Bear Hedge Funds and Others: Greater Global Risk Now Than At Time Of LTCM

Janet Tavakoli’s letter to the Editor of Financial Times

Sir, The Financial Services Authority claims that hedge fund gearing has decreased (report, May 2) and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests that there is no close correlation between hedge fund returns making the current situation less alarming than in the past (May 3). I believe it was Winston Churchill who said we must alert somnolent authority to novel dangers; but in this matter authority seems complacent, and the dangers are not novel.

The FSA produced numbers from a partial survey of hedge funds and discussed “average” leverage, thus highlighting the well known flaw of averages. If a swimming pool’s average depth is four feet, but the deep end of the pool is eight feet, non-swimmers are presented with unacceptable risk. The average would suggest non-swimmers can safely use the pool, but a drowning man finds out the hard way that the average doesn’t contain information descriptive of the risk.

The NY Fed uses data to examine volatility and correlations, both of which are not of much use in a crisis when correlations deviate from historical measures and even approach one. Indeed even today, one should consider that hedge fund returns are anything but independent. Hedge funds are often called “alternative” assets, but they have not created new asset classes. Hedge funds invest in the global markets along with other investors, albeit hedge funds may be more creative, more illiquid and may employ more leverage.

“Tavakoli’s law” states that if some hedge funds’ returns soar above market averages, then others must crash and burn. If one accepts that passive investors are indexed and reap average market returns, then active investors that reap extraordinary returns above the market average are offset by active investors who experience extraordinary losses in aggregate.

The current situation may indeed be different from that presented by Long Term Capital Management, but it may be even more alarming, not less alarming. Due to the use of structured products and derivatives, hedge funds can take on hidden leverage above and beyond that which can be explained by polling prime brokers. Furthermore, illiquid structured products will experience a classic collateral crash when hedge funds try to liquidate these assets to meet margin calls or collateral “cures”.

Since 2000, assets invested in hedge funds have more than tripled to around $1,500bn. While on average leverage may appear manageable, some hedge funds – Amaranth to cite a recent example – employ high degrees of leverage. A potential source of a “great unwind” arises from a trigger event affecting highly leveraged hedge funds, and another potential source is systemic risk that effects a larger cohort of hedge funds.

Many hedge funds are not highly leveraged, and they will weather the storm. But the explosion of hedge fund investments in illiquid assets combined with leverage currently pose a greater risk to the global financial markets than we experienced at the time of the LTCM debacle.

END OF LETTER

Janet Tavakoli is the president of Tavakoli Structured Finance, a Chicago-based firm that provides consulting to financial institutions and institutional investors. Ms. Tavakoli has more than 20 years of experience in senior investment banking positions, trading, structuring and marketing structured financial products. She is a former adjunct associate professor of derivatives at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. Author of: Credit Derivatives & Synthetic Structures (1998, 2001), Collateralized Debt Obligations & Structured Finance (2003), Structured Finance & Collateralized Debt Obligations (John Wiley & Sons, September 2008). Tavakoli’s book on the causes of the global financial meltdown and how to fix it is: Dear Mr. Buffett: What an Investor Learns 1,269 Miles from Wall Street (Wiley, 2009).
About Janet Tavakoli 34 Articles

Affiliation: Tavakoli Structured Finance, Inc.

Janet Tavakoli is the founder and president of Tavakoli Structured Finance, Inc. (TSF), a Chicago based consulting firm providing expert experience and knowledge about maximizing value in the capital markets in the face of complexity and uncertainty. TSF provides consulting services to financial institutions, institutional investors, and hedge funds.

Ms. Tavakoli was years ahead of the financial industry predicting lax underwriting and misrating of structured financial products would result in the collapse of the global credit bubble. She also predicted the collapse of the thrift industry, Long Term Capital Management, and First Alliance Mortgage prompting Business Week to profile her as "The Cassandra of Credit Derivatives." [2008].

Ms. Tavakoli pointed out grave flaws in the methodology for rating structured financial products in her books, Structured Finance & Collateralized Debt Obligations (2003, 2008), and Credit Derivatives (1998, 2001). She wrote the first letter the SEC posted in February 2007 in response to its proposed rules for the credit rating agencies; she made the case that the NRSRO designation for the rating agencies should be revoked for structured financial products.

Ms. Tavakoli is frequently published and quoted in financial journals including The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Business Week, Fortune, Global Risk Review, RISK, IDD, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, LIPPER HedgeWorld, Asset Securitization Report, Journal of Structured Finance, Investor Dealers' Digest, International Securitization Report, Bloomberg News, Bloomberg Magazine, Credit, Derivatives Week, TheStreet.com, Finance World, and others.

Frequent television appearances include CNN, CNBC, BNN, CBS Evening News, Bloomberg TV, First Business Morning News, Fox, ABC, and BBC.

Tavakoli is a former adjunct associate professor of finance at Chicago Booth (the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business) where she taught "Derivatives: Futures, Forwards, Options and Swaps".

Janet Tavakoli is the former Executive Director, Head of Financial Engineering in the Global Financial Markets Division at Westdeutsche Landesbank in London. She headed market risk management for the capital markets group for Bank One in Chicago. Tavakoli headed the asset swap trading desk at Merrill Lynch in New York, headed mortgage backed securities marketing for Merrill Lynch in New York, and headed mortgage backed securities marketing to Japanese clients for PaineWebber in New York. She also worked for Bear Stearns heading marketing for quantitative research.

She is the author of: Credit Derivatives & Synthetic Structures (1998, 2001), Collateralized Debt Obligations & Structured Finance (2003), Structured Finance & Collateralized Debt Obligations (John Wiley & Sons, September 2008), and Dear Mr. Buffett: What An Investor Learns 1,269 Miles From Wall Street (Wiley, 2009).

During her career, she has been registered and licensed with the SFA, NASD, ASE, CBOE, NYSE, PSE and the NFA and has passed the series 7, 63 and 3 qualifying exams.

Ms. Tavakoli has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology and an MBA in Finance from University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

Visit: Tavakoli Structured Finance

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