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David Wong

If Hedge Funds are the good child of Capitalism, are Banking Institutions their Evil Twin?

Give me control of a nation’s money supply, and I care not who makes its laws.

– Mayer Amschel Rothschild

Post credit crisis, the spotlight was already trained on large ‘unregulated’ investment vehicles. Then we had the Bernie Madoff ponzi scandal. This was followed closely by one of the largest insider trading case worthy of a Hollywood script – the Raj Rajaratnam Galleon case which snared senior management from some of the most prestigious Wall Street and consultancy firms.

Main Street was hit with a triple whammy – reeling from the fact that taxpayers’ money is being used to bailout banks that took on too much risk, against a backdrop of the steepest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, which was further exacerbated by the unpopular war on two fronts. Obama said he did not run for president to bail out a bunch of fat cat bankers. A witch-hunt was inevitable.

The opaque nature of the Hedge Fund industry proved an easy target. In theory, hedge funds are just capitalist. They will tear a firm down if it makes money and build it back up if it makes even more. Capitalism at its very best – hedge funds help allocate capital more efficiently by punishing inefficient firms (through short-selling) and rewarding the well-managed ones (by purchasing their stocks). As part of a group of international private investors with a sizeable war chest measuring hundreds of billions, hedge funds can significantly affect global markets and the economies of nations. As such, hedge fund failures are often well-documented as their strategies are laid bare for the ensuing media scrutiny.

Long Term Capital Management’s spectacular implosion destroyed $4.6 billion. Most of it belonged to the firm’s partners. Despite its trillion dollar off-balance sheet derivative positions (due to leverage), no taxpayers’ money was used to bail them out. Subsequent academic studies noted that the Fed’s intervention, despite its good intentions, was misguided and unnecessary as it set precedence for regulating hedge fund-activity. The Fed may have helped shareholders and managers of LTCM to get a better deal than they would have otherwise obtained in a rescue effort that involved a consortium of Wall Street and international banks.

When Amaranth blew up in a $6 billon bet on natural gas that went bad, another hedge fund, Citadel, stepped in and took over Amaranth’s books. This time, the markets barely flinched. As Sebastian Mallaby, author of More Money than God, puts it: “hedge funds can be a fire-starter as well as a fire-fighter”.

The global financial system and banking institutions are so intertwined that recent events have shown some banks are clearly too big to fail. Hedge funds, on the other hand, are generally small enough to fail. When hedge funds blow up, taxpayers do not foot the bill. The same cannot be said for banking institutions.

During the recent credit crisis triggered by the bursting of the US housing bubble, two of the most hallowed investment banks on Wall Street converted to bank holding companies to take advantage of a lifeline from the Fed. The rest either went bankrupt, got taken over or got bailed out. Beyond the euphemisms, firms like Citigroup, JP Morgan, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Merill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley were bailed out by the American taxpayers through the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). In the UK, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Northern Rock ran into the arms of the British government. Northern Rock became the first bank in 150 years to suffer a bank run. Images of the public queuing up to withdraw their money from the bank were plastered on national newspapers and will forever be seared in the minds of Northern Rock’s customers.

Whilst Hedge Funds and Banking Institutions can both be guilty of gambling with OPM (other people’s money), the hedge fund captain is more likely to go down with the ship. Hedge funds go to great lengths to justify their management and performance fees in order to align their interest with that of their investors. Fund partners often (though not always) have a significant proportion of their personal wealth invested in their own fund. In banking, on the other hand, there is a clear dislocation between management incentives and accountability. With the benefit of hindsight, incredulously, the system is essentially rigged to encourage excessive risk taking. Couple that with deregulation and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and we have ourselves a recipe for disaster. History has shown that given enough rope, some of us have a tendency to hang ourselves. The problem then arises when ‘some of us’ (that may hang ourselves i.e. banks) happen to possess enormous financial power by virtue of their control of other people’s money.

The recent credit crisis may have provided ammunition to opponents of the laissez-faire approach to managing economies. One of the basic tenets of the free-market capitalist approach is that firms should be allowed to fail. Like Social Darwinism, only the strong survive and the weak die out. On the other hand, ideas of socialism while appealing, begin a slippery slope down into communism. The problem with capitalism is the inherent disparity of wealth that creates fault lines between the ‘haves and the have nots’. The problem with socialism is that it undoubtedly leads to ‘free riding and slacking’, or as Margaret Thatcher once said: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money [to spend]”. Recent financial events have drawn parallels with a common joke that begins:

 

A beautiful and shallow woman said to an intelligent and ugly man: “We should get married, so our children will be as beautiful as me and as smart as you”. The man replied: “What if our children turn out to be dumb like you and ugly like me?”

This worst of both worlds approach seems to caricaturize the recent tumultuous events of our financial markets post 2007. When we have ‘too big to fail’ in a supposedly capitalistic economy, we end up with the problems of capitalism (huge disparity of wealth) AND the problems of socialism (spending other people’s money) BUT with NONE of their benefits.

Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and Founding Father of the United States of America – the last bastion of free-market capitalism once said that “banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies”.

 

What about hedge funds that take on excessive risk through high leverage and speculation? Hedge fund luminary, George Soros, is infamous for being “the Man Who Broke the Bank of England” when his currency trade forced the United Kingdom out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (a precursor to the Euro). He netted $1bn by betting on the devaluation of the pound sterling in 1992. The total cost to British taxpayers by the botched attempt to prop up the pound was put at $6.1bn (£3.3bn). Subsequent information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act noted that “if the British government had maintained $24bn foreign currency reserves and the pound had fallen by the same amount, the UK would have made a £2.4bn profit on sterling’s devaluation”.

During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahatir Mohamad publicly criticized Soros as an ‘immoral financial speculator’ while Soros described Mahatir as a ‘menace to his country’ (Mahatir later accepted that Soros was not responsible for the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis). The crisis started in Thailand when the Thai baht collapsed. Thailand had already acquired a burden of foreign debt which effectively made the country bankrupt before the collapse of its currency. Soros defended his actions by saying “speculation could benefit poor societies if it serves as a signal, not a sledgehammer”. It is worth noting that Soros held back from an all-out attack on the Thai baht. In 1992, Soros sold $10bn worth of sterling at around 2.5x the firm’s capital. The $2bn Thai trade was only one-fifth of the firm’s capital. An all-out attack would have precipitated a crisis rather than encourage the Thai government to avoid one.

In the wake of the Thai baht devaluation, Soros funds gained about $750m whilst Thailand’s economic output plunged 17% and millions fell into poverty. Hedge funds were inevitably vilified. But in a larger context, the roots of the crisis stretched back several years where ‘hot money’ pushed the Thai economy into bubble territory. The Soros team had indeed led the short selling but the actions of hedge funds were in-part vindicated when the crisis spilled over to other Asian countries that engaged in ‘crony capitalism’ like Indonesia and Malaysia. What is not usually cited is the fact that Soros lost $800m buying the rupiah as he wrongly believed the turmoil in Thailand had spilled over to neighboring Indonesia without justification. This essentially wiped out all the gains he made in Thailand. President Suharto and his cronies who controlled Indonesia’s banks drove the country to a crisis which resulted in his own downfall. Hedge funds may have triggered the avalanche, but it was the government officials who allowed snow to build up to such dangerous levels in the first place.

Hedge funds reap the rewards when they are right and pay the price when they are wrong. Banks reap the rewards when they are right but taxpayers pay the price when they (banks) are wrong. This case of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ has played key role in precipitating the recent capricious events resulting from the credit crunch.

 

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David Wong

What role did Hedge Funds play in the credit crisis?

I have been asked numerous times along the lines of “What was the role of Hedge Funds in precipitating the credit crisis?”

The short and simple answer is: They are NOT responsible for the credit crunch. (If anything, Hedge Funds as unregulated investment vehicles probably help keep the markets in check). Below is the long answer I posted on a discussion forum which attracted recommendations and interests, as such I am reposting here.

If you have to draw the line somewhere like with all market cycles, post dot-com crash or 9-11 in 2001 would be a good arbitrary starting point. The key points to remember are:

1) Greenspan kept interest rates for far too low after 9-11 and the dot-com crash – fuelling a credit bubble.

2) This cheap credit meant a housing bubble, as low rates = low mortgage = let’s all buy a house! Happy days!

3) As house prices went up, banks ran out of people to loan money to, they went to subprime or Alt-A (alternative to A-paper).

4) From subprime/Alt-A, greed led us to NINJA loans. No income, no jobs and no asset. These people can’t even prove their income but they can get a mortgage. Happy days!

5) House prices were going up, banks kept lending at record low rates, paying themselves huge bonuses. Everyone was doing it. Can’t beat ‘em join ‘em mentality. Risk was perceived to be low as everyone believed this housing boom was going to continue. Therefore, banks can easily repossess and sell the houses on, fuelling predatory lending.

6) The loans were packaged up, sliced up and sold on worldwide (e.g. European/Japanese pension funds/institutions).

7) ‘Experts’ argue that never in the US history has there been a NATIONWIDE simultaneous fall in the housing market. (Blackswan event, God I hate that word) This led to the belief that securitized mortgages are relatively ‘safe’.

8 ) Pension funds can only buy triple A or AAA rated investments. Investment banks got around that problem by mixing up subprime loans with top rated ones. Paid good money to Moodys and S&P to rate them triple A. The rational was that not everyone is going to default at the same time (see no. 7). The CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) spread the risk around…

9) Hedge funds act like vultures. They are like the market vigilante. Some of the top guys like Michael Burry, John Paulson, Andrew Lahde (my favorite because he knew when to call it quits) begin to explore ways to short housing.

10) This proved to be almost impossible. They could short firms like NATIONWIDE or homebuilders but naked short selling = their losses can be unlimited and the market can remain irrational than we can remain solvent. (Some managers who correctly foresaw the crash lost money because they bet too early and the market still kept going up.)

11) So smart guys like Paulson found a way to bet against housing by buying Credit Default Swaps (CDS). It is sort of like an insurance policy in case the loan goes bad. His line of reasoning is that, when mortgage-backed securities go bad, everyone will be scrambling to buy insurance because their loans will be worthless.

12) As Nouriel Roubini puts it: “It is weird that these CDSs (insurance policy) can be traded around freely. For example if you own a house, only YOU can buy fire insurance for it. But in the case of this credit crunch, I or anyone can buy insurance for your house insuring it multiple times, and then sell it on later essentially betting on your house burning down.”

13) On a side show, Goldman Sachs got hauled up to congress to explain the fact that they helped Paulson & co picked the worst tranches to bet against. GS later turned around and bet against housing themselves.

14) Those that did not bet against housing were geared and long – and as it turns out they were also ‘long and wrong’. Banks were highly leveraged: 30:1 for Lehman 42:1 in Bear Stearns’ case. It was a case of the sausage makers keeping all the sausages on their books despite knowing what went into them.

15) It was only a matter of time when homeowners started defaulting. It became a snowball effect. When half your neighbourhood is being foreclosed, the value of your home plummets. You bought your house for 500k, now it is worth 300k. You hand in the keys and walk away. So more defaults again!

16) Now all the banks are scrambling to buy CDS. House is on fire! CDS shoot through the roof. Guess who is holding it? The hedge funds who correctly bet on them like Paulson.

17) AIG (yup US taxpayers money bailed them out) wrote most of the CDS and sold it dirt cheap. In traders’ lingo – you have AIG making money paying huge bonuses selling insurance policy for houses built from flammable material next to a pyrotechnic factory located on an earthquake fault line. It was a case of ‘picking up nickels and dimes in front of a steamroller/freight train’.

18) No problem – when AIG was about to go down, we have TOO BIG TO FAIL. Lehman was Goldman Sachs number one competitor but they were allowed to fail. If AIG went down, Goldman Sachs was on the hook. But no problem, the then Secretary Hank Paulson was former CEO of Goldman Sachs (conflict of interest?). Hank played a key role in bailing out AIG. AIG straight away paid back Goldman. Make of this what you will. “It is Government Sachs mate. GS is a branch of the US government.” (That was what a friend said to me.)

19) When the market tanked, a lot of institutions started pulling funds from hedge funds. Some of which were geared/leveraged. They then had to unload their positions in thin market causing a death spiral. Liquidity problem killed them.

20) So do hedge funds have a role in causing the crash? Answer = NO! They were as much a casualty as well as a profiteer.

So what caused the credit crunch? Well, no simple answer. I tried to keep it to 20 sentences. I guess it is a case of pluralistic ignorance, greed, hubris and regulation (or the lack of it)?

“If I had known I was going to fall down, I would have sat down” old Polish proverb