Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Best hedge fund year ever award

goes to John Paulson:
By 2005, Mr. Paulson, known as J.P., worried that U.S. economic strength would flag. He began selling short the bonds of companies such as auto suppliers, that is, betting on them to fall in value. Instead, they kept rising, even bonds of companies in bankruptcy proceedings.

"This is crazy," Mr. Paulson recalls telling an analyst at his firm. He urged his traders to find a way to protect his investments and profit if problems developed in the overall economy. The question he posed to them: "Where is the bubble we can short?"

They found it in housing. Upbeat mortgage specialists kept repeating that home prices never fall on a national basis or that the Fed could save the market by slashing interest rates.

One Wall Street specialty during the boom was repackaging mortgage securities into instruments called collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, then selling slices of these with varying levels of risk.

For buyers of the slices who wanted to insure against the debt going bad, Wall Street offered another instrument, called credit-default swaps.

Naturally, the riskier the debt that such a swap "insured," the more the swap would cost. And this price would go up if default risk appeared to be increasing. This meant an investor of a bearish bent could buy the swaps as a way to bet on bad news happening.

During the boom, however, many were so blind to housing risk that this "default insurance" was priced very cheaply. Analyzing reams of data late at night in his office, Mr. Paulson became convinced investors were far underestimating the risk in the mortgage market. In betting on it to crumble, "I've never been involved in a trade that had such unlimited upside with a very limited downside," he says.

Paulo Pelligrini, a portfolio manager at Paulson & Co., began to implement complex debt trades that would pay off if mortgages lost value. One trade was to short risky CDO slices.

Another was to buy the credit-default swaps that complacent investors seemed to be pricing too low.

"We've got to take as much advantage of this as we can," Mr. Paulson recalls telling a colleague around the middle of 2005, when optimism about the housing market was at its peak.

His bets at first were losers. But lenders were getting less and less rigorous about making sure borrowers could pay their mortgages. Mr. Paulson's research told him home prices were flattening. Suspecting that rating agencies were too generous in assessing complex securities built out of mortgages, he had his team begin tracking tens of thousands of mortgages. They concluded it was getting harder for lenders to collect.

Once-complacent investors now began to worry. The ABX, which had begun with a value of 100 in July 2006, fell into the 60s. The new Paulson funds rose more than 60% in February alone.

But as his gains piled up, Mr. Paulson fretted that his trades might yet go bad. Based on accounts of barroom talk and other chatter by a Bear Stearns trader, he became convinced that Bear Stearns and some other firms planned to try to prop the market for mortgage-backed securities by buying individual mortgages.

As Mr. Paulson's funds racked up huge gains, some of his investors began telling others about the funds' tactics. Mr. Paulson was furious, worried that others would steal his thunder. He began using technology that prevented clients from forwarding his emails.

In the fall, the ABX subprime-mortgage index crashed into the 20s. The funds' bet against it paid off richly.

Credit-default swaps that the funds owned soared, as investors' perception of risk neared panic levels and they clamored for this insurance.

And the debt slices the funds had bet would lose value, indeed fell -- to nearly worthless.

One concern was that even if Mr. Paulson bet right, he would find it hard to cash out his bets because many were in markets with limited trading. This hasn't been a problem, however, thanks to the wrong bet of some big banks and Wall Street firms. To hedge their holdings of mortgage securities, they've scrambled to buy debt protection, which sometimes means buying what Mr. Paulson already held.

The upshot: The older Paulson credit funds rose 590% last year and the newer one 350%.

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