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A TV reporter gambles, and loses, on running a hedge fund

Date: Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Author: Andrew Ross Sorkin, IHT.com

Do you remember a time, only a short while ago, when virtually anybody could start a hedge fund? It seemed so easy: Billions of dollars were being thrown around like confetti, even at first-time managers. Greenwich, Connecticut, the wealthy New York suburb that became an enclave for hedge fund managers, overflowed with multimillionaires and more than a fewbillionaires.

Anybody could make money with their eyes closed. Or so itseemed.

Ron Insana was one of the people who chased that dream. Insana spent more than a decade as one of the most prominent anchormen at CNBC, the financial news channel on cable television that has become a constant presence in just about every Wall Street office and trading room. He was a mere journalist, to be sure, but he regularly interviewed some of the titans in business, trying to make sense of the daily gyrations of themarket.

In March 2006, Insana left the network to try his hand at becoming one of those titans, setting up a fund to help investors get into hedge funds, a so-called fund of funds. Paul Kedrosky, a writer and investor, said at the time that Insana's move "reminded him a little of Lou Dobbs going to Space.com at the peak of the dot-combubble."

The adventure of Dobbs, a financial news anchorman on CNN, didn't turn out well; he's back on TV, now as an angry populist in the style of the Howard Beale ("I'm not going to take this anymore") character from the 1976 movie "Network."

And two weeks ago, Insana announced that he was throwing in thetowel.

Though his career detour does not rank on the flameout scale anywhere approaching the Space.com debacle, it is an unusually instructive and cautionarytale.

One of the big raps against hedge fund managers is that their fee structure is so rigged that managers can get rich even if they never make a penny forinvestors.

Eric Mindich, a former whiz kid at Goldman Sachs, left the company in 2004 to start Eton Park Capital Management and immediately raised more than $3 billion. His firm charged a 2 percent management fee and 20 percent of the profits with a three-year lock-up - handing him a $60 million paycheck before he opened thedoor.

But most hedge fund managers aren't like Eric Mindich. They don't start off with $3 billion and they don't put out their shingle with a guarantee of riches. Instead, they're like, well, RonInsana.

If there was one thing Insana had built up over the course of his career in journalism, it was great contacts. He knew everybody in the hedge fund business, which is why, when he started Insana Capital Partners, he chose to create a fund offunds.

In his role as manager of Insana Capital Partners, he would act as a kind of hedge fund middleman, directing money to various hedge funds. The fund itself was grandiosely called Legends, which, while perhaps pretentious, made sense given the funds he couldaccess.

His clients would be invested in SAC Capital, managed by Steven Cohen; Icahn Partners, managed by Carl Icahn; or Renaissance Technologies, run by James Simons, perhaps the most successful hedge fund manager on the planet. These funds are typically closed to thepublic.

In exchange for getting his investors behind the velvet rope, he charged a 1.5 percent management fee and took 20 percent of all profits. That may not sound like a bad deal - but consider that those fees come on top of the fees charged by the hedge funds themselves. In the case of Simons, in particular, the fees are astronomical: a 5 percent management fee and more than 40 percent of theprofits.

Over the course of more than a year, Insana raised about $116 million. It was a respectable number, but it wasn't $3 billion. And here is where Insana ran intotrouble.

As an investor, Insana didn't exactly have the wind at hisback.

During the 14 months his fund of funds was up and running, the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index fell more than 15 percent. While some hedge funds managed to eke out gains, many did not. Ultimately, Insana's fund lost 5percent.

In the mutual fund business, beating the S&P 500 would be more than enough to survive, and even prosper. Insana would have been ahero.

But the hedge fund business is far more cutthroat. For a small fund like Insana's, it is imperative to make money regardless of whether the S&P is up or down - and because he didn't, the 20 percent portion of his fee structure was worthnothing.

That left his management fee, which amounted to $1.74 million. That's 1.5 percent of $116million.

On paper, that may seem like a lot of money. But it's not. Like many first-time fund managers, Insana had to give up about half of the general partnership to his first investor - in this case, Deutsche Bank - in exchange for backing him. After paying Deutsche Bank, Insana Capital Partners was left with about $870,000.

That would have been enough if it was just Insana, a secretary and a dog. But Insana was hoping to attract more than $1 billion from investors. And most big institutions won't even consider investing in a fund that doesn't have a proper infrastructure: a compliance officer, an accountant, analysts and soon.

Insana had seven employees, was paying for office space in the former CNBC studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and rented Bloomberg terminals - at more than $1,500 each a month - while traveling the globe in search of investors. Under the circumstances, $870,000 just wasn't going to last verylong.

Finally, most hedge funds have something called a high-watermark.

It requires hedge fund managers to fully reimburse their investors for any losses before they can start collecting their 20 percent of the profits - regardless of how long that takes. Hedge fund managers don't get to start from scratch every Jan. 1 the way their mutual fund brethrendo.

In the end, the rock was simply too heavy for Insana to keep pushing uphill. On Aug. 8, he sent a letter to investors explaining why he was closingshop.

"Our current level of assets under management, coupled with the extraordinarily difficult capital-raising environment, make it imprudent for Insana Capital Partners to continue business operations," he wrote. He said he planned to take a job with his friend Cohen at SAC. Insana declined to comment for thiscolumn.

In truth, there are thousands of Insanas desperately trying to raise money from nondescript little offices around the United States. Some of them raised $10 million, some raised $100 million or more. And, as money has gotten tighter, and the bloom has come off the hedge fund rose, some have raised none atall.

Although the big boys get most of the ink, Insana's is a far more common story - and far more representative of what is happening in the land of hedge fundstoday.

Insana probably should have seen it coming. In 2002, he wrote a book called, "Trendwatching: Don't Be Fooled by the Next Investment Fad, Mania, or Bubble."Oops.