This Hedge Fund Manager Tries to Short Himself: Michael Lewis

Date: Friday, October 24, 2008
Author: Michael Lewis, Bloomberg

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The first time I sensed the alarming change in my soul was when I caught myself, five minutes after the market open, reaching for a reefer.

Trust me, I didn't amass legacy wealth (underestimated by Forbes magazine in the high eight figures) by smoking weed during trading hours. Exhaling that first hit I thought and might even have moaned aloud: ``Whoa, dude! Why are you even running a hedge fund?'' The markets were collapsing, and so was my passion.

Bloomberg subscribers have come to know me as a seriously successful hedge-fund manager who tries to serve society in more ways than one. Not only have I made as much money as possible, and proven the natural inferiority of the little rich-kid idiots from Harvard and Yale who went to work for Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. I have also freely shared my thoughts and opinions with you.

As the trading room filled with smoke, and acquired that only sweet smell I know that is not success, I realized it was time for me to share more. To go deeper. I needed to re-examine honestly who I was, and why.

What could possibly have caused me to doubt my own value? I cannot say. But with my lungs stretching to the bursting point I felt a sudden urge to make the argument for shorting myself. I looked for weaknesses. I found three:

Misplaced Trust

1) I trusted America to do the right thing.

My fund may be an offshore entity, but I trade in U.S. markets. When they move from ``God Bless America'' to ``Take Me Out to the Ballgame'' at Yankee Stadium, I keep my hand over my heart. And I trusted my government to preserve one of man's most basic rights: the right to short Morgan Stanley.

Six weeks ago I was right where I wanted to be: short not only Stanley but also Goldman Sachs Group Inc., in real size. Both were going to zero, and I was going to have another Merry Christmas. Then the Goldman alums at Treasury jump in and force the Securities and Exchange Commission to ban short selling.

The short squeeze forces me to buy back everything at prices that would make a Japanese investor blink. How did I feel? Imagine how it would feel to be Michael Jordan in mid-air, three feet above the rim with no one around you, when the ref blows the whistle. Dunking is now illegal, he says. The league fines you for trying to dunk; the media lambastes you for trying to dunk. Barney Frank subpoenas the dunkers.

I'm not saying I'm the Michael Jordan of hedge-fund managers. Others say that. I'm saying that for the first time in his career the Michael Jordan of hedge-fund managers feels like picking up his ball and going home. Which brings me to...

Love What You Do

2) I hate my job.

When people ask me what it's been like making hundreds of millions of dollars for myself I always try to smile as if to say: ``It's no big deal. Some people are just built to win in the financial markets.''

The truth is nothing comes naturally in the financial markets. Winning is so much harder than you know. It comes with this huge opportunity cost: not winning at something else. For example, I think I could be one of the best ever at finding meaning in life. But I have to put that to one side, to help keep markets efficient. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a whiner and I'm not a quitter. I'm not writing a letter to my investors to tell them why I'm too good for their money and my own Blackberry. No, I'm no Andrew Lahde. (Though he has a point about pot.) I'm just underutilized. Which leads me to...

Wrong Man

3) I was rocked to my core that I -- or one of the few people like me -- wasn't put in charge of the bailout.

If you haven't figured it out by now, America has hired the wrong Paulson. There are two of them, Hank and John. Hank turned Goldman Sachs from an investment bank into a busload of tourists going to a casino, with borrowed money.

Goldman might have been the smartest investment bank but you only needed to see Dick Fuld testify before a congressional committee to know how much that means. No pun intended, but Dick didn't know dick.

Astute observers will note that every time they run across a party of midgets, one is tallest, and his name is usually Goldman. Suffice it to say that while Hank's shop was creating subprime mortgage-backed bonds, John's was shorting them. Hank wound up working for the government, John wound up making $3.7 billion. For himself.

Wake up America! The teacher has just asked the class to send one member to the chalk board to figure out a problem. You just reached past the A student in the front row and plucked the guy in the middle who's working hard for a B-minus. And he's confused!

To be honest, I'm not sure what I'm going to do next with my life. But the more I think about it, the weakness I'm feeling isn't mine. It's yours.

(Michael Lewis, author of ``Liar's Poker,'' ``Moneyball,'' and ``The Blind Side,'' is a columnist for Bloomberg News and an imaginary hedge-fund manager. The opinions he expresses are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Michael Lewis at