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Profiting from misery

May 29 2012 07:32 Reuters

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Boston/New York - Two decades ago, George Soros rose to fame and fortune on his now-historic trade in which he took on the Bank of England and shrewdly wagered on a devaluation of the British pound.

But it's unlikely the current European monetary crisis and worries about Greece's potential exit from the eurozone will give rise to an investing legend like Soros, who made $1bn in 1992 by betting on a decline in the price of the pound.

Instead, there are a multitude of strategies to play Europe's troubles, and many different participants, according to US hedge fund managers.

"There is not room for one player to have such impact," said John Brynjolfsson, whose California-based Armored Wolf hedge fund has been betting against the euro for quite some time.

"Financial markets are so much bigger today."

A spokesperson for Soros, who last year converted his Soros Fund Management to a family office and stopped managing money for outside investors, could not be reached for comment.

Brynjolfsson and several other US money managers who are trying to profit from Europe's misery say they expect the current crisis to produce a lot of winners.

So far this year, the euro is down 3.3% against the US. dollar.

US money managers say it's hard to swing for the fences the way Soros did because institutional investors are far more squeamish about having too much money riding on any single trade.

There is also heightened sensitivity from pensions and endowments to taking an investment strategy that might spark political outrage from European leaders.

Another thing working against the rise of a new Soros is that trading the eurozone, or even the fallout from a Greek exit, is a much more complicated than betting against a single currency.

Money managers are playing the eurozone crisis by trading currencies, wagering on the direction of bank stocks or using derivatives like credit default swaps to bet on potential corporate and bank failures.

Greenlight Capital's David Einhorn recently said he is bullish on gold and gold miners, in part because of concern about the fallout from a eurozone meltdown.

Some managers are even going both short and long on different European sovereign debt, depending on their views of the financial stability of different countries.

Adam Fisher, manager of the $320m Commonwealth Opportunity Capital hedge fund, noted that Soros faced a "single country, not 17 different countries, one decision maker, not 17".

Fisher's fund, which has more than 80% of its money invested in Europe, is taking a somewhat contrarian position by owning the European sovereign debt of Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

Hedge fund managers point out that given the up-and-down nature of the eurozone crisis, most hedge funds have been in and out of trades or forced to adjust positions depending on the changing political winds.

Earlier this year, for instance, it looked like concern about Greece exiting the euro had passed. But with the recent results of the Greek election at odds with the austerity measures demanded by its currency partners, the risk of a Greek departure from the eurozone has risen dramatically.

Recently, Fisher said his Los Angeles-based fund had reduced the size of some of its more bullish sovereign debt trades because he believes there will be "violent" market swings this summer.

"It is going to be incredibly difficult to manage risk through that environment," said Fisher, whose fund was up 8.8% through April. "I don't think hedging will do anything. The way you hedge, is you sell. You don't subtract risk by adding risk."

Brynjolfsson, a former top portfolio manager for bond mutual fund firm Pacific Investment Management Co, is betting on Greece exiting the euro.

He said it will be hard for European leaders to take the necessary steps to appease the Greek government without infuriating politicians in other eurozone countries.

"As the wheels began falling off the bus, we adjusted to have a short bias and that has worked out," said Brynjolfsson, whose $750m hedge fund is up 2% this year, largely on its short bet against the euro.

Axel Merk, president and chief executive officer of Merk Investments, an investment advisory firm that specialises in currencies, said the growing problems with Greece and the eurozone led him recently to dump all the euros in his $517m Merk Hard Currency Fund, which is up 2.29% for the year.

Merk now favors the Singapore dollar, which has climbed 1.34% since January.

Ray Dalio's $120bn Bridgewater Associates gained 23% in 2011 in part because of profits made from a series of European bets, said a person familiar with the Westport, Conn-based fund who declined to discuss specifics of the strategy.

In a recent interview with Barron's, Dalio said European banks "are now over-leveraged and can't expand their balance sheets" and European nations "don't have enough buyers of their debt".

Dalio may be the US money manager who comes closest to rivalling the Soros of two decades ago. His hedge fund is the industry's largest and he widely regarded as one of the most successful managers.

Among the ways funds are playing the European turmoil, some are betting against the fortunes of Spanish and Italian banks instead of simply focusing on sovereign debt.

John Paulson, among others, bets against European sovereign debt as way to hedge the overall portfolio of his Paulson & Co hedge fund firm.

Daniel Loeb's Third Point fund put on a long position in Portuguese sovereign bonds in the first quarter because the New York-based manager believed the nation is in better shape than others in the eurozone.

"Portugal's debt profile is more consistent with Italy's than Greece's, its banks are substantially healthier than Spain's, and its government has enacted more aggressive labour reforms and is more stable than regimes in both countries," Loeb wrote in a May 16 investors' letter seen by Reuters.

If nothing else, the European crisis is forcing managers to keep coming up with new strategies to trade. One might say it's almost become an incubator for hedge fund managers to stretch their investment acumen.

Merk said he might look again at Europe if the political and financial situation gets more clarity. But he would likely do it a bit differently.

"If there is clarity in the process again, then we will certainly look at Europe again," he said.

"But not through Greek debt, but through German bills." 

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