Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Running Money Is Not Easy

It takes a certain type of personality to run money. Former CNBC anchor Ron Insana doesn't appear to have it.

In March 2006, Insana set up a so-called fund of funds.

Two weeks ago, Insana announced that he was throwing in the towel.

Andrew Ross Sorkin at NYT's Dealbook explains the choke hold that a hedge fund can have on an operator:

Eric Mindich, the former Goldman Sachs whiz kid, left the firm in 2004 to start Eton Park Capital Management and immediately raised more than $3 billion. His firm charged a 2 percent management fee and 20 percent of the profits with a three-year lock-up — handing him a $60 million paycheck before he even opened the door.

But most hedge fund managers aren’t like Eric Mindich. They don’t start off with $3 billion and they don’t put out their shingle with a guarantee of riches. Instead, they’re like, well, Ron Insana...

In exchange for getting his investors behind the velvet rope, he charged a 1.5 percent management fee and took 20 percent of all profits. That may not sound like a bad deal — but consider that those fees come on top of the fees charged by the hedge funds themselves. (In the case of Mr. Simons, in particular, the fees are astronomical: a 5 percent management fee and more than 40 percent of the profits.)

Over the course of more than a year, Mr. Insana raised about $116 million. It was a respectable number, to be sure, but it wasn’t $3 billion. And here is where Mr. Insana ran into trouble.

As an investor, Mr. Insana didn’t exactly have the wind at his back. During the 14 months his fund of funds was up and running, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fell more than 15 percent. While some hedge funds managed to eke out gains, many did not. Ultimately, Mr. Insana’s fund lost 5 percent.

In the mutual fund business, beating the S.& P. would be more than enough to survive, and even prosper. Mr. Insana would have been a hero. But the hedge fund business is far more cut-throat. For a small fund like Mr. Insana’s, it is imperative to make money regardless of whether the S.& P. is up or down — and because he didn’t, the 20 percent portion of his fee structure was worth nothing.

That left his management fee, which amounted to $1.74 million. (That’s 1.5 percent of $116 million.) On paper, that may seem like a lot of money. But it’s not. Like many first-time fund managers, Mr. Insana was forced to give up about half of the general partnership to his first investor — in this case, Deutsche Bank — in exchange for backing him. After paying Deutsche Bank, Insana Capital Partners was left with only about $870,000.

That would have been enough if it was just Mr. Insana, a secretary and a dog. But Mr. Insana was hoping to attract more than $1 billion from investors. And most big institutions won’t even consider investing in a fund that doesn’t have a proper infrastructure: a compliance officer, an accountant, analysts and so on. Mr. Insana had seven employees, and was paying for office space in the former CNBC studios in Fort Lee, N.J., and Bloomberg terminals — at more than $1,500 a pop a month — while traveling the globe in search of investors. Under the circumstances, $870,000 just wasn’t going to last very long.

Finally, most hedge funds have something called a high water mark. It requires hedge fund managers to make investors whole before they can start collecting their 20 percent of the profits — regardless of how long that takes. Hedge fund managers don’t get to start from scratch every Jan. 1 the way their mutual fund brethren do.

In the end, the rock was simply too heavy for Mr. Insana to keep pushing uphill. On Aug. 8, he sent a letter to investors explaining why he was closing shop. “Our current level of assets under management, coupled with the extraordinarily difficult capital-raising environment, make it imprudent for Insana Capital Partners to continue business operations,” he wrote.

In the end, you have to know how to smile, cajole and rip money from people's teeth to be a successful hedge fund manager. Bad timing aside, Insana struck me as too nice a guy to make in this Big Swinging Dick sport.


No comments:

Post a Comment