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How One Hedge Fund Helped Keep the Bubble Going

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On the Magnetar Trade

By Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein, ProPublica – April 9, 2010 1:00 pm EDT

In late 2005, the booming U.S. housing market seemed to be slowing. The Federal Reserve had begun raising interest rates. Subprime mortgage company shares were falling. Investors began to balk at buying complex mortgage securities. The housing bubble, which had propelled a historic growth in home prices, seemed poised to deflate. And if it had, the great financial crisis of 2008, which produced the Great Recession of 2008-09, might have come sooner and been less severe.

Precise Timing

At just that moment, a few savvy financial engineers at a suburban Chicago hedge fund [1] helped revive the Wall Street money machine, spawning billions of dollars of securities ultimately backed by home mortgages.

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When the crash came, nearly all of these securities became worthless, a loss of an estimated $40 billion paid by investors, the investment banks who helped bring them into the world, and, eventually, American taxpayers.

Yet the hedge fund, named Magnetar for the super-magnetic field created by the last moments of a dying star, earned outsized returns in the year the financial crisis began.

The Magnetar Trade

How Magnetar pulled this off is one of the untold stories of the meltdown. Only a small group of Wall Street insiders was privy to what became known as the Magnetar Trade [2]. Nearly all of those approached by ProPublica declined to talk on the record, fearing their careers would be hurt if they spoke publicly. But interviews with participants, e-mails [3], thousands of pages of documents and details about the securities that until now have not been publicly disclosed shed light on an arcane, secretive corner of Wall Street.

According to bankers and others involved, the Magnetar Trade worked this way: The hedge fund bought the riskiest portion of a kind of securities known as collateralized debt obligations — CDOs. If housing prices kept rising, this would provide a solid return for many years. But that’s not what hedge funds are after. They want outsized gains, the sooner the better, and Magnetar set itself up for a huge win: It placed bets that portions of its own deals would fail.

Chance Enhancement

Along the way, it did something to enhance the chances of that happening, according to several people with direct knowledge of the deals. They say Magnetar pressed to include riskier assets in their CDOs that would make the investments more vulnerable to failure. The hedge fund acknowledges it bet against its own deals but says the majority of its short positions, as they are known on Wall Street, involved similar CDOs that it did not own. Magnetar says it never selected the assets that went into its CDOs.

Magnetar says it was “market neutral,” meaning it would make money whether housing rose or fell. (Read their full statement. [4]) Dozens of Wall Street professionals, including many who had direct dealings with Magnetar, are skeptical of that assertion. They understood the Magnetar Trade as a bet against the subprime mortgage securities market. Why else, they ask, would a hedge fund sponsor tens of billions of dollars of new CDOs at a time of rising uncertainty about housing?

Key details of the Magnetar Trade remain shrouded in secrecy and the fund declined to respond to most of our questions. Magnetar invested in 30 CDOs from the spring of 2006 to the summer of 2007, though it declined to name them. ProPublica has identified 26 [5].

Independent Analysis

An independent analysis [6] commissioned by ProPublica shows that these deals defaulted faster and at a higher rate compared to other similar CDOs. According to the analysis, 96 percent of the Magnetar deals were in default by the end of 2008, compared with 68 percent for comparable CDOs. The study [6] was conducted by PF2 Securities Evaluations, a CDO valuation firm. (Magnetar says defaults don’t necessarily indicate the quality of the underlying CDO assets.)

From what we’ve learned, there was nothing illegal in what Magnetar did; it was playing by the rules in place at the time. And the hedge fund didn’t cause the housing bubble or the financial crisis. But the Magnetar Trade does illustrate the perverse incentives and reckless behavior that characterized the last days of the boom.

Major Players

Magnetar worked with major banks, including Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and UBS. At least nine banks helped Magnetar hatch deals. Merrill Lynch, Citigroup and UBS all did multiple deals with Magnetar. JPMorgan Chase, often lauded for having avoided the worst of the CDO craze, actually ended up doing one of the riskiest deals with Magnetar, in May 2007, nearly a year after housing prices started to decline. According to marketing material and prospectuses [5], the banks didn’t disclose to CDO investors the role Magnetar played.

Many of the bankers who worked on these deals personally benefited, earning millions in annual bonuses. The banks booked profits at the outset. But those gains were fleeting. As it turned out, the banks that assembled and marketed the Magnetar CDOs had trouble selling them. And when the crash came, they were among the biggest losers.

Assessment

Of course, some bankers involved in the Magnetar Trade now regret what they did. We showed one of the many people fired as a result of the CDO collapse a list of unusually risky mortgage bonds included in a Magnetar deal he had worked on. The deal was a disaster. He shook his head at being reminded of the details and said: “After looking at this, I deserved to lose my job.”

Magnetar wasn’t the only market player to come up with clever ways to bet against housing. Many articles and books, including a bestseller by Michael Lewis [7], have recounted how a few investors saw trouble coming and bet big. Such short bets can be helpful; they can serve as a counterweight to manias and keep bubbles from expanding.

Magnetar’s approach had the opposite effect — by helping create investments it also bet against, the hedge fund was actually fueling the market. Magnetar wasn’t alone in that: A few other hedge funds also created CDOs they bet against. And, as the New York Times has reported, Goldman Sachs did too. But Magnetar industrialized the process, creating more and bigger CDOs.

Conclusion

Several journalists have alluded to the Magnetar Trade in recent years, but until now none has assembled a full narrative. Yves Smith, a prominent financial blogger who has reported on aspects of the Magnetar Trade, writes in her new book, “Econned,” [8] that “Magnetar went into the business of creating subprime CDOs on an unheard of scale. If the world had been spared their cunning, the insanity of 2006-2007 would have been less extreme and the unwinding milder.”

And so, your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Dr. Mike Burry, please opine. All feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, be sure to subscribe. It is fast, free and secure.

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Video on Hedge Fund Manager Michael Burry MD

In The Subprime of His Life – My Story

By Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA, CMP™

[Editor-in-Chief]

I am a long time fan of financial industry journalist Michael Lewis [Liars’ Poker, Moneyball and others] who just released a new book. The Big Short is a chronicle of four players in the subprime mortgage market who had the foresight [and testosterone] to short the diciest mortgage deals: Steve Eisner of FrontPoint, Greg Lippmann at Deutsche Bank, the three partners at Cornwall Capital, and most indelibly, Wall Street outsider Michael Burry MD of Scion Capital.

They all walked away from the disaster with pockets full of money and reputations as geniuses.

About Mike

Now, I do not know the first three folks, but I do know a little something about my colleague Michael Burry MD; he is indeed a very smart guy. Mike is a nice guy too, who also has a natural writing style that I envy [just request and read his quarterly reports for a stylized sample]. He gave me encouragement and insight early in my career transformation – from doctor to “other”.

And, he confirmed my disdain for the traditional financial services [retail sales] industry, Wall Street and their registered representatives and ‘training’ system, and sad broker-dealer ethos [suitability versus fiduciary accountability] despite being a hedge fund manager himself.

I mentioned him in my book: “Insurance and Risk Management Strategies” [For Physicians and their Advisors].

http://www.amazon.com/Insurance-Management-Strategies-Physicians-Advisors/dp/0763733423/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269254153&sr=1-2

He ultimately helped me eschew financial services organizations, “certifications”, “designations” and ”colleges”, and their related SEO rules, SEC regulations and policy wonks; and above all to go with my gut … and go it alone!

And so, I rejected my certified financial planner [marketing] designation status as useless for me, and launched the www.CertifiedMedicalPlanner.org on-line educational program for physician focused financial advisors and management consultants interested in the healthcare space … who wish to be fiduciaries.

And I thank Mike for the collegial good will. By the way, Mike is not a CPA, nor does he posses an MBA or related advanced degree or designation. He is not a middle-man FA. He is a physician. Unlike far too many other industry “financial advisors” he is not a lemming.

IOW: We are not salesman. We are out-of-the-box thinkers, innovators and contrarians by nature. www.MedicalBusinessAdvisors.com

From a Book Review

According to book reviewer Michael Osinski, writing in the March 22-29 issue of Businessweek.com, Lewis is at his best working with characters and Burry is rendered most vividly.

A loner from a young age, in part because he has a glass eye that made it difficult to look people in the face, Burry excelled at topics that required intense and isolated concentration. Originally, investing was just a hobby while he pursued a career in medicine. As a resident neurosurgeon at Stanford Hospital in the late 1990s, Burry often stayed up half the night typing his ideas onto a message board. Unbeknownst to him, professional money managers began to read and profit from his freely dispensed insight, and a hedge fund eventually offered him $1 million for a quarter of his investment firm, which consisted of a few thousand dollars from his parents and siblings. Another fund later sent him $10 million”.

“Burry’s obsession with finding undervalued companies eventually led him to realize that his own home in San Jose, Calif., was grossly overpriced, along with houses all over the country. He wrote to a friend: “A large portion of the current [housing] demand at current prices would disappear if only people became convinced that prices weren’t rising. The collateral damage is likely to be orders of magnitude worse than anyone now considers.” This was in 2003.

“Through exhaustive research, Burry understood that subprime mortgages would be the fuse and that the bonds based on these mortgages would start to blow up within as little as two years, when the original “teaser” rates expired. But Burry did something that separated him from all the other housing bears—he found an efficient way to short the market by persuading Goldman Sachs (GS) to sell him a CDS against subprime deals he saw as doomed. A unique feature of these swaps was that he did not have to own the asset to insure it, and over time, the trade in these contracts overwhelmed the actual market in the underlying bonds”.

“By June 2005, Goldman was writing Burry CDS contracts in $100 million lots, “insane” amounts, according to Burry. In November, Lippmann contacted Burry and tried to buy back billions of dollars of swaps that his bank had sold. Lippmann had noticed a growing wave of subprime defaults showing up in monthly remittance reports and wanted to protect Deutsche Bank from potentially massive losses. All it would take to cause major pain, Lippmann and his analysts deduced, was a halt in price appreciation for homes. An actual fall in prices would bring a catastrophe. By that time, Burry was sure he held winning tickets; he politely declined Lippmann’s offer”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Link: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_12/b4171094664065.htm

My Story … Being a Bit like Mike

I first contacted Mike, by phone and email, more than a decade ago. His hedge fund, Scion Capital, had no employees at the time and he outsourced most of the front and back office activities to concentrate on position selection and management. Early investors were relatives and a few physicians and professors from his medical residency days. Asset gathering was a slosh, indeed. And, in a phone conversation, I remember him confirming my impressions that doctors were not particularly astute investors. For him, they generally had sparse funds to invest as SEC “accredited investors” and were better suited for emerging tax advantaged mutual funds. ETFs were not significantly on the radar screen, back then, and index funds were considered unglamorous. No, his target hedge-fund audience was Silicon Valley.

And, much like his value-hero Warren Buffett [also a Ben Graham and David Dodd devotee], his start while from the doctor space, did not derive its success because of them.

Moreover, like me, he lionized the terms “value investing”, “margin of safety” and “intrinsic value”.

Co-incidentally, as a champion of the visually impaired, I was referred to him by author, attorney and blogger Jay Adkisson www.jayadkisson.com Jay is an avid private pilot having earned his private pilot’s license after losing an eye to cancer.

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Mike again re-entered my cognitive space while doing research for the first edition of our successful print book: “Financial Planning Handbook for Physicians and Advisors” and while searching for physicians who left medicine for alternate careers!

In fact, he wrote the chapter on hedge funds in our print journal and thru the third book edition before becoming too successful for such mundane stuff. We are now in our fourth edition, with a fifth in progress once the Obama administration stuff [healthcare and financial services industry “reform” and new tax laws] has been resolved

http://www.amazon.com/Financial-Planning-Handbook-Physicians-Advisors/dp/0763745790/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269211056&sr=1-1

Assessment

News: Dr. Burry appeared on 60 Minutes Sunday March 14th, 2010. His activities with Scion Capital are portrayed in Michael Lewis’s newest book, The Big Short.  An excerpt is available in the April 2010 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, and at VanityFair.com 

Video of Dr. Burry: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6298040n&tag=contentBody;housing

Video of Dr. Burry: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6298038n&tag=contentBody;housing

PS: Michael Osinski retired from Wall Street and now runs Widow’s Hole Oyster Co. in Greenport, NY http://www.widowsholeoysters.com

And, our www.MedicalBusinessAdvisors.com related books can be reviewed here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=david+marcinko

Assessment

Visit Scion Capital LLC and tell us what you think http://www.scioncapital.com.

And to Mike himself, I say “Mazel Tov” and congratulations? I am sure you will be a good and faithful steward. The greatest legacy one can have is in how they treated the “little people.” You are a champ. Call me – let’s do lunch. And, I am still writing: www.BusinessofMedicalPractice.com for the conjoined space we both LOVE.

Conclusion

Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, subscribe to the ME-P. It is fast, free and secure.

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  Risk Management, Liability Insurance, and Asset Protection Strategies for Doctors and Advisors: Best Practices from Leading Consultants and Certified Medical Planners™  Comprehensive Financial Planning Strategies for Doctors and Advisors: Best Practices from Leading Consultants and Certified Medical Planners™

[Dr. Cappiello PhD MBA] *** [Foreword Dr. Krieger MD MBA]

***

On Financial Sector Failings

Understanding the Debacle

[By Staff Reporters]56371606

Did you know that Michael Lewis and David Einhorn recently gave a nice review of the financial system catastrophe, and its devastating flaws, causes and effects, in the January 3rd 2009 New York Times?

Exposing the Flaws

In review of How to Repair a Broken Financial World, they said:

1. Wall Street CEOs won’t self-incriminate or blow the whistle on their own companies [Think: thin-blue line]. And, they receive bonuses and are on peer-compensation committees. Perhaps they might even be fired if they self-accuse of irresponsibility.

2. The credit-rating agencies, which are supposed to carefully measure the amount of risk that companies take, dropped the ball.

For example Fannie, Freddie, GE and AIG all had triple-A ratings; remember Enron? But, they disguised the risk, rather than expose it. Why? Because they would have to re-rate tens of thousands of credits tied to them, as well as increase their own cost-of-capital; integrity and reputations be damned! And, did the big financial firms contribute to those very same credit-rating agencies [pay-2-play]?

3. Was Chris Cox and the Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] competent enough, or motivated enough, to do its job and investigate the Madoff scheme even after being warned about it?

Assessment

Can you cite some other, even more pernicious, flaws? For example; how did the mortgage industry’s engorgement of commission-driven sales, and the consumer sentiment to “own a home – at all costs” factor into the fault-line?   

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/opinion/04lewiseinhornb.html?_r=1

Conclusion

Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, subscribe to the ME-P. It is fast, free and secure.

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