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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Bear Stearns Fund's "Qualified Investors"

by Tanta on 9/02/2007 09:16:00 AM

The redoubtable Gretchen Morgenson reports on the liquidation of the infamous Bear Stearns hedge funds. We discover that in 2005 at least one of the funds waived its normal $1MM limit to attract investors with as little as (ahem) $250,000 to invest. (It's still not clear to me what the total net worth requirement was for the investor putting only $250,000 into the fund.) Anyway, our anecdote without which we cannot live:

Ronald Greene, 79, a retiree in Northern California, is one investor watching the Bear Stearns case closely. Greene lost $280,000 in the Bear Stearns High Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund and says he will join a suit that has been filed against the firm. He contends that Bear Stearns duped him with assurances that the fund's high-quality investments would protect holders against market and credit risks.

Hedge funds are theoretically open only to institutional investors and extremely wealthy individuals, who are deemed savvy and well heeled enough to assess and weather complex risks. But documents from Greene's files show that Bear Stearns Asset Management allowed investments of $250,000 in its fund, considerably smaller than the typical $1 million minimum for many hedge funds.

On July 20, 2005, Greene received an e-mail message from his broker at a small regional firm, with the following header: "Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund will accept smaller investments this month on a limited basis." Noting that the fund was temporarily reopening on Aug. 1, 2005, the message said that for investors who "do not have $1,000,000 to invest, the fund will accept a limited number of clients this month for 500K and perhaps 250K."

The message went on to note the fund's stellar performance: up a cumulative 29.4 percent since its October 2003 inception, and no down months.

Greene, a former engineer, said he had invested in several hedge funds in recent years, aiming to preserve his principal. Most of the funds have worked out well, he said, producing slightly better-than-market returns with little volatility. He estimated that he had $600,000 to $800,000 invested in hedge funds.

He invested in the Bear Stearns fund in October 2005, and he said the fund appealed to him because its returns of about 1 percent a month did not seem to fall into the too-good-to-be-true category.
I think I now understand why so many of my conversations with people during 2005 were at cross-purposes. I would never have guessed that anyone using the phrase "preservation of principal" would be thinking of hedge funds as the vehicle of choice.

I have a question. Mr. Greene thought 1% a month didn't sound that unreasonable. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations that's 12% a year. From securities backed by home mortgages.

I conclude that Mr. Greene must hang out a lot with people who regularly pay 12% mortgage rates. This gave him the mistaken impression that the return on CDOs has something to do with just passing through interest payments, and not outrageous levels of gearing and risk concentrations.

Right. I know a lot of people who have nearly a million dollars invested in hedge funds whose friends all have the most expensive subprime mortgages ever originated (remember how high 12% was in 2005; that's a sub-sub-subprime.)

Please do not misunderstand me; I am not making excuses for Bear Stearns, nor am I suggesting that Mr. Greene deserves to lose his money. I am simply somewhat puzzled over our inability, now that the curtain has been drawn back on how all this worked, to ask these people how they thought investing in CDOs to "preserve principal" at 12% was going to work. There's trusting your broker--obviously that gets to be a problem--and then there's just plain old having some idea about what your broker is doing.

It begins to sound like Mr. Greene would have plunked his money down in the Tralfamadore Anti-Matter-Indexed Mystery Investment Vehicle (incorporated on Mars) if someone had said that the returns were "only" 1% a month. Of course it's understandable that Mr. Greene wanted 1% a month, because interest rates were so low that it was hard to find yield in instruments that involved other people paying interest . . .