Are Financialistas Over Hedge Fund Chic?

You can blame George Soros for making hedge funds the dark horse of the irrationally exuberant 1990s.

As the public face of the Quantum Group of Funds, Soros gained notoriety for short selling the English pound in September 1992 and allegedly making $1 billion in profits.  Adam Curtis observes in his riveting documentary The Mayfair Set (BBC, 1999) that Soros’ victory signalled the first time that market speculators had beaten a country’s central bank.  In the aftermath Soros cultivated a master trader persona based on his personal ‘theory of reflexivity’ or how ‘participant’s bias’ can shape our actions in and perceptions of market events.  Hedge fund chic arose in Wall Street as investment banks rushed to found hedge funds, which use leverage and pooled capital to manage assets, derivatives and securities for an investor group.

Financialistas however are showing signs of buyers’ remorse as subprime turbulence brings an end to Soros-inspired hedge fund chic.  The high-profile collapse of Bear Stearns‘ two hedge funds in mid 2007 was only a precursor, Hedge Fund Research notes, of 170 liquidated in early 2008.  The survivors have adopted Soros’ global macro strategy which relies on computational finance and dynamical models of currencies, interest rates and other macroeconomic factors to achieve returns.

Global macro is a risky strategy for several reasons: it requires forecasting models of complex interactions, computing power and fund mangers with impeccable judgment for asset allocation.  In fact global macro deals with a specific risk class known as systemic risk that results from business cycles and macroeconomic movements, thus it cannot be diversified away.  Add funds’ massive leverage of pooled securities, industry secrecy, little government regulation and hypercompetition between different funds and managers, and an accurate calculation of risk-return is difficult.  These challenges overshadow the potential of applied research solutions, such as Fritz Zwicky‘s morphological analysis, a problem-solving method which deals with ‘multi-dimensional, non-quantifiable problems’ – relevant to the macroeconomic factors and systemic risk in global macro strategies.

Hedge fund chic faces several other problems.  As an investment category hedge funds have matured and their combination of high leverage and high management fees are unsuitable for many non-institutional investors.  Subprime fallout is triggering change in US financial and regulatory institutions which will inevitably lead to more rules and regulatory oversight of edge funds and managers.  Internally, hedge funds also need to separate managerial processes (principal management, portfolio execution) from financial reporting (mark to market book) and governance (board, corporate and policies & procedures).

Which means despite Soros’ alchemical touch hedge fund chic may now be a fad.

Bryan Burrough on Bear Stearns’ Demise: A Dark Possibility

Bryan Burrough is legendary in M&A circles for co-writing Barbarians at the Gate (Harper & Row, New York, 1990) with John Helyar, the cautionary tale of RJR Nabisco’s leveraged buyout and the winner’s curse faced by deal-maker Henry Kravis.

Burrough’s latest investigation for Vanity Fair contends that short sellers used CNBC and other media outlets to spread rumours that destabilised Bear Stearns and sparked a liquidity run on the investment bank’s capital.  Burrough’s thesis has sparked debate that overshadows his investigation’s strengths: a strong narrative and character portraits, new details of the negotiations with JPMorgan Chase and the Federal Reserve, and a cause-effect arc that shifts from CNBC’s internal editorial debate to the effects its coverage has on the marketplace and the subjective perceptions of individual investors and senior decision-makers.

In the absence of a ‘secret team’ or a ‘smoking gun’ how could Burrough’s thesis be tested?

Theoretically, Burrough’s hypothesis fits with: (1) a broad pattern over two decades of how media outlets respond to media vectors, systemic crises and geostrategic surprises; (2) the causal loop dynamics and leverage points in systems modelling; (3) the impact that effective agitative propaganda can have in psychological operations; and (4) the complex dynamics and ‘strange loops’ in rumour markets (behavioural finance) and rumour panics (sociology), notably ‘information cascade’ effects on ‘rational herds’.

This is likely a ‘correlation-not-cause’ error although it does suggest a dark possibility for strategic intervention in financial markets: could this illustrative/theoretical knowledge be codified to create an institutional capability, deployed operantly, and which uses investor fears of bubbles, crashes, manias and various risk types as a pretext for misdirection?  Behavioural finance views on groups and panics, and George Soros‘ currency speculation against the Bank of England’s pound on Black Wednesday suggest the potential and trigger conditions may lie in the global currency/forex markets (using stochastic models like Markov Chain Monte Carlo for dynamic leverage in hedge funds) and money markets (using tactical asset allocation).  If possible, this capability could also create second- and third-order effects for regulators, the global financial system and macroeconomic structures, and volatility in interconnected markets, which may actually be more dynamic and resilient than this initial sketch indicates.

To meet quantitative standards and validate Burrough’s hypothesis a significant forensic and data analytics capability with error estimates would also be required.  ‘Strong’ proof may not be possible: Burrough’s hypothesis is probably an unsolvable ‘mystery’ rather than a solvable ‘puzzle’ (a distinction by intelligence expert Gregory Treverton that The New Yorker‘s Malcolm Gladwell later popularised).

Ironically, several CNBC analysts have already decided: they used parts of Burrough’s hypothesis to explain the subsequent short-selling driven volatility of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac‘s stock prices in mid-July 2008.