden, there was a huge turning point in ancillary fees. And they were starting to make as much money from the cost from ancillary fees that they’re going to start making from the cost of oil. Historically, the airline’s always were inversely related to the oil trend. Oil is going up, airlines down, vice versa. So they all started hedging except for American, I think, two other airlines. Allegiant doesn’t hedge. And so you had this sort of interesting industry, that if you believe in global trade, which we do, because we have an Eastern European fund, we have a China region fund, and we have global resources and Oracle, so I said, this is something that has legs to it. And we went out with a theory that we had to have an ecosystem that related to hedge funds. So what we found, who seated us was Deutsche Bank.
And they had many guys that wanted hedge funds, that wanted to short various airlines but they had to have a Paris trade. And so just became the offset, to risk their investment. And at the same time, there was a lot of GARP investors, like Bill Miller, all of a sudden started to like the airlines as a cheap proxy, much cheaper than trains or trucks. And the airlines all of a sudden had pricing power, that all come through bankruptcy. They now had other forms of revenue coming on. And that was sort of the genesis of it. And it quickly went to $40 million. And then Buffett said that he was buying airlines after so many years of being negative on it. And that was a headwind at the beginning. Now he’s a buyer, it went to 100 million. Then COVID comes along and it falls to 40 million. And it’s interesting because a lot of these kids, these millennials, though, they’re started buying. The volume went from 40,000 to 800,000 a day, over two months. And back then, as you know, you could get data from Robinhood, how many were buying jets?
And you can see was like this, the number. Every day more and more buying and reaching out to try to find out where are they getting their research, it was from podcasts like yours. It was from YouTube. And I said YouTube. I said, “Oh, yeah, don’t you know Sam Chui?” I said, “Sam Chui, who?” Sam Chui has 2.5 million followers. And all these kids are following him and know what the best seat but the best trip, they can wait as they can travel again, the trip they’re going to go on. They knew everything about the airlines but it was remarkable. And they didn’t care what Wall Street said, all the negative news at the bottom of the market. They said, research we live in validated after the tech bubble, after 9/11, after SARS in 2003, after 2008, the airlines, because it’s global, fell 80%. And a year later, it’s up 80 to 120%. And that’s why they were buying on a macroeconomic research reboot. And they were correct. It went from $12 to $28, fell back to $22. And now I believe it’s on a second leg to rise. During this period, the TSA started reporting every day how many people they cleared, it was very important for the quant funds.
And so what you saw was that on average in America, the TSA cleared 2.7 million people a day, 2 million Americans travelling across the States, and 700,000 inbound from Latin America, Europe and Asia. That’s delta in less than 90,000 on April the 15th, 2020. And all of a sudden, it starts breaking above as you know, the 50-day moving average. And the TSA never went above the 50-day moving average. And the volume and dollar started coming in more into Jets, and then more hedge funds were coming in. And that to me, it was interesting to see how that starts to really take off. And today, the largest shareholder is global insurance companies.
Meb: Interesting. That’s really interesting that last part. You have somewhat of a unique weighting methodology. You want to tell us how you guys kind of put this fund together?
Frank: Well, 80%… What we noticed was that currency volatility can wreck havoc when you have a global product. And so with that, we said, okay, well, let’s find out what the best mix is and the four biggest airlines, United and Delta, American and Southwest, carry about 67% of all the traffic flow in America. Then you have the Jet Blues, and you have other Spirit Airlines, Allegiant and Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska. But the bulk of American travel is really around those four airlines. And what the math suggests it was just to do mean reversion with bills. And so we have 10% weighted in each of those four names, and they just rebalance each quarter, you don’t know who’s going to win the race that quarter. You just never know. Who would have thought this past quarter that Southwest Airlines, which always had the best financial record, would all of a sudden stumble here with union issues, etc? Now, American Airlines, you just honestly don’t know. But you do know that they represent the bulk of all travel.
And then as we stepped away from there, we found that there had to be smart beta factors, like revenue momentum, growth and last quarter report quarters on a relative basis. Who is the cheapest on an enterprise EBITDA value, enterprise valuation. And so, we tested something like 80 factors, each night, one factor going back 10 years using FactSet. And as you know, it takes eight hours to go through one factor every day, going global. And then you have to go make sure the data is scrubbed. If you did this with Bloomberg is interesting. You get different outcomes. And that’s what we found was like what source of data and how well do you scrub the data? So what we noticed was that we wanted to have Boeing versus Airbus who would have the best metrics in there, but they’re on stock picking factors. And what we found as the fund grew, then the beginning of was basically 70% were American companies.
But interesting enough, the 20 names are 1%. So you had most of the names were actually global. They weren’t domestic. And we start putting airports in there because airports, like Beijing is public. Bangkok is public. Cancun is public, Paris, de Gaulle, Turkey, Istanbul is public, and a lot of those airports run like private equity. They’re very stable looking investments. And so they could fill up the 1%. And that 1% being rebalanced by who’s the best, each quarter basically mitigated currency volatility, versus when you have a very strong dollar or a weak versus the euro, that’s what outperformed the New York index, which is only in U.S. dollars.
Meb: It’s interesting.
Frank: Is that too much?
Meb: I mean, no, no, man, look, I could spend a couple of hours on this. I mean, the depths of how some of these ideas and themes are constructed, I think is fascinating.
Frank: And the only part is I don’t think a lot of people realize that when you do, you’re doing a smart beta concept, it really is active. It’s passive, but it’s really active. You actively have to make sure you’re getting the right stocks every quarter, you have to know why what stocks go in and go out. We have a third party that runs the model also to make sure that we’re scrubbing the stuff, the data, the information. And it really is very disciplined, for me very structured discipline, active money management. You define the boundaries of where there’s a lot of play in the football field, that’s well defined, and what job duties are for each player, that’s well-defined. And you have plays once a quarter and you recalibrate. Are you going to run with the ball, throw the ball? You’re going to throw the ball and run with the ball? And so, there is still a lot of active work. And then the other part’s been, are you tax-efficient? So we’ve had some big rolls here, we’re trying to make sure we’re not going to get the mutual funds get this extra taxation, because you haven’t realized the capital gains. ETFs are so sweet, because you can really, if you have big capital, recently, Goldman Sachs gave us $400 million to do a rollover on the quarterly rebalancing to make sure we’re tax-efficient. Credit Suisse has been there for hundreds of millions of dollars. So it’s a lot of active work when you go to smart beta products like this.
Meb: You mentioned that’s a big highlight. You and I were chatting before we got started and you touched on a pretty significant topic that I don’t think is well appreciated. We try to scream it from the mountaintop all the time. But I feel like 90% of even our institutional audience often glazes over this concept, which is you have the two big flashing lights of what the benefit of the ETF structure is, for most, it’s lower fees than traditional funds and then a tax deficiency. I think people get both of those. There’s a third area that particularly with funds like Jets, can be not only as significant but even more impactful than the benefits of say the fee or tax structure benefits. And that short lending. It’s a little esoteric, but do you want to talk to us a little bit about how that works and why that’s such an important feature of a fund like yours and a lot of ours too,
Frank: But one of the big parts is to realize that Vanguard’s overall corporate structure is very different. The funds own the advisor and the transparency, so unique model. And what they have done, well, how they can get their fees down so low was a big question. I kept asking, “How can you do this?” Like they must have other ways for smaller account fee or something and how they’re able to do it. And it goes to as not as a fund revenue. So they’ve had some unique legislation passed. I guess they also had a patent of how they’re able to swap securities between their ETFs and their mutual funds, that there’s no tax liability for them according to their IP. And I believe USAA was trying to license that from them. And so, they have this unique structure everyone has to be aware of, and that allows them to do other things. And one of the things they were doing was securities lending, which I wasn’t really aware of. And the fees on securities lending can be more than 60 basis points a year. It’s huge. So they can turn around and take the S&P index, etc., and say, “Yeah, we’re going to do this at 10 basis points,” but how can they do that? Your accounting, your legal, that’s 10 basis points of your transactions is very quickly unless you get to a mega, mega-size, and how do they do it? So, they make a lot of money from securities lending. And that comes back to the fund. And that pays for because the fund owns the advisor. So they have a unique structure with that. What we’re able to do is against securities lending, and U.S. Bancorp gets those fees. And the bulk of those fees, they can take a portion of those fees and use for their own compliance costs, etc. But the bulk of them come back to Jets ETF and they come up as additional income. I think if you had the other structure, like the Vanguard structure, then it can wipe out all your expenses.
So you can have cheaper expenses and they can cover all your audit bills, your legal bills, etc. So one has to really look through that and recognizes that they have a unique structure, like ETFs are different than mutual funds. That is the Vanguard has its own unique structure and patents, but B, they make a lot of money, and so does BlackRock on securities lending. And they use that to come back and offset. And that’s how they can turn around and say, “Yeah, we can do this for 20 basis points.” Well, because those fees are coming in offsetting a lot of other expenses that you and I would have to bear.
Meb: It’s an area that I think particularly in the thematics, I mean, a lot of funds, it may be only 10 basis points, 20 basis points, which is still impactful. But some of these thematics can often be not 10 or 20 but hundreds, where it’s very meaningful. My favorite example, I think, was back in the day, I think the solar ETF had something like a seven percentage point yield from securities lending. So 700 basis points that they returned to shareholders. And so, listeners, most of the ETF firms that do it, return those to the shareholders, as opposed to keeping it like a lot of the brokerages do, which is a whole other topic on being able to lend out your securities in your brokerage account and get paid for it. Big opportunity there for somebody I think but a whole different podcast idea.
Frank: What makes it hard is that how do you compete with Vanguard if they have a special structure? And you have independent trustees and they said, “Why can’t you be cheap like them?” Well, because their overall structure lends it just the same as the ETF structure has higher tax benefits that mutual funds don’t have. So I think it’s an ongoing challenge for a lot of investment advisors with independent boards. There’s only so much further you can drop your expenses. If you’re going to have analysts like we have doing all this regression analysis and each quarter reviewing it, it’s expensive. It’s not like a flat index, it’s a black box, it runs itself. Your total yield is a lot of work.
Meb: Well, the beauty of it, I think, and I think Cliff has talked about this, he’s talking about like the fee differences. He’s like, look, when you go from two percentage points to one like amazing, like, that’s a huge massive difference, or even one down to 75 or even the 50 area, also amazing but not as impactful. And then you just start to get to, like, tiny, turning the dial where portfolio construction, actual methodology matters more than the actual expense ratio because expense ratio gets to be sort of not a rounding error. It’s still important, but versus the two or even the two and 20 crowd is less of, I think a driving force. There’s a few other things we got to chat about while we got you, my man, one of which you guys got some other funds in the transport space, gold. Pick one, let’s talk about it.
Frank: Let’s talk about gold, gold. So one of the things I noticed having active gold funds and seeing the GDXJ grow and dominate the fund flow… So all of a sudden, active mutual funds can outperform, it didn’t matter. They want that ETF format. And I noticed that a lot of the companies that they would have our funds would outperform the GDXJ but we’re not getting fund flows. So we said okay, well, let’s go back and work on like we did Jets. And we spent about $10,000 here on this detailed regressional work and take in our expertise on those factors and applying them. And what we found is like the four big airlines for Jets is that the three big royalty companies, they have a superior business model. It’s like a SaaS model, high recurring revenue, high gross margins when you’re a gold royalty business. And any rise in the price of gold gives you massive amounts of free cash flow. So, we created GOAU with 30% of the three biggest royalty companies. Then after that we started with a bigger market cap going to small, we look for factors like free cash flow will outperform who has the least expensive on cash flow to enterprise value, will outperform if I only pick 10 names. So you can’t have… You have to release 21 names to have a mutual fund or ETF. So, I know that high grading that is looking for only free cash flow is a great factor and I know that the lowest cash flow multiple, the enterprise value is another great factor. And there were some other factors like per share valuation metrics. And there were lots of dumb acquisitions being done in the gold space. So we removed all of that and we created GOAU. And we’re thrilled by it because it’s done what I said it’d do, it’s outperformed. And it’s done it at basically the same expense ratio, we’ve done something we think is great for the shareholders that want an intelligent gold. Now, gold, interesting enough, this century has 80% of the time been positive. It’s outperformed the S&P by 250%.
This year, it’s not. It’s been underperforming with all the MMT going on. And I think it’s probably one of the best trades ever. I’ve done these short-term videos, short clips of saying fake CPI number. If you use the CPI number in 1980, when gold hit 850, if you use that same algorithm today, inflation’s at 14%, it’s not at 4. The governments around the world have basically taken out the things that the gas pump, well, I take that out. That’s too volatile. Food, take that out. So you’re seeing that we don’t have to spend money on where we’re feeling inflation and lawyers are going to raise their price every year of the CPI number 3%, 3%. And so you’re saying inflation is only two? I don’t believe that.
So there is an analyst out there that published this, I did a video on it. It’s a couple-minute video. And I think that we’re seeing this at the all-time lowest negative real interest rates. And I think we’re due for a big mean-reversion gold trade. And I think that gold is going to have a big pop here. Everyone wants to only jump on Bitcoin as the proxy. But the difference between Bitcoin and gold is Bitcoin, you can’t really wear unless it looks like gold. You can wear gold. And I was just recently in Dubai, and you can buy everywhere 24 karat gold jewelry. Everyone buys it. Drop it on a weight scale, you pay more on the designer, and it’s used as money. It’s used as a hospital if you need to go to the hospital anywhere in the Middle East, India. So Indian women wear six times the amount of gold that’s in Fort Knox. So gold is not going away. And it’s also a store of wealth in addition to beauty. Bitcoin is strictly the digital world of a store of value. I think that Bitcoin because it’s capped at 21 million coins, I’ve had this thesis that it will trade like Andy Warhol art. If you limit the supply and you get more people becoming interested as a buyer, then the prices grow exponentially. And I want to give you the best example of that, where if you limit supply are diamonds.
De Beers had a mega discovery in 1936 in South Africa, the war is starting. After the war is over, all the American soldiers are coming back, Eisenhower starts rural construction and build the interstate system, 25,000 miles, put men back to work. Less than 3% of American women were getting married with a diamond ring. De Beers goes to Madison Avenue and gets airs, I believe marketing, and advertising, creates this theme that this intangible called love can only be validated with a diamond ring, not a legal contract, but with a diamond ring. And they struck these commercials. The movie stars are all showing their nice new diamond ring. And guess what? Eighty percent of Americans today use a diamond ring as a statement of a commitment to get married. De Beers do it all over again in Japan in ’65, then in China. So, if Bitcoin’s capped at 21 million and enough people around the world believe it’s a store of value and they trust it’s a store of value, it does become a store of value, and look to really about the demographics of kids, they all believe in digital money. So it’s a much faster adoption process. So, that’s what makes it different than gold. And you need electricity. Once you have the gold, you don’t need electricity, your Bitcoin electricity. So, there are the differences.
Meb: I know this is more of, like, a happy hour coffee chat question. But do you think there’s any sort of catalyst? I think the last year or two, my gold friends often are scratching their head a little bit about why gold isn’t doing better in this environment? What do you think causes the next move up? Is there any certain driver?
Frank: I think that as more people start to believe that inflation is understated, then we’ve seen gold-covered uptick. Looking at the spread of negative real interest rates, even where the rates 10-year government bond is today, I think that gold should be around $4,000 an ounce. And it’s just looking at other previous and there’s a whole theory out there by the GATA group that the government is suppressing gold, just like the G7 worked together to have a flat tax of 15% for all corporations. They’re working together with this MMT theory. If the housing goes up 19% and you can’t pick up your house and move it from state to state, you have to move, that gold should be trading up on a relative basis. And it’s done this before. I’ve seen over my 40 years that you get the real estate taking off and then you get the gold taking off. You get the gold taking off, you get the real estate. So I think it’s one of those sort of pent up trades that all of a sudden it’ll take off.
Meb: You know what’s really cool about this fund, gold to me, the miners, I got a lot of Canadian friends. And I love the industry and the concept. But so many of these companies are just massive capital destroyers but they have the ability to generate just gobs and gobs of cash. So I have two questions for you, the first is, I love the idea about the royalty model. Out of curiosity, why didn’t you go just kind of full royalty? Are there not enough companies to do a pure royalty?
Frank: It’s interesting because I kept writing about these royalty companies that have superior model, and there was only three of them. And now there are 12 of them. But as you know you need at least 21 of them. And you couldn’t have size and literally deploy capital. A billion dollars would be very disruptive, but it’s going to evolve. And there’s more companies going with that royalty model. So I feel that would be a big trend going forward. But I think you asked about Canadians, it’s so funny, I’m asked this question a lot. And one of the big parts is we take geology in grade seven. You have to learn about how the city of Toronto was an Ice Age came in and it went back, and you had this inner lobate moraine, and then you had kettles and drums, and you had to go on a field trip up to look at gravel pits and how the Ice Age turned around. You learn this and you’d have in grade 7, grade 8, grade 9, grade 10.
So we become sort of indoctrinated about knowing the topography, the geography, the landscape, and it lends itself well to gold mining. And also, we have these prolific areas between Quebec and Ontario, that is belts like they have in South Africa, very rich gold mines. And literally the Trans Canada Highway that goes across the country, you can drive in a part of it and look left and right, and you see nothing but gold mines. It’s literally you step off the highway and people have found another deposit of gold. So I think during the Depression, one of the big things that helped Canada during the Depression was gold mining and exporting booze to U.S., bootleggers. That’s where the Seagrams started. So I think from that end, we are steeped into it. And it’s something that we understand the risks like only 1 in 2,000 assets, you’ll find a million ounces of gold reserves. So it’s high-risk capital and it’s just part of the ecosystem.
Meb: I think it’s a thoughtful way to do it. I mean, we talk a lot about the challenges of market cap weighting. And look, market cap weighting, historically, it’s a great way to deliver. It’s sort of like the idiot’s guide or the dummy’s guide to investing. You’re guaranteed on the winners. You can deliver it for low cost, which is why Vanguard and others have been able to scale. It’s an odd weighting methodology. And so doing it where you have a quality or value filter, I always tell people like they think it’s all about buying the cheap stuff but I say at the same time, it helps you avoid the really, really expensive, which matters on occasion in investing markets, I think I saw that we have the highest number of stocks trading at a price to sales of 10 or more, even greater than the internet bubble. So one of these days, I don’t know when it’ll matter, but it might matter. So I think it’s a very thoughtful way to approach particularly a sector like gold miners, which historically love to light money on fire, but can generate tons and tons of cash flow. End of rant. Can we talk about the shipping ETF while I still have you? That’s another… My God, you guys are pretty on the forefront vanguard of…not to use a pun on Vanguard, but the forefront of a bunch of cool ideas. Give us a little background on the shipping idea.
Frank: We publish internally our own sort of global indicator as a lot of the different commodities are embedded inside of it. And it shows that there’s a strong correlation because of our global resource fund with PMI, Purchasing Manufacturers Index. So we went for other indicators and we found that shipping is very strongly correlated with PMI. If the Purchasing Manufacturing Index is rising, then all of a sudden the shipping industry starts rising. And we also noticed during COVID, the most profitable airlines that were flying every day were cargo jets, moving masks from Asia over to North America, and to Europe. And so with that, we saw something else that took place is the Green movement that could go to the EU was shutting down all the nuclear reactors that caused this disruption in energy prices. Now, today, in Germany, they shut down everything that’s nuclear, but they also passed a law of the UN on the quality of the oil allowed to go into dry shipping. And many city centres and city-states like Singapore were not allowed basically to bring those ships into their port. And that wiped out 30% of the ships. Now we have COVID over, the big boom. And we had a problem here. What we have seen I know for HIVE Blockchain in getting chips from Asia over to our facilities in Northern Sweden, it’s taken a long time and the shipping costs were going like $12 a kilogram, these packages, and now they’re 120 in one year. You’re talking about like a 10 bagger. And so, therefore, these companies are making a lot of money. And you’ve seen some of the shipping so that Taiwan and South Korea jump 130%, 200% because there’s this huge demand. And when you read through it all and do the research, you find out, we’re going to be living with this inflation for the next three years and we’re going to live with logistics issues for the next three years.
So it’s not just COVID. COVID just overlaid it but it’s also this whole Green movement is creating its own, they’ve not brought a lot of additional energy on a timely basis to offset shutting down everything that’s coal and everything that’s nuclear is create this other massive disruption. Shutting down all ships that don’t have this high-quality oil has created this other disruption. Rather than a gradual way of getting off carbon, it’s been more abrupt. And this is what we’re living with. So with that, our research showed, 80% cargo ships and 20% cargo airlines doing regression analysis once again, looking at just pure shipping companies and pure cargo airlines, this mix was better. It allowed us to recalibrate that every quarter and we think that they have huge pricing power. This reminds me of when I launched Jets. All the merges went through the bankruptcy. Now they had ancillary fees, and these ancillary became a huge profit center. And we had a global economic boom. Now COVID’s away, global pent up demand to travel, it’s not going away. November the 8th is the big day for Europeans can fly easily into America. I just recently was in Sweden and I was in Dubai. Every seat was taken flying over there, half-full coming home. After November 8th, they become full. What does that mean? More cargo. It just adds to it. So, I think that C, it has this pent up wind to hit its sail. And we’re going to apply just like we did with GOAU and with Jets, a quant approach to stock selection every quarter.
Meb: I think you got a corner on great tickers. I don’t know how these keep being available, but well done. The shipping space is near and dear to my heart because I live in Los Angeles and it is straight within line of sight and has been in the news quite a bit in Long Beach and thereabouts. What’s going on in Dubai? You over there chatting up ETFs? You’re going to start launching some funds across the pond, what conferences? What’s all the travel been up to?
Frank: One of the things that to me is interesting is that the largest shareholder of NASDAQ is the Dubai Investment Group. So the NASDAQ has their own exchange over there. And NASDAQ also owns a Nordic exchange. So one of the things the vision for HIVE is to trade 24/7 and to get listed in Asia, in Middle East, get listed in Germany, get listed in Nordic so that HIVE can trade 24/7. So the concept of trying to get there. And also was a big alternative asset management conference and it was dominated with crypto and blockchain and NFT’s, and where things are going in that direction. So that’s the reason for going over to visit there. But once again, it was packed. It really impressed me how clean it is and for anyone’s who’s never been, in the financial quarter, it’s based on common law. It’s basically British common law and American law. And when you step outside of this quarter of Dubai, and Dubai makes no money really from oil, their oil is all gone. It’s Abu Dhabi that has the oil. And so they created this financial sector based on common law. They build condos. They have a lot of British people that have places to go there. It’s become like Florida is to New Yorkers.
And if you were doing business like you and I in the fund business, then it would be under common law. You go across the highway and it’s Sharia law. So I thought that was sort of to me really interesting to see how they coexist. And that’s a lot like Hong Kong is been basically a common law, whereas Communist China is civil law. Singapore is a common law. Malaysia is a civil law. And it’s recognizing that no common law country has ever gone bankrupt. Common law is the best for the creation of ETFs or intellectual property protection of rights of ideas is always been under that common law. So Dubai has both. And so many young Americans there, it’s easy to get in there. They have every major Ivy League school seems to be over there. And the kids make $100,000, tax-free the first 100,000. And the cost for a nice condo is 2,000 a month. You can’t get that in San Francisco for 2,000 a month and you can’t get it in Miami. So you see a lot of young people get the graduate degrees, they go over there and then immediately get employed, and they’re doing everything to encourage the sort of economic boom.
Meb: You clearly have a curious mind with one eye to the future. Talk to me a little bit about what’s the next handful years look like for you guys? Is it kind of growing the funds you have? Are you going to launch some more crazy ideas coming down the pipe? What’s the horizon look like post-2021 for Frank and crew?
Frank: What I would love to be able to do is to convert all my mutual funds. And we’ve outsourced so much of this work and the trust to another group and they’re going through that. I would love to convert those to ETFs. We have one classic mutual fund I love. It’s called luxury. It’s the only mutual fund that’s in luxury. And luxury’s done much better than the S&P 500. You just take a look, you got Costco, you have Apple, you have Tesla, you have Nike can come in, Adidas can come in. Then you have Cartier, you have Ferrari, you have the higher names. And so you have this ultra-luxury and it’s a quant approach. And then you have the luxury so that therefore it wouldn’t have Walmart or Target, it would have Costco because the average purchase price of a person going to Costco spends more money than the average spend than say is at Target. And the average spend is bigger than Walmart. Even though Walmart’s bigger, it’s interesting to look at that model. I think that would be just a great ETF. And I think the numbers speak for themselves. And I think it’s going to continue. The faster I get that into the format of an ETF, as you know, other people… Atkinson’s done it, Jim, with moving his over from mutual funds to ETF against light. Dimensional Fund’s in Austin done it. So the fact is, if I own my own mutual funds like I did 20 years ago, I’ve outsourced all of that to streamline just to have a small intellectual capital base here, then I would do it but they have to go through that process. And that’s my big goal to get those turned into ETFs.
Meb: Awesome. Well, nothing stopping you. We’re seeing the flood of DFA and everyone else going down that route. So, we’ll definitely love to see it. Frank, what’s been your most memorable investment? My goodness, you had quite a few different ideas and asset classes you’ve been working on. Anything stick out in particular as a particularly memorable one??
Frank: I was very, very blessed and fortunate as a young analyst in Toronto. I’ve gone from a research analyst over to corporate investment banking. And my first deal was Franco-Nevada, which is the largest gold royalty mining company in the world. And being involved with that but very smart fund managers, that were created by fund managers, Seymour Schulich, and Pierre Lassonde, that whole concept. That was borrowed from oil and gas because the gold or royalty business very, very prolific in the oil and gas was never done in the gold business. So Seymour Schulich took the idea from oil and gas and got Pierre Lassonde and all of a sudden find the gold royalties in Nevada. And today they do 24 million in revenue per employee. And they have the royalties on Beric and Newmont’s assets, and they have $600,000 of revenue per employee. I like that royalty model. So, that’s a very memorable and even though there’s a bear market in gold, Franco-Nevada far outperformed. It far outperformed Berkshire Hathaway in that business model. So that’s extremely… I’m blessed to be able to be behind that. And I think that I’ve launched some products. I’ve done a billion-dollar mutual funds. And touch wood, we’ve done Jets, which became $4 billion. And HIVE has been the most volatile and compressed, and it forces me at my age at 66, not only to keep running physically, my wife and I are running the half marathon coming up here in San Antonio, we did Austin earlier this year. But it’s being around these young kids, where they’re thinking, what they’re doing. And it forces me to stay young mentally. And so, I think that HIVE is clearly the most dominant new thing that I’ve been involved with and it’s lending itself to other investments such as Defy, which is a public company, which has done exceptionally well.
They launched the Bitcoin type of ETF and Nordic exchange, and they have almost $300 million there. That’d be like 3 billion here. And the other one is just this week, Net Media, basically NTE in Canada, they do filming business documentaries, and they did Bruce Lee, they did Muhammad Ali, and they sell that to Netflix, but they keep the IP. So, they’re going to create the NFT behind each of those type of clippings they have. So it’s a company doing about 20 million in revenue, but the NFT business, that should be worth $200 million based on relative valuations. So being involved in that, I think that’s been very exciting. And so I don’t know what’s next is going to drop on my doorstep. I’m looking at nanotechnology for delivery of liquids to your body. So things like that.
Meb: You have a lot going on my man. Where do people follow what you guys are up to? What’s the best place, homepage we can link to?
Frank: Usfunds.com, FrankTalk@usfunds.com. But Frank Talk is easiest.
Meb: That’s an easy one. Frank, it has been a joy to chat with you today. We’ll have to do it again soon. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Frank: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. Everyone speaks so highly of you. And I’m very blessed to be able to have you ask me all these questions and it’s exciting.
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 email@example.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.