Global Investing

Commodities hedge funds feel the heat

rtx7ukh.jpgThe heat is on for hedge funds with commodities bets.

Earlier this week Ospraie Management told investors it is shutting its flagship fund after it plunged 27 percent in August. The fund’s energy and commodities stock positions fell as investors worried if a global economic slowdown will mean less demand for resources.

And now RAB Capital’s Philip Richards is giving up the CEO role to focus on his funds after an awful period of performance for his once high-flying Special Situations fund.

Losses on small-cap mining stocks, as well as its high-profile error in buying into troubled bank Northern Rock, meant its listed feeder fund fell 38.1 percent from the start of the year to Aug. 21.

One of the potential danger areas for hedge funds in this area is liquidity – how quickly they can dump stocks when investors decide enough is enough and want to pull their cash out.

The problem is that during the commodities boom of the last five years the flood of investor money has encouraged some funds to invest in less crowded areas such as smaller companies. These are easy to trade in a bull market but buyers can quickly disappear in a downturn.

Barrels and ounces

The price of oil was falling sharply on Tuesday after traders stopped worrying about former Hurricane Gustav’s winds, but by at least one calculation it remains very pricey – that is, its link to the price of gold.Some market watchers argue that there is a long-term relationship between the prices of the two commodities. Roughly speaking, this theory would have 10 barrels of crude oil costing the same as one ounce of gold.  Back in March, for example, gold hit a record of $1,030 an ounce and a barrel of oil brought around $105.Oil

By July, however, gold had fallen and oil had risen to the extent that the ratio was not 10 to 1, but 5.9 to1. Some argued at the time that hedge funds noticed this and began to short crude. With the latest tumble, oil is about 27 percent below its high. But against gold, the ratio is still at 7.4 to 1.

The problem is that gold won’t stop falling either, which rather undermines the ratio theory. Perhaps it is all just hooey. If it is not, however, oil would have to dive another 25 percent to reach equilibrium of $79 a barrel against today’s gold price.

Fannie, Freddie fanning fears

More stress on its balance sheets is just about the last thing that the banking sector needs. The subprime mortgage crisis has already battered banks, leading to huge losses, scrambles for funding and free-falling banking shares. The S&P index of financial stocks has lost more than 30 percent so far this year. At its worst, the index plunged around 55 percent between a high in May last year and a low in June this year.

S&P Financial StocksNow, after a brief respite, comes more bad news. First, hedge funds still seem to be wedded to betting on further losses. Laurence Fletcher, who writes about hedge funds here at Reuters, notes that more than 6 percent of British banks’ equity is on loan to short sellers.

More worrying yet for banks, however, may be their exposure to embattled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In a report, Societe Generale economists estimate that U.S. commercial banks hold about $1 trillion in Fannie and Freddie debt. That amounts to a whopping 9 percent of the commercial banks’ balance sheets.

Hedge funds hit more turbulence

Things are going from bad to worse for hedge funds.

Hedge funds were hit when their bets went wrong in JulyHaving only just clawed back their losses after a dreadful March, the closely-watched Credit Suisse/Tremont Hedge Fund Index shows hedge funds lost a hefty 2.61 percent in July after being hit by a double-whammy of market movements.

These freewheeling funds had been betting for some time that banks stocks would fall as the credit crisis ate into their profits, while also betting that commodities would rise as demand for oil, metals and food soared.

This had been working well, but in July banks bounced back because they looked so cheap to some investors, while commodities fell from some of the dizzying heights they had recently reached.