Friday, April 03, 2009

Going with what we had

My journalism class (Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Class of ’69) is approaching its 40th reunion at the end of this month. The e-mail traffic has been frenzied in preparation.

It’s good reading with this group, which, as you might expect, knows how to turn a phrase.

Several have recalled that eons ago in the school’s writing classes, we were reminded, as deadlines loomed, “to go with what you’ve got” — for better or worse.

Back then it usually was worse, but never mind.

Forty years on, my classmates are ordering sweatshirts that read: “We went with what we had.”

I won’t bore you with specifics, but what we “had” since graduation was pretty darn good.

That said, 40 years ago none of us imagined that our own retirements would be accompanied by the retirements of newspapers themselves.

All of which led one wag to suggest that the words on the sweatshirts should read:

"What we had — went."

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

White Stag worthy words

Randy's right. That would be Portland city commissioner Randy Leonard.

Plastering “The University of Oregon” on the “White Stag” sign is a condemnable waste of public space. Provincial, provincial, provincial!

(And these university people are supposed to be smart and creative....)

Here are some one-liner candidates to greet folks as they exit the Banfield Freeway. After reading each, imagine it on the sign.

“Weird forever!”

“You’ve Arrived, again!”

“The Time is always NOW!”

“Just how awake are you?
Yes, YOU!”

“Endings are beginnings”

“Oregon: A State of Mind”

"Peace is the Way"

Your turn.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hedge Hog "Hogwash" — Part II: What they do

Chris Clair’s rebuttal of my questioning the compensation and worth of hedge fund managers continues.

For those who would like to follow the thread back to its Red Electric origins, my initial post, which invited Chris to comment, is here.

Part I of his response is here. I'll post Part III later in the week.

Note: Chris, a friend, journalist and former student, has reported on the hedge fund industry for the past eight years. He lives and works in Chicago and is the managing editor of Reuters HedgeWorld.


So what are hedge fund managers doing to earn positive returns? The best and brightest hedge fund managers exploit price inefficiencies in the market. They bet against securities (stocks, bonds and their derivatives) they believe are overvalued and buy securities they believe are underpriced or that have growth potential. Different managers do this in different ways and employ varying degrees of risk. Some funds are very low-risk and are designed to provide steady, incremental returns – say, 10% to 15% per year – in all market conditions (whether stocks are way up, way down or flat). Some funds use lots of leverage (borrowed money) to increase returns, or trade in complex securities that few understand, thereby raising the level of risk. The type of strategy any particular hedge fund follows and its riskiness is outlined in its offering documents.

Speaking of offering documents, I have to digress for a second here to talk about the “gambling” issue. Rick, you wrote, “Then there’s the question of whether the top 25 actually did anything to “earn” their largesse besides gamble with other people’s money.” Hedge funds invest money on behalf of other investors, but most hedge fund managers also place their own money in the funds they manage. In fact, outside investors often won’t even consider a relationship with a hedge fund manager that does not place a substantial amount of his or her own net worth in the funds that manager runs. It’s about alignment of interests. So while the managers are investing other people’s money, they are also investing their own money.

Additionally, it's not like the hedge fund managers stole the money they invest from somewhere; when the system works correctly, investors conduct extensive due diligence on managers and make a careful and conscious decision to gamble their own money. It's up to the investor to understand what he or she is investing in. Caveat emptor!

If one wants a risk-free investment, one should buy Treasury bills or open a savings account. Historically - like over the past 100 years – stocks have returned about 11% annually and bonds something less than that. When you experience years like we had in the 90s, (between 1990 and 1999 the average annual return of the U.S. stock market was nearly double what it was from 1926 through 1999), and the same in the middle part of this decade, you can bet there's going to be a reversion to the mean. In other words, people who got in at the end are going to lose money, at least in the short term.

Instead we seem to keep buying into the notion that every time we enter a bull market, it's a "new paradigm" and the "old rules" don't apply. That's just stupidity. So of course any investment in the stock market or anything else (even Treasuries when you get right down to it) carries the risk of loss. Hell, stuffing money in your mattress carries the risk of loss (fire, flood) but without any possibility of earning a positive return.

The hedge fund manager’s job is to earn money in all markets – to be smart enough to avail himself or herself of all the investment tools at his or her disposal to earn investors a positive return no matter what. Historically, the good ones have done that, which is why they can get away with charging higher fees. In the process they have helped boost university endowment returns and protected workers’ pensions. Even last year, the worst year on record for hedge funds (the average fund was down 19%) they still performed only half as bad as the stock market. And since the bulk of a hedge fund manager’s compensation comes from the performance fee, when a hedge fund manager loses money he gives up most of his or her income. And not just for that year, either. Most hedge funds have what are known as “high water marks,” whereby the manager must make up all that he has lost and then some before he can begin collecting the performance fee again. After 2008’s debacle, some hedge fund managers may not collect performance fees this year or next year.

I make that point simply to illustrate that not all hedge fund managers are John Paulson or George Soros, that some of them are essentially small businessmen and that they also face the same risk of loss as their investors.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Blogs for Budding Journalists

Today a student asked me THAT question again: Is there a future in a career in journalism?

I was a bit quicker to respond than the last time I was asked just a couple of weeks ago.

“As long as there is a need for clear, concise writing and fair and accurate reporting, there will be a need for journalists.” Then I added, "Whether journalists actually will be practicing journalism, is another question." (Two more newspapers tanked today.)

I was pleased to see that my answer didn’t deter her.

"I know I need 'clips' to get into graduate school. Where can I get published?”

The community college where I teach shut down its student newspaper several years ago. It was a poor excuse for a newspaper. Each sophomoric (literally and figuratively) issue displayed its lack of professional guidance and administration support.

It was, in short, an embarrassment.

Then an idea struck me. “Do you have a blog?” I asked.

She didn’t, so I encouraged her to start one. And I went farther. “If you’ll start one, I’ll read it. And if you like, I’ll comment on it. In exchange, you should read mine and comment on it.”

There it was, blogging buddies. Or blogging co-editors. Or co-mentors.

I have no idea what will become of the idea — or her resolve, but my suggestion seemed like excellent advice as a way to prepare for the future of journalism, whatever it might be.

I just googled “blogging" and "buddies” and, of course, got a host of responses. This one seemed particularly helpful.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Hedge Hog "Hogwash" — Part I: Contributions

Chris Clair, friend, journalist and former student, has reported on hedge funds and the financial industry for eight years. He lives and works in Chicago and is the managing editor of Reuters HedgeWorld.

I invited him to respond to my recent post, "Top Hedge Hogs of 2008." He has been kind enough to do so.

As you will see, he takes serious exception to my suggestion that hedge fund managers don’t earn their keep. I’ll run his response in three parts over the next few days.

Thanks, Chris, for taking the time to share your observations.


The quick and dirty response to your observation, "By comparison to most American workers, hedge fund managers contribute zilch and should be paid accordingly," is “hogwash.” The devil is in the details, however, so let’s get into some.

There are probably 4,000 or 5,000 hedge fund managers in the world, give or take a thousand. To say none of them contribute anything casts the net too wide. One can examine a sample of 4,000 or 5,000 anything – waitresses, teachers, nurses, policemen, construction workers, politicians, journalists – and find a certain percentage who don’t appear to contribute to the economy or to society, or who don’t contribute on a par with what they earn.

If you ask which bothers me more – knowing John Paulson earned $2.8 billion or knowing a half-dozen politically-connected trucking firms were paid millions of dollars by the city of Chicago for doing nothing – my answer is the trucking scandal, hands-down. John Paulson’s salary in and of itself doesn’t affect me. Having my tax dollars wasted affects me – by misallocating resources and depriving worthy and necessary projects the funds they need. And in fact, although there is a strong argument to be made that John Paulson does not pay enough in taxes on his income, at least he pays some taxes. Government waste squanders money and actually is a negative contribution to society and to the economy.

Two questions I see contained in your “Hedge Hogs” post, Rick, are “What does it mean to contribute?” and “How much money is ‘too much?’”

I’ll discuss later some ways hedge fund managers earn their money (and make money for their investors) and this notion of “too much.” For now I’ll focus on the contribution question. It’s true that hedge funds do not manufacture anything. But they do provide jobs, and not just jobs for traders with Ivy League business degrees. They hire analysts with economics degrees and clerical staff, for instance. These are good-paying jobs filled by people with all manner of experience, including some who don’t have the skills to work in construction or the temperament for teaching or the compassion to be a nurse. Hedge funds pay these employees good salaries – better than waitressing – and that money is in turn spent elsewhere.

The presence of hedge funds also means jobs for accountants, lawyers, traders in the pits at financial exchanges and others.

As other highly compensated people often do, hedge fund managers contribute money and time to philanthropic endeavors – charities, education and the arts. They do this for tax purposes, sure, but some of them also believe deeply in the causes they support. I know one manager who has plowed millions of dollars he’s made into a foundation he created that is dedicated to funding organizations that prevent child abuse and treat abused children. Another manager I know started a foundation to provide prosthetic limbs, and training on how to use them, to children in third-world countries. Neither of these managers can be found in that top-25 earners list published by Alpha.

It’s not how much one makes that matters, but what one does with the money one earns.

But where does this money come from? One might posit that the cost to society and the economy of the hedge fund managers’ strategies outweighs the contributions those managers make through their hiring, trading and philanthropic work. (By the way, I don’t consider criminals like Bernie Madoff to be hedge fund managers. They are con men, and if they hadn’t been running hedge fund cons they would have been swindling people some other way.)

To start with, it helps to understand how these guys get paid. Hedge fund managers make money from fees they charge investors. Hedge funds are restricted to investors who meet certain income/investable asset guidelines. You or I could not invest in them. Also hedge funds can't advertise like mutual funds can

Fund managers typically charge two kinds of fees: a straight management fee, usually 2% to 5%, that is based on the amount of assets they manage, and a performance or incentive fee, usually about 20% of whatever positive return they generate. A manager running a $100 million fund who earns a 15% return over 12 months, will, at the end of the year, collect between $2.3 million to $5.75 million from the management fee and another $3 million from the incentive fee.

It sounds like a lot of money, and compared to $50,000 or even $100,000, it is. However out of that pool of money the manager also must pay his or her employees their salaries and benefits, as well as office rent, brokerage fees, legal fees, accounting fees, etc. Some say hedge fund fees are too high and investors are being gouged. But hedge fund managers are paid what the market will bear. Investors know the fees going in and agree to pay them.

Most hedge fund managers manage between $100 million and $1 billion in assets. The people on Alpha’s list are those operating in rarefied air, people who have built enormous operations employing hundreds or thousands of people, or who have made exceptional bets and been right.

For Part II, What Hedge Fund managers actually do, go HERE.

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