SKARBECK: Hedge fund superstars take it on the chin

  • Comments
  • Print

Lauded as “masters of the universe,” the star investment managers overseeing the largest hedge funds built
huge firms.

Many followers believed these managers, with their ability to go long or short and hedge their portfolios,
could consistently produce positive returns, uncorrelated to the ups and downs of the broader securities markets.

The auras surrounding many of these financial titans have faded, though, shattered by the market meltdown. Huge losses have
driven some out of business, while others have been left severely wounded.

Upon further review, many of these funds
were not properly hedged portfolios, but instead were pools of money run by cowboy capitalists, making huge bets with borrowed
money. That was the eventual source of their undoing.

On the heels of massive losses, waves of investors have requested
withdrawals. Unfortunately, some funds employed tactics to delay or block those demands since their portfolios were chock
full of illiquid and hard-to-value investments. As a result of the losses and illiquidity, investors such as pension funds
and endowments have been rethinking the significant allocations they have made in alternative investments.

endowments of Harvard and Yale universities had achieved excess returns for more than a decade from alternative investments,
yet both sustained 30-percent losses last year.

Among the once-esteemed alternative managers, Cerberus Capital,
run by Stephen Feinberg, has been trying to placate investors who want to withdraw $5 billion. That amounts to 70 percent
of the firm’s assets after a 24.5-percent loss in 2008. Cerberus sustained huge losses investing in Chrysler and GMAC.

Ken Griffin, the wunderkind of Chicago-based Citadel Investment Group, had generated 26-percent annualized returns
the past 17 years, but almost destroyed his firm with a 55-percent loss last year.

Citadel took out loans worth
nine times more than its assets, and spent much of last year trying to raise cash to pay back lenders.

You may
withhold your sympathy for Timothy Barakett, who earned $675 million in 2006, but closed Atticus Capital after losing 30 percent
last year.

Then there is John Meriwether, who presided over the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 2008,
and was forced to close his second hedge fund after losing 44 percent from September 2007 to February 2009.

Pequot Capital, at one time the world’s largest hedge fund under Art Samberg, liquidated in May after being cited by
the Securities & Exchange Commission in 44 cases of potential insider trading and market manipulation.

We once
noted—back in 2007, when the private-equity funds Blackstone and Fortress were going public—that those transactions
were signs of investment hype typically seen at peaks. Yet, predictably, the consultants to pensions and endowments were at
the time advising large allocations into alternative assets.

Now, ironically, as alternative investors seek to
extricate themselves from their illiquid investments, they are likely to cut deals to sell to vulture investors at bargain


Skarbeck is managing partner of Indianapolis-based Aldebaran Capital LLC,
a money management firm. His column appears every other week. Views expressed are his own. He can be reached at 818-7827 or

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.