Monday, June 22, 2009

The 7 Habits of Highly Suspicious Hedge Funds

Note: This post will appear in The Journal of Investment Management

You've heard this story before: A trader at a bank is knocking the cover off the ball. His success garners political power within the bank. He creates a fiefdom that insulates him from the rest of the firm; his trading group explodes in size. He lives a conspicuous, extravagant lifestyle. His ego alienates the management and intimidates the support staff. Then the trader hits a rough patch. He uses all the tricks in the book to keep his poor results under wraps while he tries to find a way to recoup. Everyone is gunning for him, so he has to get back into the black, and fast.

How does he try to do that? He ratchets up his risk. He knows he won’t be able to turn it around fast enough if he plays it prudently, whereas there is some chance to stay in the game if he bets it all on 00, or better yet, if he levers up as much as he can, borrows all the money he can get his hands on, and then bets all of that on 00. If he loses, well, he was going to be gone anyway, so he may as well try for the big time.

That is one of the reasons there are risk managers. Risk managers know to put extra focus on traders who are struggling and, for that matter, on traders who seem to have an eerily hot hand. Especially if those traders have the ability to lever and to obscure their risk through the use of sophisticated instruments.

This story is now primed to play out in the hedge fund space. How many hedge funds do you know that more or less fit this description: A hedge fund manager had a run of great returns. His fund has grown by leaps and bounds. He has doubled his staff year after year in anticipation of even greater things to come. He has enjoyed a Page Six lifestyle; he is the belle of the ball, his dance card always filled. But now his kingdom is under siege. Assets under management have dropped precipitously due to redemptions layered on top of poor trading results. The investors that remain are demanding reductions in management fees. Incentive fees are gone until he scales the wall to get back to high water mark. With the way his operation has ballooned, he realizes that if he doesn’t make serious returns over the next few years, he will be crushed under the costs and the dwindling asset base.

What does he do? If he follows the same course as the trader at the bank, he will try to find ways to take on more risk. Of course, any investment fund might face the same temptation, but hedge funds have more tools at their disposal to make good on the try. Hedge funds can lever, delve into wide-ranging and risky markets and readily employ the so-called innovative securities to increase risk in ways that are difficult to discern. And unlike the trader at the bank, the hedge fund can operate without anyone seeing what it is doing. No one is looking over its shoulder at the trading positions each night.

Is the risk management in place to deal with this scenario? Here are seven “habits” that an investor should look out for:

1. No independent risk reporting.

One lesson that has been driven home from Madoff is not to trust the numbers coming out of any fund. Or, at least, trust but verify. If things go wrong and that is what you relied on, you will look like a fool, or worse. The risk numbers must come from having a third party getting the fund’s positions and doing the analysis.

The risk reporting must go beyond the VaR numbers to include measures of leverage, concentration, degree of diversification and size in markets (to assess liquidity risk). Again, all independently provided.

The diversification and concentration are necessary because, as we now know all too well, the relationships between markets can change. These risk measures cannot be calculated simply by knowing how many markets the fund is trading. It is critical to know how linked the markets are; how concentrated positions are when aggregated across similar markets. With globalization, diversification opportunities aren’t what they used to be. And in any case, it isn’t much value to be active in twenty markets if two-thirds of the positions are in three or four markets that are closely related.

2. A change for the worse in the critical risk numbers.

When you get independent reporting, don’t stop with looking at these numbers as they stand today. Demand to know what they have been over the past years. Have the risk statistics changed for the worse? Have they been different than what was represented by the fund’s own, internally generated reports? For example, is the third-party view of leverage, liquidity or diversification as favorable as has been represented by the fund itself, both now and historically?

3. Increased use of derivatives.

In my recent Senate testimony, I said that derivatives are the weapon of choice for gaming the system. Among other things, derivatives can be used to hide increases in leverage. Their complexity and difficulty in marking means that they also can more easily hide losses. There should be extra concern if the fund has only recently decided to start using derivatives and swaps.

4. High level of secrecy.

Does the fund have a monolithic, scripted presence to outside investors? Does it obscure its approach with secret formulas and strategies? Does it invoke its need for secrecy to justify limiting access to essential risk information and to its production staff? If so, you might want to get ready for a Madoff moment.

5. Growth in headcount and lifestyle.

This is the firm’s equivalent of the trader’s lifestyle. The fund’s principles can stretch the envelope in terms of personal lifestyle, and, unlike their banker cousins, their firm is their own domain. They can get an “edifice complex”. If a firm has become bloated, if it has a growing cost base that forces it to be impatient, then it will be more desperate to swing for the fences.

6. Decline in assets under management.

This speaks to motive. The more assets have declined – or are projected to decline with expected redemptions – the greater the stress for the fund, and the more tempting to ratchet up the risk.

Related to this, is the fund far below high water mark? Hedge funds make money from fixed management fees based on assets under management and incentive fees based on the return they generate for their clients. Most hedge funds only start collecting the incentive fees after they get back to high water mark. If a hedge fund is thirty percent below high water market, it may need years of strong returns before any money starts ringing up in the incentive fee register.

7. Lackluster performance in recent years.

Most everyone was lackluster this past year. So you should look back at the recent performance before the 2008 debacle. A comparison of the performance over the past three to five years versus the performance in the more distant past can be an indicator of a failure of the fund’s inherent strategy. It could be that the space has become too crowded and competitive, that the fund has become too large to take advantage of inefficiencies, or that the inefficiencies the fund has focused on have closed down. This creates a pressure to reach. If things have been slowly petering out, if alpha has been diminishing, then more leverage and risk is needed to get back up to the target.

Or, in desperation, the fund might try something new. So a related phenomenon will be style drift or a move into new markets and strategies. Style drift can be an indication that the bread and butter strategy is not pulling its weight. Is there movement toward new markets, a.k.a. ‘new opportunities’. Is an equity fund hiring expertise to gear up in credit, is a macro fund starting to trade volatility?

Not everyone standing in the shadows is a mugger. And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Although "habits" like a lack of independent reporting are pretty obvious weaknesses, others, such as exploring new trading strategies, might be justifiable. But these are warning signs that justify deeper questioning and tighter oversight.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Citi 2015

The most exciting times in my career have not been when money was rolling in and everyone around the trading desk was sharing high-fives. It was when we were fighting to survive, when we were huddled in a boat in the middle of the stormy sea. That was the world of Salomon in the mid-1990s, when we were one step away from becoming non-investment grade. It was us against the world.

I visited Citigroup a few times over recent weeks and it reminds me of those times. Granted, it is not the world in which you would want to have found yourself. People have lost much of their wealth, in some cases they have had to make painful shifts in their lifestyle. They are seeing their compensation potential capped while competitors are being unshackled. They would be justified in feeling bitter for taking the brunt of all but criminal behavior by past management, head traders and risk officers.

But there are the seeds of a vibrant risk-taking culture. Not risk taking in the trading sense, but in the sense of moving beyond the complacency that comes with success, of being able to reinvent and create because they have to, and pulling together because there is no other way to survive. Taking the compensation out of the equation, I would take that over the gilded world of a bank that is doing everything right but is entrenched and self-satisfied. (I know someone is going to make an ‘other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln’ comment).

What will Citi look like in 2015? Using the Thomas Friedman approach, extrapolating out from a few random conversations in one corner of the firm, it looks like management is forcing a business focus that Citi has not had in the past. We also might see those who have lived through this crisis and stayed on forge working relationships, communication and determination that will change the core of the firm in a way that can’t be done with big pay checks. (More comments coming).

Right now the world is looking at the tactical issues, on where Citi will be in the next quarter or next year – will Citi stay alive and retain talent, cope with the psychological effects of life-altering economic losses. But looking out five or six years, I see the potential for Citi to be transformed. And in the process have a stock price that will greatly outperform its competition. For anyone who wants to put this in their calendar to remind me six years hence, my bet is that the stock price will be up over six-fold.

The Citi of the Weill era brings to mind visions of Jabba the Hutt. Indeed, I devoted a chapter of A Demon of Our Own Design to the inevitability of crisis at Citigroup. And it could have stayed that way for years to come. Surrounded by a sycophantic Board, a stock price languishing and opportunities passed by. Until, maybe decades into the future it would have finally, somehow, sunk under its own weight.

But now Citi has the opportunity to reach back into its genetic pool and emerge with the scrappiness and focus that Salomon had in its heyday. And it has something Salomon never had: a tremendous reach and franchise.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tasks for the Systemic Risk Regulator

As policymakers look to establish systemic-risk regulators, information is the key to success.

Note: This article was published in Institutional Investor magazine.

The more we understand about our wrecked financial system, the greater the clamor for a systemic-risk regulator. We want someone to save us from ourselves — or from the financial engineers who could blow the whole thing up again a few years down the road. Demand for a risk regulator, an idea that arose from the Treasury Department early last year, has now been embraced by the Group of 20 nations. Everyone wants a cop on the beat. But what would such a regulator do that the hodgepodge of current regulators cannot?

To answer that question, let’s first understand what we mean by systemic risk, and why it needs to be monitored. Systemic risk is driven largely by leverage. Leverage — borrowed money — is the force that amplified risk in the meltdown. Investment banks that once borrowed $10 for every dollar of equity were allowed to boost that to more than $30. As for hedge fund leverage, well, we can only guess. When a market downturn forces such highly leveraged investors to sell to meet their margin requirements, a crisis can cascade quickly. Selling pushes prices down, leading in turn to more forced selling.

The downward momentum is just the start of the problem. Many of those under pressure discover they no longer can sell in the market that is under stress. If they can’t sell what they want to sell, they have to sell whatever else they can, which leads to a downward spiral. This phenomenon explains why a crisis that started in the hinterland of subprime mortgages spread through the credit markets generally.

This contagion can expand beyond natural economic links. When the silver bubble burst in 1980, for example, the price of cattle suddenly came under pressure. Why? Because when the Hunt family had to meet margin calls on their silver positions, they sold whatever else they could. And they happened also to be invested in cattle.

To regulate systemic risk, then, we must understand systemic leverage, crowding (that is, when many speculators move into the same trade, pushing up prices in the process) and aggregated position holdings. Whatever their own risk-management capabilities, individual institutions cannot protect against systemic risk because they do not have this broader information. It is as if each player is sitting in a theater unaware of the others who might run for the exit.

Under current arrangements, regulators also lack the data to monitor systemic risk. They cannot track the concentration of investors by assets or by strategies, nor can they assess the risks inherent in the huge swaps and derivatives markets. Thus, they cannot map out how a failure in one market might multiply into others.

To solve this problem, financial products should be monitored the same way that food and drugs are. When salmonella was found in a peanut factory in Georgia in January, the Food & Drug Administration identified the contaminated products and tracked them all the way to the store shelf. This was possible because consumer products are tagged with a bar code. Why don’t we do the same for financial products? Require tags — bar codes if you will
to be attached to financial products so that regulators know what products are being held by each bank and hedge fund. This step would allow us to understand the potential for crisis events to have systemic consequences and help us anticipate — and hopefully prevent — the course of a systemic shock. It would allow us to identify situations where investors, even though they might be acting prudently on an individual level, are posing systemic risk through their aggregate positions.

Regulators also need to hold bank risk officers accountable. Why financial institutions ended up in such a mess is not much of a mystery. It was not the malfunction of sophisticated risk models or some 100-year flood that swamped the risk controls, it was a huge and unrelenting inventory buildup of illiquid and often complex securities — a buildup that was there to be seen and corrected. How did so many people miss this elephant in the room?

One likely factor is that the problem was passed up the chain of command until it got high enough to be ignored. In other words, the risk management failure within the banks was largely organizational; it had to do with incentives, lack of communication and plain old-fashioned bureaucracy.

To deal with this potential source of failure, the systemic-risk regulator must have direct lines of communication to the chief risk officers of major financial institutions. The regulator can act as the CRO’s ombudsman, an outside voice with the power to get things done if the risk officer’s own voice is not being heard within the firm. Having a link with the CROs of major banks and hedge funds would also allow the systemic-risk regulator to discern "flavor of the month" strategies and instruments that might portend crowding.

In addition, the regulator needs the capacity to learn from market crises. Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board did not bother to investigate crash sites or review flight recorders. Yet that is where we are in the financial sphere. In the aftermath of a market crisis, regulators must analyze the firm-level details of what has occurred. They also must eyeball new financial products for their systemic-risk potential. Does a new product increase the complexity or leverage in the marketplace? Does it make the market more opaque? This gets back to data: You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and you can’t measure what you can’t see.

Finally, for a systemic-risk regulator to be successful, we must change the mind-set behind regulation. Marching into a bank with a subpoena in one hand and a 60-page questionnaire in the other is not the way forward. Systemic-risk regulation is rocket science — and is probably beyond the experience of even the best lawyers at the Securities and Exchange Commission and bank supervisors at the Federal Reserve Board. We need to entice market professionals into government service. It might cost some Wall Street–type money to get them on board, but the bill will be way south of the $1 trillion or so we’ll spend on the bailout.

Adopting this strategy will not be pleasant; it will mean stepping on a lot of toes. But it doesn’t have to be tackled all at once. The first step — getting the data — is the critical one. Data can be collected efficiently and maintained securely by the regulator, starting first with the largest banks, then gradually moving to other banks and the larger hedge funds. The process of collecting the data can provide the inroads for connecting with the CROs and amassing industry expertise. And if we let the data speak, we will learn more about how to pursue the other tasks.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Derivatives Reform -- My Senate Testimony

I testified before the Senate yesterday in the hearing "Regulatory Reform and the Derivatives Markets". This is my written testimony. It was a well-constructed hearing with good representatives for a number of views and good questions from the Senators.

The testimony was treated at length in the New York Times.

Here is my previous testimony to the Senate and to the House.

Note: For those who are not familiar with the regulatory structure in the U.S., the Agriculture Committee historically has had oversight for the CFTC, because up until a few decades ago all futures were agricultural commodities. Because of that, they also have oversight for derivatives. There is constantly talk about merging the CFTC and the SEC for efficiency of regulation, but there also is value in having them separate, so that we have diversification in oversight. The new Chariman for the CFTC is Gary Gensler (yet another former Goldman Sachs person), who has strong support from the Committee, so I expect this corner of our market regulation will be in good hands.