(Forbes) – Tesla shares were limping along around $200 in May 2019, about where they had traded five years earlier, when Elon Musk’s biggest Wall Street booster tried a gutsy experiment. Cathie Wood and her Ark Investment Management were already well-known for their way-out-there predictions that Tesla would build a fleet of robo-taxis worth $1 trillion and that its shares would soar 20- or 30-fold by 2023. Now she stirred the pot again by publishing online Ark’s new bull’s-case valuation of $1.4 trillion, implying a share price above $6,000, complete with every Excel calculation and assumption behind those estimates.
Criticism came fast and furious. Tesla short seller Jim Chanos, famed for uncovering Enron’s fraud, took Wood to task over Ark’s forecasts of Tesla’s gross margins. “[W]hat Ark has produced is a forward pricing for Tesla, not a valuation,’’ sniffed valuation expert Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor at New York University. The model, he noted, didn’t include a discounted cash-flow analysis and carried incomplete forecasts on the costs Tesla would incur to scale its vehicle production. That $1 trillion value Ark was placing on Tesla’s nonexistent robo-taxi fleet? “Strikes me as more fairy tale than valuation,’’ Damodaran opined.
Sixteen months later, Tesla shares—after a five-for-one August stock split—were trading at $400. In other words, they’d risen tenfold, driven up by speculation and excitement over Musk’s autonomous-driving and battery technologies and Tesla’s stronger-than-expected financial performance. Musk’s car company is now worth five times more than Ford and General Motors combined, and Wood has made a fortune. The nitpicking skeptics, she believes, have missed the big picture: As electric cars go increasingly mainstream, production efficiencies and advances in batteries and other technologies will cut what it costs to make them. And as sticker prices fall, demand will surge, including from businesses like ride-sharing companies. In September, Musk promised a $25,000 car within three years.
Meanwhile, Wood, 64, is perfectly happy to have a chorus of critics: “It almost makes me feel comfortable, to be honest, because it means if we’re right, then the rewards will be pretty enormous.”
Wood’s comfort with going her own way has helped her turn Ark into one of the fastest-growing and top-performing investment firms in the world. Its flagship $8.6 billion Ark Innovation Fund is up a staggering 75% in 2020 and has returned an annual average of 36% over the past five years, nearly triple that of the S&P 500.
While most star stock pickers treat their work like state secrets, Wood makes Ark’s research freely available online and posts real-time logs of her firm’s trades. Instead of hiring MBAs, she prefers to bring onboard young analysts with backgrounds in subjects like molecular biology or computer engineering, figuring they’re more likely to spot the next trend. Even the structure of Ark, an acronym for Active Research Knowledge, is original. Wood manages seven portfolios designed to capitalize on breakthroughs in robotics, energy storage, DNA sequencing and financial and blockchain technology, and makes them available to investors, particularly Millennials trading on Robinhood, as tax-efficient exchange-traded funds.
Its Tesla position and a pandemic that has accelerated adoption of the technologies embedded in the 35 to 55 companies in each Ark ETF have helped its assets nearly triple in 2020, to $29 billion. “Coronavirus has catapulted our innovative platforms into high gear because they solve problems,” Wood says. “Innovation solves problems.”
Forbes conservatively values Ark at $500 million, or about 2% of assets under management, roughly the same multiple as publicly traded T. Rowe Price commands. Wood’s 50%-plus ownership gives her a net worth of $250 million, good for the No. 80 spot on Forbes’ sixth annual list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women.
It’s easy to dismiss Wood as the face of a stock-market bubble created by the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policies. But she has survived her share of both bubbles and bear markets. While an economics student at the University of Southern California, she studied under supply-side guru Arthur Laffer and apprenticed from 1977 to 1980 at Los Angeles fund giant Capital Group, watching as interest rates approaching 20% crushed the economy and the market. After graduating in 1981, she joined Jennison Associates, now an equity investment arm of Prudential, as an economist in New York. There she made an early call that inflation and interest rates had peaked. That garnered eye rolls from her superiors, but Wood was right—and the experience inculcated in her an appreciation for the potentially big upside of going against consensus.
As the pandemic took hold, Cathie Wood loaded up on tech stocks that she correctly predicted would lead the recovery—and bought herself a house in ritzy Hilton Head, South Carolina, from which to work.
Frustrated with her career path at Jennison and wanting to research individual companies, one Friday Wood up and quit. Her mentor at the firm persuaded her to return the following Monday and moved her into equity research. She covered nascent wireless telecom companies in the late 1980s and early ’90s, getting a ground-floor view of the huge economic and societal changes coming as cellphones grew ubiquitous. In 2001, she moved to New York–based AllianceBernstein as chief investment officer for thematic portfolios. But the 2008 financial crisis ushered in an era in which active managers underperformed the S&P 500 and trillions flooded into low-cost index funds. Wood decided a fresh approach was needed. In 2012, she proposed putting actively managed portfolios of innovative companies inside an ETF structure. The idea got nowhere at AllianceBernstein.
Two years later, she launched Ark in New York. Success wasn’t immediate. In the firm’s first two years, its flagship fund placed in the bottom quartile of its peer group, according to Morningstar. By the end of 2016, Wood had attracted just $307 million in assets, and Ark’s 0.75% management fee wasn’t covering overhead. To keep going, she dug deep in her savings, sold minority stakes and struck partnerships with larger firms to build distribution. Japan’s Nikko Asset Management and the mutual fund firm American Beacon now own 39% of the company. Almost 10% is owned by the firm’s two dozen employees.
In 2017, Ark took off, buoyed by surging prices for stocks like Netflix, Salesforce, DNA sequencer Illumina, digital-payments processor Square and digital health provider Athenahealth. Assets rose tenfold, and Ark began to build its brand on the back of bold predictions, an active Twitter presence and the free research it put online. (It also attracted notice for a cryptocurrency fund available only to accredited investors; Wood started buying Bitcoin, which she calls an “insurance policy” against inflation, in 2015 at $250 a coin.)
Wood takes a top-down approach to building portfolios, first identifying disruptions by any means possible, including crowdsourcing—she even opens the firm’s Friday afternoon research meetings to outsiders, who can call in via Lifesize. Economics is central. Wood is most bullish on innovations if she believes their costs will decline over time, creating real demand. When scoring potential holdings, Ark looks at corporate culture and management execution on growth initiatives. Only at the end of the process does Wood value a company, refusing to buy anything she doesn’t expect will rise by 15% annually over five years, Ark’s minimum expected holding period.
The tumult of 2020 has been good for Ark. In March, when the pandemic emerged and stocks plunged, Wood correctly predicted fast-growing tech companies would lead the world (and financial markets) to recovery. She concentrated Ark portfolios in Tesla and other top picks including education-software company 2U and real estate platform Zillow. Then, in late summer, when Tesla soared, she trimmed her holdings and built a large position in the battered shares of Slack.
With all successful innovations, of course, come copycats. Gimmicky themed ETFs have proliferated in everything from pets to sports gambling to work-from-home. Fund giants Dimensional Fund Advisors, Fidelity Investments and T. Rowe Price have all recently launched their own slates of actively managed ETFs.
An optimist by nature, Wood nonetheless offers some unsettling predictions for the next five years. She expects a broad swath of large industries—banking, energy, transportation, health care—to be disrupted by technological change, with many workers displaced. The result, she believes, is that economic growth, inflation and broad market indexes will all fall persistently short of expectations, providing an opportunity for active managers to pick the innovative winners that will continue to drive market-cap gains.
“I think the benchmarks and the indexes are going to go through a terrible period. We’re already seeing it,” she says. “We believe they are being increasingly populated by value traps.”
Does she think the market is now in a bubble? Nope. Uncertainty over the pandemic and the election (Wood supports President Trump “unabashedly”) means money has been flowing out of stocks and into the safety of bonds, she notes. “The fact that people are fearful now that we’re back at the S&P 500 trading at 25 times earnings tells me that we are not in a bubble at all.”