More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite

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9781594202551: More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite
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The first authoritative history of hedge funds-from their rebel beginnings to their role in defining the future of finance.

Based on author Sebastian Mallaby's unprecedented access to the industry, including three hundred hours of interviews, More Money Than God tells the inside story of hedge funds, from their origins in the 1960s and 1970s to their role in the financial crisis of 2007-2009.

Wealthy, powerful, and potentially dangerous, hedge fund moguls have become the It Boys of twenty-first ­century capitalism. Ken Griffin of Citadel started out trading convertible bonds from his dorm room at Harvard. Julian Robertson staffed his hedge fund with college athletes half his age, then he flew them to various retreats in the Rockies and raced them up the mountains. Paul Tudor Jones posed for a magazine photograph next to a killer shark and happily declared that a 1929-style crash would be "total rock-and-roll" for him. Michael Steinhardt was capable of reducing underlings to sobs. "All I want to do is kill myself," one said. "Can I watch?" Steinhardt responded.

Finance professors have long argued that beating the market is impossible, and yet drawing on insights from physics, economics, and psychology, these titans have cracked the market's mysteries and gone on to earn fortunes. Their innovation has transformed the world, spawning new markets in exotic financial instruments and rewriting the rules of capitalism.

More than just a history, More Money Than God is a window on tomorrow's financial system. Hedge funds have been left for dead after past financial panics: After the stock market rout of the early 1970s, after the bond market bloodbath of 1994, after the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998, and yet again after the dot-com crash in 2000. Each time, hedge funds have proved to be survivors, and it would be wrong to bet against them now. Banks such as CitiGroup, brokers such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, home lenders such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, insurers such as AIG, and money market funds run by giants such as Fidelity-all have failed or been bailed out. But the hedge fund industry has survived the test of 2008 far better than its rivals. The future of finance lies in the history of hedge funds.

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Review:

Sebastian Mallaby on Hedge Funds

I set out to write the history of hedge funds for two reasons. Explaining the most secretive subculture of our economy posed an irresistible investigative challenge; and the common view of hedge funds seemed ripe for correction. Hedge funds were generally regarded as the least stable part of the financial system. Yet they managed risk better than banks, investment banks, insurers, and so on—and they did so without a safety net from taxpayers.

Four years on, the book is done; and both my original motivations have been vindicated. Unearthing the story of hedge funds has been pure fun: From the left-wing anti-Nazi activist , A. W. Jones, to the irrepressible cryptographer, Jim Simons, the story of hedge funds is packed full of larger than life characters. Getting my hands on internal documents from George Soros’s Quantum Fund; visiting Paul Tudor Jones and reading the eureka emails he wrote in the middle of the night; poring over the entire set of monthly letters that the Julian Robertson wrote during the twenty year life of his Tiger fund; interviewing Stan Druckenmiller, Louis Bacon, and hundreds of other industry participants: my research has yielded a wealth of investment insights, as well as an understanding of why governments frequently collide markets. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2007-2009 vindicated my hypothesis that hedge funds are the good guys in finance. They came through the turmoil relatively unscathed, and never took a cent of taxpayers’ money.

Since the book has come out, many readers have posed the skeptical question: Do hedge funds really make money systematically? The answer is an emphatic yes; and without giving the whole book away, I can point to a couple of reasons why hedge funds do outsmart the supposedly efficient market.

First, hedge funds often trade against people who are buying or selling for some reason other than profit. In the currency markets, for example, hedge funders such as Bruce Kovner might trade against a central bank that is buying its own currency because it has a political mandate to prop it up. In the credit markets, likewise, a hedge fund such as Farallon might trade against pension funds whose rules require them to sell bonds of companies in bankruptcy. It’s not surprising that hedge funds beat the market when they trade against governments and buy bonds from forced sellers.

Second, the hedge-fund structure makes people compete harder. There is an incentive to manage the downside: hedge-fund managers have their own money in their funds, so they lose personally if they take losses. There is an incentive to seek out the upside: hedge-fund managers keep a fifth of their funds’ profits. This combination explains why hedge funds were up in 2007, when most other investors were losing their shirts; it explains why they were down in 2008 by only half as much as the S&P 500 index. People sometimes suggest that hedge funds survived the subprime bubble by fluke—perhaps their ranks include wacky misfits who are naturally contrarian. But there is more to it than that. John Paulson poured $2 million in the research that gave him the conviction to bet against the bubble. The hedge-fund structure created the incentive to make that investment.

Financial risk is not going away. Currencies and interest rates will rise and fall; there will be difficult decisions about how to allocated scarce capital in a sophisticated and specialized economy. The question is who will manage this risk without demanding a taxpayer backstop. The answer is hiding in plain sight: To a surprising and unrecognized degree, the future of finance lies in the history of hedge funds.

--Sebastian Mallaby

(Photo of Sebastian Mallaby © Julia Ewan)

About the Author:

Sebastian Mallaby has been a Washington Post columnist since 1999. From 1986 to 1999, he was on the staff of The Economist, serving in Zimbabwe, London, and Japan, and as the magazine's Washington bureau chief. He spent 2003 as a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and has written for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, and The New Republic, among others.

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