THE GOSPEL OF CATHIE WOOD
Bloomberg Businessweek|May 31 - June 07, 2021 (Double Issue)
A few months of poor performance haven’t shaken the superstar fund manager’s faith in a future where technology makes everything better and her investors get very rich
BEN STEVERMAN, CLAIRE BALLENTINE & ANNIE MASSA

IN THE WEIRDEST YEAR OF OUR LIVES, THE RISE OF Cathie Wood is hardly the weirdest thing to happen. But still. She’s the first star in an industry, the $6.3 trillion world of exchange-traded funds, that wasn’t supposed to have any. She’s a throwback—a money manager who’s actually famous among regular investors, like Peter Lynch or Warren Buffett. And not only is she the first woman to play that role, she’s taken a throne in the pantheon of meme stock demigods, up there with the Elon Musks and shiba inus.

Wood moves stocks with her trades and her tweets. On social media and in online forums around the world, her name is synonymous with a certain brand of technophilia, an enthusiasm for the next big thing, whether that’s robotics or gene editing or digital currencies. Some of her bolder predictions for Bitcoin and Tesla came true, to the shock of Wall Street analysts who found them ridiculous.

The company she founded, ARK Investment Management, went from an unprofitable niche operator to a runaway success in just a few years. Her flagship ARK Innovation fund gained almost 150% in 2020, then as much as 26% more in the new year. Droves of investors, many of them young novices, bet on Wood, pouring almost $21 billion into ARK in 2020.

In the depths of the pandemic, she championed a beautiful future where technology would make everything better and more profitable. It was part of a rising subculture of belief, in both technological change and financial risk-taking, that reached a fever pitch in the dark winter of 2021. Stocks soared even as the coronavirus carnage mounted: joblessness, business closures, deaths. Retail traders with stimulus checks shocked hedge funds by bidding up GameStop Corp. and other meme stocks. Wood’s swift ascent was emblematic of a struggle playing out in financial markets, where investors giddy over the promises (and entertainment value) of innovations such as cryptocurrency seemed to be winning out over skeptics. Dogecoin, created as a joke, surged 20,000%.

Sooner or later, the market was bound to turn on her. Vaccinations accelerated, and the economy reopened. Investors responded by turning from speculative high-tech stocks toward boring ones that would benefit from a broader recovery. Wood’s flagship fund gave up all its 2021 gains and then some. As broad stock indexes continued to climb, she went from having one of the best performances among money managers to losing money year-to-date. She blamed fears of inflation for sending “the innovation-oriented part of the stock market”—her bread and butter—into a correction. Tesla Inc. tumbled more than 30% from its peak, the same amount Bitcoin fell in one shocking morning in mid-May.

Wood’s always-online fans are sticking by her. Investors who poured a net $34 billion into ARK’s eight funds in the past 12 months have withdrawn only about $1.2 billion since the end of February. They’re betting that the world, emerging from Covid-19, will catch up to the future she proselytizes for. To the true believers, her sudden fame won’t be an oddball footnote in market history, like GameStop, but a forerunner to decades of glorious change. Just as Mary Meeker cheered early internet companies Yahoo! and Priceline.com as a Morgan Stanley analyst during the dot-com boom, Wood preaches a peculiarly American gospel of utopian change powered by capitalism.

She drives home her message with repetition. “We have a five-year investment time horizon,” she says over and over again, especially when her funds are dropping in value. Other Cathie catchphrases get emblazoned on ARK merchandise, sold to the company’s more devoted clients with all profits going to charity. A T-shirt reads “Truth Wins Out”; a baby onesie says “Invest in the Future Today.” She spreads the word in a steady stream of videos, webinars, and commentaries posted on ARK’s website, along with frequent appearances at conferences and on media including CNBC, Bloomberg TV, and a variety of investing podcasts. Despite this, ARK turned down requests for an in-depth interview for this story.

As Wood and her company’s research frequently remind investors, electrification, the telephone, and the internal combustion engine turned the world upside down a century ago. Now, she tells anyone who will listen, five technologies— artificial intelligence, blockchain, DNA sequencing, energy storage, and robotics—are bringing about an equally profound transformation of the economy. These innovations will converge, recombine into things like autonomous taxis and whatnot, and create a perfect economic storm of higher wages, falling prices, and wider profit margins. That leads to “ virtuous cycles” of more investment in faster innovation.

It’s a lot. And it may be familiar to anyone who remembers that other spasm of tech-stock fever, the dot-com bubble. But Wood’s got a riff ready for that, too. “The dream was right. It was just 20 to 25 years too early,” she often says. Now, “the seeds are beginning to flourish. We are ready for prime time.”

IN SOME WAYS, WOOD IS AN UNLIKELY EVANGELIST FOR change. She’s 65 and conservative, both politically and economically. For decades she’s championed green investments, but she rarely uses the terms “climate change” or “clean energy.” After donating $1,000 to elect Donald Trump in 2016, she gave $25,000 to his presidential campaign and associated Republican political action committees in 2020, Federal Election Commission records show. Her mentor is Arthur Laffer, the 80-year-old economist who’s pushed his tax- cutting philosophy on Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan, ideas many modern economic thinkers blame for ballooning inequality.

Wood has bemoaned President Joe Biden’s plans to spend big and tax the wealthy, even though many of his proposals are designed to bring the economy closer to her futuristic vision for it, and though higher capital-gains taxes could push more money into tax-efficient funds like hers. She warns that higher taxes on companies and investors will discourage future innovation.

She surrounds herself with an unusually young and diverse team at ARK, some of whom openly disagree with her politics. Director of Research Brett Winton, whose work Wood often cites, gave $2,800 donations (the individual maximum) to Biden and other Democrats, including both of Georgia’s successful Senate candidates. About a quarter of ARK’s staffof about 35 are people of color, including the chief financial officer and chief compliance officer, who are Black men. One-third are women, and most are younger than 35. The youngest are the analysts, who produce the research that gets so much online attention for being gutsy or delusional, depending on who’s tweeting. Only a few have finance backgrounds; they’ve more likely been cancer researchers and sailboat captains. The office culture is, by all accounts, collegial, casual, and collaborative. “Cathie believes in a circle table as opposed to a rectangular table,” Kellen Carter, ARK’s chief compliance officer, told Bloomberg last year. “She wants everyone around the table offering their ideas.”

Wood can be combative, too, especially when mocking the low-effort, passive index strategies that have gained popularity at the expense of active managers like her. “Many investors appear to be afraid of companies that offer newer, faster, cheaper, and creative products and services,” says the narrator in an ARK parody of a pharmaceutical ad. “Ask your adviser today if investing in a traditional broad-based index is right for you.”

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