Offering Inspiration and Advice, Real Vision Is HGTV for Hedge Fund Hopefuls

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Kieran O’Dea rises at 5 a.m. to begin his daily routine, shuffling to his desk to eye his portfolio: a cluster of biotechnology stocks and a bet that Tesla will go bust.

Then he pulls up the latest video on Real Vision, the start-up financial video service that promotes the trading ideas and insights of hedge fund managers large and small. On this morning, the play is buying beaten-down Chinese stocks. He studies the clip carefully, as he has done with all 1,200 videos shown on Real Vision since it went live in June 2014.

Mr. O’Dea, 29, is the chief investment officer of Hedge Knight Capital, which manages mostly family money in the low seven figures. He is wearing swim shorts and a wrinkled T-shirt; his feet are bare and tan.

His office consists of an unmade bed, two computer screens and a stunning view of Long Island Sound. Mr. O’Dea may be master of his own hedge fund, but he could not be more disconnected from the Wall Street machine. No sell-side research clogs his inbox. He does not own a Bloomberg terminal. And there is no TV tuned to CNBC, the financial news hub ubiquitous on trading floors.

“I hardly watch it — and I don’t have access to any of that other stuff, either,” Mr. O’Dea said. “I get all my market access from Twitter and Real Vision.”

Real Vision offers a way to skip the traditional hedge fund path: slog away at an investment bank or a mutual fund, then settle down in Midtown Manhattan or Greenwich, Conn. For a modest fee, Real Vision will connect investors to a network of elite Wall Street analysts, traders and hedge fund managers, making it easier for novices like Mr. O’Dea to jump the line.

Raoul Pal, a former hedge fund executive who also worked at Goldman Sachs and runs an investment strategy service called Global Macro Investor, co-founded Real Vision. Since then, 20,000 people have signed up, paying $180 a year to hear directly from financial insiders.

It is a vibrant community with an average age of 38, which distinguishes it from CNBC and its more mature audience. Mixing the Netflix payment model with a cozy interview style, Real Vision offers to help upstart investors decode the mysteries of today’s markets. It features those insiders presenting their views in lengthy, explanatory videos: How to short China, the long-term opportunities in emerging markets and the best way to play Bitcoin, among others.

A nearly hourlong interview with the billionaire Mark Cuban is among the free videos on the site. And last week, Stanley F. Druckenmiller, an industry star, gave a long interview warning of a debt bubble in the market.

Real Vision also celebrates the hedge fund life — the outsize trades, houses and swagger — and tempts aspirants like Mr. O’Dea into thinking that they, too, might join the club.

It is a world that Mr. Pal, who earlier in his career pitched ideas to luminaries like Paul Tudor Jones and George Soros, knows well. He said he was motivated to start Real Vision after watching CNBC’s coverage of the financial crisis and thinking there was an opening for deep dives into finance’s most arcane areas.

“The media was too busy treating finance as entertainment and sound bites,” he said. “If you are going to cheerlead while this thing is going up, you have to warn them of the risks. It is a moral obligation.”

But there’s still an element of theater to Real Vision. Recently, Mr. Pal interviewed Michael Novogratz, a billionaire investor specializing in cryptocurrencies, in his office. During the discussion on the ups and downs of Bitcoin, Mr. Novogratz wore pink jeans that matched his sneakers and took a seat in front of an original leather jumpsuit worn by the motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, standing in a glass case under neon lights.

Mr. Pal had flown in from his home in the Cayman Islands, and he displayed an untucked shirt, sneakers without socks and a stubble beard. It could well have been a scene from “Billions,” the television show about the machinations and appetites of hedge fund titans.

“I used to think that these guys were gods,” Mr. O’Dea said. “But if you spend enough time watching them, you can figure out what they are up to.”

And if his formative experience was being a world-ranked video game player — in both World of Warcraft and Smite, he said — not a striving investment banker, so what? Mr. O’Dea watched the best gamers as he honed his craft once before. How hard could it be?

“It has been my total school — I mean, I had no idea what a bear market or a bull market was when I started,” Mr. O’Dea said. “It was like watching people play video games.”

Currently, 9,790 hedge funds are plying their trade, according to HFR, an industry tracker. With so many options, the pressure to perform has never been greater.

The last time hedge funds collectively beat the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was 2008. So far this year, Hedge Knight is up 37 percent Mr. O’Dea said, soundly beating the index’s 9 percent increase and thrashing the near-flat return the fund’s peer group has delivered.

Mr. O’Dea’s grandfather Leonard E. Baum was Hedge Knight’s main financial backer until his death. Propped up against Mr. O’Dea’s window is a faded photograph of Mr. Baum, a mathematician who put in place the trading framework that James H. Simons, the founder of Renaissance Technologies, employed to make his $84 billion Medallion Fund one of the world’s most successful hedge funds. Sitting in a lawn chair, Mr. Baum has his toddler grandson in a tight hug.

If his grandfather was Mr. O’Dea’s main source of capital, Real Vision is his source of inspiration.

Mr. O’Dea’s favorite video — one that he has watched countless times — marked Real Vision’s beginning in 2014: an hourlong interview with Mark Hart, a hedge fund manager in Dallas.

In the video, Mr. Hart wears his hair slicked back and spins tales of accumulating art, becoming an expert in Brazilian jujitsu and living in the moment — what he refers to as “chasing flow.”

“I wanted to be that guy,” Mr. O’Dea recalled.

He made a pilgrimage to Texas to meet Mr. Hart, and they bonded over biotechnology companies. Mr. O’Dea was curious about the science of disease: His grandfather suffered from cone-rod dystrophy, a condition that erodes vision, and his younger brother Brennan — the only other employee at Hedge Knight — is afflicted with over a half-dozen autoimmune illnesses. Brennan O’Dea spends nine months a year in a small cabin in Idaho, studying biology and scanning the market for cutting-edge companies. He has selected all 12 biotech stocks in Hedge Knight’s portfolio.

Real Vision has plenty of believers.

“I have been a subscriber since they were two months old,” said Chase Taylor, 35, an Air Force officer whose dream is to sell investment research to hedge funds.

He has not worked in the industry, nor did he go to business school. “I figured if these guys are doing it, I can too,” he said.

When Mr. Pal told subscribers in early 2017 that he was raising $7 million from outside investors, 1,700 offered to invest. He ultimately increased the sum to $10 million, and 50 subscribers became shareholders, although neither Mr. O’Dea nor Mr. Taylor is among them.

But Real Vision’s contributors can also promote some of Wall Street’s edgiest trades, like betting on volatility or loading up on emerging market bonds.

Take Mr. O’Dea’s fund: a dozen biotechnology stocks, some with values below $50 million, and a bet that Tesla goes bankrupt. It is a very risky portfolio, especially for a manager with such limited experience.

Real Vision is careful to present its strategies as trading ideas — not recommendations. At the end of each video, an employee warns investors to weigh their risk appetite before jumping in.

Ultimately, Mr. O’Dea’s contention that in finance — as with video games — you can ascend to an elite level by scrutinizing what the best players do remains unproven.

Which does not mean he won’t give it a shot.

“Now, I know what I am doing,” Mr. O’Dea said. “And guess what: I am a 29-year-old hedge fund manager.”

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