Into Antarctica With John Carlson
March 31st, 2015
Since our company's inception, we've had the great privilege and fortune to work with John Carlson – a close friend, mentor, and quite possibly Ministry of Supply's most diehard fan (or at least his tireless enthusiasm leads us to believe such).
As a portfolio manager for emerging global markets, John is constantly traveling – and it's no Logan-to-JFK routine. While we've given up on keeping track, it seems that any given week John is off working his way through at least three or four different countries; recent emails have hailed from Istanbul, Kitzbuhel, Muscat, Cape Town... the list goes on. With an inherent passion for intellectual growth and discovery – plus this unwavering commitment to make the most of any opportunity that comes his way – there's no better guy to task with exploring the farthest reaches of the Earth than John Carlson.
This past January, John had the opportunity to take part in an expedition to Antarctica. The two-week trip aboard the National Geographic Explorer was affiliated with MIT, where, before pivoting to finance, John had studied for a PhD in meteorology. In catching up with John stateside for the blow-by-blow on his trip, we couldn't resist a deeper dive into his journey from MIT PhD candidate to internationally renowned portfolio manager, and the carryovers – if any – that he's noted along the way.
First things first. What inspired you to go to Antarctica?
Well, growing up in the '60s in Michigan, some of my boyhood heroes were the early Polar explorers. I’ve also always identified strongly with my father’s Finnish heritage – those Finns were huge Nordic skiers and marathoners. So coupling this idea of endurance with my passion for cold climates, my mom gave me all these books on the famous explorers – [Robert Falcon] Scott, [Robert] Peary, [Ernest] Shackleton – and Antarctica was soon on my bucket list.
Travel has always been a love of mine. I believe that it broadens one's horizons, and makes one look at where they are in life – as well as where they've been – through a totally different lens. Over the last couple of years, I've gotten to know the MIT atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon, who did her work on the ozone in Antarctica. Over dinner with Susan one night, I expressed my lifelong dream of going to Antarctica – and that if I went, I wanted to go with her. Through a confluence of events, it all ended up coming together. And this summer, I have the luck to travel with my thesis advisor to the North Pole on a nuclear-powered icebreaker.
I've heard that Antarctica's horizon can play tricks on the eyes. What was it like down there?
Well, we had really bad weather for the first few days – it was this wet snow that kept coming down – but then after about three or four days, you had this brilliant, blue sky that went on forever, contrasting with the whiteness of the snow and glaciers.
The immensity of it – the sheer size of these glaciers coming down – I had no idea. People out in the Zodiacs were like specks of dust next to the sides of these glaciers. It was mind-blowing. You’d never lack for intellectual stimulation either. On the boat we had naturalists, historians, and an oceanographer who’d go on daily dives. In the evenings, we’d all be sitting around in the warmth of the ship, having a cocktail, and she’d show the video of what she saw underwater that day. It was amazing.
Did you get out on a Zodiac?
We did, but the seas were especially rough in some of these passageways. The winds blew our ship until we got near Elephant Island, where Shackleton had ended up – but that wasn’t a planned stop on our trip, so we didn’t do quite as many Zodiac launches as other trips likely did. We did go past the Antarctic Circle though, around icebergs, and did a few beach landings. We got to climb these mountains – well, they were more like hills, about 800 feet or so – but watching us all sweat and puff getting up the top, then seeing these penguins just waddle up and come sliding down into the sea? I’m thinking, ‘Aw man, the fact that they figured out how to do this – this is real adaptation.’
Let’s jump back to MIT. What led you to pursue a PhD in meteorology?
Again, that goes back to my boyhood growing up in Detroit. We had a lot of severe weather out there. As a kid, I’d look out and see these patterns in the sky, and was just fascinated by what I thought was this predictability of weather. I was also interested in financial markets: I remember my father reading the financial papers, and on the back there'd be the Dow Jones plot which, to me, looked like the same pattern I had been seeing in the weather. Initially these two interests were founded in the naiveté in youth, thinking that I could see these patterns, that they were predictable. As I got older and studied at MIT, I realized that there were limits to this predictability.
What do you think it is about predictability that you like so much?
People are just fascinated by prediction. Growing up there was this larger-than-life weatherman named Sonny Eliot. The way he presented the weather and the extreme events – it gripped me. 95% of our lives are spent doing the same-old, same-old, so it’s the extremes that are so thrilling. I’d watch Sonny and just think, ‘Wow, if one had this power to predict what the weather would be the next day, whether it would rain or snow’… I was a frustrated kid, I really was! [Laughs]
Your job now involves seeking out different markets around the world, correct?
Yeah, what I do now involves a lot of travel. It’s investing in developing countries, so-called emerging markets. I look these countries’ abilities to repay their debts and their willingness to pay, and to fully understand that, I need to travel to these places. With the idea of investing my own money and possibly moving there, I go around and kick tires, so to speak – doing everything from meeting with presidents and prime ministers to finance ministers and central bank governors. I’ll sit in cafes and go to resorts, look at the infrastructure, ask, ‘would you drink the water?’, and then couple all of that with the numbers. We plug these numbers into models that we’ve developed, then relate them to how rich or cheap the debt is. If it’s a reasonable story and the debt is cheap, we buy it.
So which came first: your love for travel, or your travel-heavy career?
Growing up, I had this love of exploration. I wanted to travel, but as the eldest of six kids growing up in Detroit in the ‘50s and ‘60s, all of our traveling was by car. I didn’t get on a plane until I was 25. My opportunity to really travel – and to do what I’m doing now – came through happenstance. It was '91 or '92 when I won a two-week trip to Argentina through an auction at my children's school. Down there, I could smell the winds of change: Argentina had just elected Carlos Menem, it was the period after the Malvinas War, and there was a restructuring of the money that had been lent during the ‘80s. When I saw all this, I decided to change careers. I went around Wall Street and tried to convince someone that this was going to be a real market, and it was Lehman Brothers who took the chance and hired me.
What from your PhD work do you believe has carried over into your current role?
I’d say it’s the rigorous scientific training I received through education at MIT. The people who go there are so genuinely intellectually curious. And if you’re intellectually curious, it leads you to places that others may not go, because you just go.
The other carryover is intellectual honesty. When I get it wrong in my business, it’s in the paper. The prices of the funds I manage are reported daily so everyone can see what was won or lost. It’s the same thing in science: sometimes, there are a lot of empty results – the theory and the data don’t go together in whatever you’re working on – but you have to be intellectually honest to accept that and not let that diminish your intellectual curiosity. And that all plays into the rigor of how you approach it. It’s about the constant search to do better.
Who inspires you?
Two people. My mother, in her unbelievable energy: she’s always upbeat, always positive. I got my love of travel from her, even though she didn’t travel much. My parents took out a small life insurance policy when I was young, so at 21 there was money for me to use. My father’s advice was save it; my mother’s advice was go travel. I took her advice and spent it on a car trip all around the US.
The other person is Bernie Feshbach. His is an amazing story; I could go on for an hour about him. Bernie grew up in Brooklyn, traveled a lot, was awarded a Purple Heart, ran a pig farm in Iowa, sold used cars, got in the oil gas business – and at 91 years old he's still this bigger-than-life character. Every time Bernie gets knocked down, he gets back up. That ability to get up and overcome is just amazing. I talk to both Bernie and my Mom every Sunday.