The Outsiders Who Saw Our Economic Future; In both America’s energy transformation and the financial crisis, it took a group of amateurs to see what was coming

The Outsiders Who Saw Our Economic Future

In both America’s energy transformation and the financial crisis, it took a group of amateurs to see what was coming

WSJ reporter Gregory Zuckerman, author of ‘The Frackers’, discusses how early pioneers of the fracking industry were seen as outsiders and ‘wildcatters’ by the established oil industry.


Nov. 1, 2013 8:35 p.m. ET

The experts keep getting it wrong. And the oddballs keep getting it right.

Over the past five years of business history, two events have shocked and transformed the nation. In 2007 and 2008, the housing market crumbled and the financial system collapsed, causing trillions of dollars of losses. Around the same time, a few little-known wildcatters began pumping meaningful amounts of oil and gas from U.S. shale formations. A country that once was running out of energy now is on track to become the world’s leading producer.What’s most surprising about both events is how few experts saw them coming—and that a group of unlikely outsiders somehow did. Federal Reserve chairmen Alan Greenspanand Ben Bernanke failed to foresee the financial meltdown. Top banking executives were stunned, and leading investors such as Bill Gross, Jim Chanos and George Soros didn’t fully anticipate the downturn.

The big winners were people like John Paulson, an expert in mergers who only began researching housing in 2006 and scored a record $20 billion for his hedge fund. Jeffrey Greene, a Los Angeles playboy who partied with Paris Hilton, made $500 million predicting housing troubles.

In 2006, Andrew Lahde was an out-of-work 35-year-old stuck in a cramped one-bedroom apartment; then he made tens of millions of dollars betting against subprime mortgages. So did Michael Burry, a doctor-turned-stock investor in northern California with Asperger’s syndrome.

Wall Street talks up the importance of being contrarian. But in 2007, most traders subscribed to the mantra that the Fed wouldn’t let housing crumble or that the boom would continue, while others couldn’t find a good way to short subprime mortgages. They left it for the amateurs to figure out.

Less well known, but no less dramatic, is the story of America’s energy transformation, which took the industry’s giants almost completely by surprise. In the early 1990s, an ambitious Chevron CVX -1.63% executive named Ray Galvin started a group to drill compressed, challenging formations of shale in the U.S. His team was mocked and undermined by dubious colleagues. Eventually, Chevron pulled the plug on the effort and shifted its resources abroad.

Exxon Mobil XOM +0.22% also failed to focus on this rock—even though its corporate headquarters in Irving, Texas, were directly above a huge shale formation that eventually would flow with gas. Later, it would pay $31 billion to buy a smaller shale pioneer.

“I would be less than honest if I were to say to you [that] we saw it all coming, because we did not, quite frankly,” Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil’s chairman and CEO said last year in an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In 2003, Alan Greenspan warned that the nation’s gas fields were running dry and urged Congress to back costly facilities to import gas. Famed investors Warren Buffett andHenry Kravis invested in a record-setting utility-company buyout in 2007, wagering that a dearth of U.S. natural gas would send prices higher. Instead, the U.S. has so much cheap natural gas today that it is set to export it. The country is also pumping 7.9 million barrels of oil a day, up more than 50% since 2006 and the most in nearly 25 years.

The resurgence in U.S. energy came from a group of brash wildcatters who discovered techniques to hydraulically fracture—or frack—and horizontally drill shale and other rock. Many of these men operated on the fringes of the oil industry, some without college degrees or much background in drilling, geology or engineering.

In the late 1990s, George Mitchell, the son of a Greek goatherder, ran a midsize Houston-based company with shrinking natural-gas production. His stock price was falling, the industry was on its back, the 79-year-old had been diagnosed with cancer and his wife was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In almost two decades of trying, his men had not been able to coax enough natural gas from Mitchell Energy‘s DVN +0.70% Texas shale fields. But in 1998, one of Mr. Mitchell’s engineers finally figured out how to properly fracture shale, stunning colleagues and larger competitors while launching the American energy revolution.

Harold Hamm grew up dirt-poor in a tiny town in Oklahoma. He began school around Christmas-time each year, once it became too cold to pick cotton, and he started his career raking out oil tanks. Over the past six years, Mr. Hamm and his company have discovered so much oil in North Dakota that he is now worth $14 billion. Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward of Oklahoma were land-leasing specialists; they managed to build the nation’s second-largest gas producer by leading the charge into shale fields. Charif Souki, a Lebanese immigrant and former restaurateur who knew more about fajitas than fracking, today runs Cheniere EnergyLNG -1.56% a Houston-based company that is on track to become the first to export gas from the contiguous U.S.

Bucking conventional wisdom is always risky, and many would-be mavericks in finance and the energy industry have failed. But corporate caution and complacency have their costs too, and today’s emphasis on short-term performance means that executives are even less likely to take long-term risks, to anticipate the unexpected. For the next great business revolution, it would be smart to bet once again on stubborn, flamboyant dreamers.

—Mr. Zuckerman is a special writer at The Wall Street Journal and the author of “The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters,” to be published Nov. 5 by Portfolio/Penguin, and “The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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