Unstructured Finance

Hedge funds love affair with leverage still on hiatus, for now

By Katya Wachtel

Last year was a sorry one for the $2 trillion hedge fund industry, when funds lost 5 percent on average. This year managers are doing better, up more than 5 percent for the year, according to the latest tracking data.

But those returns are a far cry from the 16.4 percent rise achieved by the S&P 500 this year, so what will hedge fund managers – who are supposed to be the smartest, savviest market players on the Street – do to juice returns?

For now at least, they’re not levering up in the hunt for yield. Certainly, they’re not ratcheting up portfolios to the levels seen pre-Lehman implosion, when returns were bountiful, and hedge fund managers reported leverage of 3.4, on average.

While funds are indeed sniffing around for and  investing in more highly-levered products like CDOs and CLOs – as we reported in a recent story on managers eyeing riskier exotic assets - prime brokers and traders say the demand for leverage in the form of borrowed cash from Wall Street lenders has not been high, despite the fact investors are starved for yield.

Data from Citi Prime Finance shows that gross leverage* across all strategies for hedge funds on its Prime Brokerage platform was at 1.74 at the end of August, up slightly from 1.73 in July, after falling for several months from a peak of 1.99 in February.  Overall leverage levels have remained pretty stable, according to the Citi data, between January 2011 and August 2012 – never falling below 1.67 and never going higher than 1.99. Over that 20 month period, the funds on Citi’s platform have averaged leverage of 1.8.

S&P calls baloney on Wall Street’s “cyclical” profit view

By Lauren Tara LaCapra

Ask a Wall Street CEO whether his bank will be able to make as much money as it used to make, once customers start trading and doing deals again. He will inevitably respond with some form of “Yes!”

Ask just about anyone else with a shred of common sense and the answer is more along the lines of “hahaha…you’re kidding, right?”

This conversation is known on Wall Street as the “Structural vs. Cyclical” debate. On the structural side, you’ve got those who are convinced that new regulations, higher capital requirements and clients’ mistrust of big, conflicted i-banks will keep  a lid on profits for firms like Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley. On the cyclical side, you’ve got people like Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein and JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, who keep insisting that everything will be just fine once various “headwinds” subside.

Et tu, S&P

By Matthew Goldstein

A few weeks ago S&P telegraphed that it would soon strip the U.S. of its vaunted Triple A rating and downgrade the government’s debt by a slight notch to AA+. And Friday night, the major credit rating did just as it telegraphed.

For the moment, let’s not debate whether S&P is engaging in politics, or should even be in the business of rating the debt of countries. The latter issue, however, is something that our nation’s political leaders and regulators may want to consider at some point.

But for right now, it’s worth noting that over the past decade or so, S&P has moved on downgrading corporate debt and esoteric securities as if it was still operating in the days of the telegraph.

S&P as the decider?

By Matthew Goldstein

Derivatives guru Janet Tavakoli is a long-time critic of the rating agencies and in particular the role the raters played in the subprime debt crisis. And she says given the shabby job the rating agencies did in giving the green light to the subprime debt boom, it’s odd to think of firms like Standards & Poor’s playing such a big role in the ongoing US debt ceiling negotiations.

“Standard & Poor’s lost its credibility due to a long history of misrating financial products,” says Tavakoli.

The Chicago-based consultant, for now, isn’t taking position on how the on-again/off-again political wrangling in Washington over raising the debt ceiling should be resolved. But she said investors would be better off ignoring what the raters–in particular S&P–have to say on the matter.

Deals wrap: A successor for Buffett?

A fairly unheralded 44-year-old Chinese-American hedge fund manager, with a strong background as a human rights activist, has become a leading candidate to replace Warren Buffett, should he retire as founder and CEO of the $100-billion Berkshire Hathaway fund, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Li Lu, who was a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, is the first person to be identified to potentially replace the soon to be 80-year-old Buffett, in what the WSJ story said is “among the most high-profile succession stories in modern corporate history.”

Buffett told the WSJ his retirement plans are not imminent and his job would likely be split after he leaves the company into separate CEO and investing functions. The WSJ story revealed David Sokol, the current chairman of Berkshire unit MidAmerican Energy Holdings, is considered the top contender for Buffett’s CEO role, while Li would potentially serve as one of Berkshire’s top fund managers.

The rising and falling default rate

Stock photo of Javier Ramirez is seen through the crystal ball while practicing before a show in the national jugglers encounter in Concepcion, 500 km from Santiago. Picture taken March 12, 2004.  	 REUTERS/STR NewRating agencies Moody’s and S&P regularly publish figures on how many companies have defaulted on their debt, and the numbers are rising fast.

S&P’s latest report, which came out on Thursday, shows the global speculative-grade bond default rate increased to 8.58% in July, up slightly on June, and a massive hike on the record low of 0.79% hit in November 2007.

It is less clear what will happen next. Earlier this year the agencies predicted defaults amongst speculative grade borrowers could reach 20 percent — a huge increase — but now agencies have rowed back and are painting a slightly less bleak picture.

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