Hedgehogs Ravaged by Bears

Date: Monday, January 26, 2009
Author: Barton Biggs, Newsweek.com

The equity markets of the world have many afflictions, but one of the most debilitating is the plague being experienced by the hedgehogs (a.k.a. hedge funds). Bright, young, bushy-tailed hedgehogs are dying right and left, and fatter, older, more experienced members of the species are starving and sickly. The irony is that hedge funds didn't do all that badly last year. The Hennessee Hedge Fund Index was off 19.2 percent, although the average fund lost more like 25 to 27 percent. By contrast, the S&P 500 fell 37 percent, the MSCI All Country World Index was down 42 percent and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index fell 53 percent. Still, hedge funds failed to do what they promise: to protect their clients' assets in a bear market.

We live in extravagant times. In January 2008 there were about 8,000 hedge funds worldwide running about $2 trillion of investor money. As the dust settles, the best guess is that about 2,000 hedge funds have gone out of business and another 2,000 will disappear in the next year. Ravaged by killer bear markets as well as a deluge of redemptions, the total capital run by hedge funds today is now about $1.2 trillion, according to Hennessee.

In the good old days, hedge funds were the most active investors; their $2 trillion was leveraged up to $8 trillion—the size of the U.S. equity market today. Things have changed. At a conference in London last week, Morgan Stanley said that at the beginning of 2008, 65 to 70 percent of its institutional equity business in Europe was from hedge funds and only 30 percent was from traditional investment management firms. Now, the percentages are reversed. At this same conference, one of the largest funds of hedge funds in the world said that the net long positions of the 135 hedge funds in its portfolio was now 10 percent (i.e., only 10 percent of the fund's capital was exposed to the market), and that the funds were less leveraged than ever.

The plague is likely to continue. The three classes of investors that dominate hedge-fund money are the fund of funds (FOFs), institutional investors (endowments, foundations, pension funds) and wealthy individuals. All three categories are scared to death, experiencing unprecedented liquidity squeezes, and deeply concerned about not the return on their money but the return of their money.

The FOFs, which now account, according to Hennessee, for 32 percent of hedge-fund assets, had in the past decade been the biggest winners in the entire investment-management business, with their assets growing 25 percent a year. Now suddenly they are suffering an epidemic of redemptions. A year ago they were 40 percent of assets. Even before the Madoff affair, their clients were questioning whether the extra fees they pay were worth it, since they were not being protected from losses. The Madoff Ponzi scheme and the FOFs' involvement with Madoff was a brutal blow. In addition, many FOFs had leveraged up their portfolios to maximize their returns for competitive reasons. Instead they maximized their losses.

The big institutional investors are also having a horrendous time. Many of them switched from a highly liquid asset-allocation strategy of stocks, bonds and cash to the so-called Endowment Model, which trivialized bonds, minimized listed equities and maximized so-called alternative assets (hedge funds, private equity, real estate and oil and gas partnerships). The managers of all these asset classes charge very high fees and rely on large amounts of debt to leverage up returns. Now, the debt money is simply not available. Meanwhile, global economic weakness is ravaging private equity, with real estate close behind.

Many big institutions have been using the gains in their endowment portfolios for the funding of current operations. They are now faced with either sharply cutting operating budgets or selling investment assets. Charitable organizations and educational institutions are hurting big time. Harvard (one that has funded a major part of its operating budget from its endowment) has been dumping its private-equity stakes at 50 to 80 percent discounts, and recently raised money by issuing bonds. Pension funds, too, need cash. There is a desperate scramble for liquidity, which may force institutional investors to redeem from their large hedge-fund stakes.

As for individuals, they are just plain terrified from the wealth destruction they have suffered in the past year.

Does all this spell another horrendous year for the stock markets as a tsunami of forced selling overwhelms the great valuations that exist in many blue-chip stocks? Not necessarily, although it is a risk to bear in mind. I'm bullish because I'm a value investor. Stocks are dirt cheap, and I think that at some point this year we're going to have a massive rally. But whatever happens to stock markets, the hedge-fund industry in the future will be much smaller, far less leveraged and have considerably lower fees. Hedge-fund and private-equity managers have been among the most overcompensated executives in the history of the world. The golden years are over and gone, and I must admit the world will not be diminished by their passing.

Biggs is a managing partner of Traxis Partners hedge fund in New York.