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Benj Gallander: The Contrarian Investor

Vince Cherniak - - Interviews
The London Yodeller

INTERVIEW CHERNIAK Benj GallenderBest Picture Oscar wannabe The Big Short is a cautionary moral tale for our age, exploring Wall Street greed, fraud, ineffectual or complicit government regulation, and, inevitably, the cynicism of bankers preying on the ignorance of the public and the poor. It’s also a bit of a philosophical investigation into the moral bankruptcy of making money for its own sake and the dangers of high finance’s investment vehicles that few can understand and yet affect everyone when they crash. Whether it’s best picture of the year, no matter: it’s certainly the best picture to explore and comment on the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression. With compelling central characters played by Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt to name a few, The Big Short unravels a complicated subject in a very entertaining style — yet with all the players and jargon, it’s a bit of a challenge to keep your bearings. It brings to mind that Keith Richards anecdote about going on stage: “I look around me, and there’s Charlie, there’s Mick, and there’s Ron… now, where’s the guy who knows what’s going on?”

Fortunately for us, Benj Gallander is just the guy who knows what’s going on here and can parse the proceedings. The Western grad is one of Canada’s most successful investors — the president of Contra the Heard investment letter has achieved 20% + annualized returns over two decades. He’s the author of The Contrarian Investor’s Thirteen and other best-selling books on investment and business. You might know him from his Globe and Mail column, or through his regular appearances on Business News Network. He prides himself on his contrarian ways, and not just on a philosophy that made him rich. He’s the kind of guy to take up ballet lessons as an adult on the premise that we should try things we don’t like. And at the age of 50, he engages in competitive piano lessons with his kid to keep them both on their game. Gallander believes in keeping both brain hemispheres in tip-top shape, so in addition to the business focus, he’s written and staged six plays over the years, and is a founding member of Toronto’s SummerWorks festival. He wrote his first book at the age of 18, the recently published Thoughts of a Teenager, which reads as a precocious version of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees.

When I first met Gallander, with his disheveled hair and a backpack full of newspapers, I mistook him for a street person. But there’s something endearing in a guy who holds his cutlery unconventionally like a little child (“It’s contrarian, but it gets the job done,” he says.) He’s also written a book of poems, MBA Hobo (I’m not making this up) and contrary to the old adage, Gallander is a guy you can judge by the cover of his book. Though to be fair, he informs us that he does in fact own a nice suit.

What was your first reaction coming out of The Big Short?

Well, it was interesting for me. I went with my 15 year old. He was by far the youngest in the room and he asked me if I understood it all. He said it was a very complicated film and I said I understood 99 percent of it, partly because I had read the book before. I guess when I look at the film, I see much of what has happened before you see the same kind of greed, a lot of the same kind of players who are only out there for their own purposes and to get rich. The difference now is that technology has become a major player in how things can get done, and you also see how the public bought into it, and you see how the government did not regulate it, and it all came down in the end into a major panic that almost brought down the system far further than it did. It was a great movie, entertaining, that in many ways is very sad.

Was it faithful to the book?

I read the book quite a while ago, and I think that it was. I thought it was wonderful the way they made it more entertaining. Because the content of this film is so complex, part of the question was how to create entertainment out of something that is difficult to understand and I thought that the direction was wonderful and a very different way of presenting a film. I thought it helped people stay engaged and gave people a better understanding of what was going on.

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