The Hedge Fund Betting on the Next Great Crash

Stocks falling sharply at the NYSE and Trump discussing the corona virus on the news displayed on a television
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
William D. Cohan
August 25, 2021

Mark Spitznagel, the founder and chief investment officer of the enormously successful hedge fund Universa Investments, is in an odd position at the moment. He’s very worried about the financial markets— “I’m as bearish as I could possibly be,” he told me the other day, when I called him at his home in Michigan, where his goat farm produces some of the country’s finest artisanal chèvre. But he’s also comfortable knowing that it doesn’t really matter what he thinks about the direction of the markets.

Spitznagel, after all, is Wall Street’s foremost practitioner of so-called “tail hedging,” an investment strategy he has perfected with The Black Swan author and mathematician Nassim Taleb, to buy cheap, far “out-of-the-money” options contracts to protect against the rare, cataclysmic plunge. It is, as he likes to say, the ultimate “insurance” policy. Investors in Universa bleed small amounts of money as markets rise, but profit massively during sell-offs. During the financial crisis of 2008, the year Universa launched, Spitznagel returned more than 115 percent to investors. In March 2020, when the coronavirus sent the S&P tumbling nearly 30 percent, his flagship fund returned more than 3,600 percent—a bet that places him among Michael Burry and Bill Ackman as one of the most successful, as he likes to say, “risk mitigation” traders of all time. 

These days Spitznagel predicts another crash is around the corner, although the 50-year-old part-time cheesemonger hastens to describe his investment strategy as agnostic. “I can have some strong views about us going in the wrong direction in the markets, but who cares?” he shrugged. “Any punter can come up with a strategy that does well in a crash. So I never like to take too much of a victory lap when that happens, because the important thing is what you do the rest of the time.”