Friday, September 7, 2007

Stock Research - Hedge Funds - If Bear Stearns Doesn't Know - Who Knows?

As the hedge fund world becomes bigger and bigger as more and more hot money seeks the elusive alpha of maximum performance, it is becoming apparent that more and more newspaper space will be devoted to hedge funds, and private equity. Recent news has taken us into the inner sanctum of Bear Stearns, truly a dominant investment firm in the world today. It might be argued that Bear Stearns is the best managed Wall Street firm in existence. Some might say Goldman Sachs. In any event Bear Stearns would have to be on the short list.

Investment firms for almost a decade sat by and watched hedge funds form, and amass vast investment capital pools while successfully charging 2% management fees, and 20% of the profits. Some of these hedge funds in a few years, have grown to possess capital bases equal to that of investment banking firms that have been around for generations. Taking some of the risks that were involved to achieve this performance is now coming home to roost.

Bear Stearns is the latest firm to stub its toe in the hedge fund industry. The firm is FAMOUS for quantifying and judging RISK before making its bets. This time however it seems that Bear Stearns threw its usual caution to the wind in embracing the formation of two hedge funds over the last year or so.

The second hedge fund was considered a more highly-leveraged version of Bears High Grade structured Credit Strategies fund which was formed last year. Both funds were managed by Ralph Cioffi, who up until recent events took hold, had the reputation of being a MASTER at this game, and the game is the subprime mortgage bond business.

Most people are not aware of it but Bear Stearns is the finest fixed income trading firm on the planet bar none, and this has been true for several generations. This makes recent events even more perplexing to understand.

Jimmy Cayne who is Bears CEO is embarrassed at the very least, and certainly upset enough that there will be major changes in the leadership of the units responsible for the pain being inflected on the firms reputation. This should not have happened at Bear Stearns, thats the point.

Actions Taken and Implications

Mr. Cayne has made the decision to inject $3.2 billion of Bear Stearns capital into a bail-out of the older fund. Bear is also negotiating with the banks that put up the credit facility for the other fund, the highly leveraged High-Grade Enhanced Leveraged fund. What Bear is trying to prevent is the forced sale of the debt obligations underlying the funds investments. These issues trade by appointment as they say, which means they rarely trade at all. Bear knows the Street smells blood, and will take advantage of any weakness that Bear shows.

So what are the implications of this latest hedge fund debacle? It clearly shows that the most sophisticated investors on the planet who put their money into hedge funds may in fact have NO IDEA what they are investing in. Instead, they are betting on the institutional reputation of the firms standing in back of the hedge funds. In this case nobody knew more about this market segment than Bear Stearns, yet they caught in a terrible position.

This is not Caynes fault, but as CEO, it is always his responsibility. I believe him to be the finest Wall Street executive of his generation. Nevertheless, his underlings certainly let him down, and they are among the highest paid people in the world today. Some of these industry veterans are drawing $10 million dollar annual incomes. Let the investor beware is the rule of the day, especially when it comes to hedge funds.

Richard Stoyecks background includes being a limited partner at Bear Stearns, Senior VP at Lehman Brothers, Kuhn Loeb, Arthur Andersen, and KPMG. Educated at Pace University, NYU, and Harvard University, today he runs Rockefeller Capital Partners and for a fuller version of this article please visit our website.