Saturday, February 24, 2018
Opinion

Blumner: The shame of hedge fund masterminds

From the "nice work if you can get it" desk, the New York Times business section offered this headline the other day: "Pay Stretching to 10 Figures." No, this isn't about innovators being paid for their smart and indispensable products, a la Steve Jobs. It is a story of hedge fund managers, the tin-pot potentates of the financial world.

They are America's top-dog moneymakers, pulling in more than movie stars, top athletes, even banking CEOs. They tend to shun the spotlight, and for good reason. An average family would have to work for 18 years and 146 days to make what an average hedge fund manager makes in one hour. We must all look like barbarians at the gate to them.

Are they worth it? They certainly think so. But the system is rigged. Even when hedge funds, which are basically big, sparsely regulated pools of investment capital, don't do any better than market returns, their managers can walk away with the equivalent of a small nation's GDP.

Take Steven Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors. Cohen's 2012 pay was $1.4 billion. For this, he obtained a 13 percent return for investors. Sounds good, right? Except that the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index shot up 16 percent last year when factoring in dividends. SAC investors paid a 50 percent performance fee to Cohen despite the lagging numbers.

Having no shame is one of the rules for success as a hedge fund manager.

There are other rules, too, such as: "Don't ever get into the business of making things. Your job is to take money away from people who make things." The rules are entertainingly spelled out in How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour by Les Leopold, a book that carries the ominous subtitle, "Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning Off America's Wealth." As fun as this book is to read, its message is no laughing matter.

Leopold makes a compelling case that hedge funds are destructive forces that suck money out of the productive economy — which creates products, innovates and provides real services — and redirects it into a financial services betting parlor. The funds also encourage some of the best young analytical minds to enter Wall Street's casino rather than apply their talents to a career in medicine or science, which might be of some real benefit to the common good.

To make gobs of money and outsmart the next guy, Leopold says hedge funds rely on strategies that are often illegal or should be. They use insider information to transfer money from unknowing investors to themselves. (SAC is currently embroiled in an insider-trading scandal.) They spread rumors that manipulate the market to their benefit, another illegal act. Leopold points to an interview that Jim Cramer, the TV investment guru, did with TheStreet.com in which he let slip that dissembling is part of the business.

This directly counters the claim of hedge fund supporters that the funds make market prices more accurate.

And then there is high-frequency trading, or in Leopold's parlance: how to "bet on the race after you know who wins." Hedge funds now employ automated computers that are so fast they can elbow into a transaction a split second before a stock is bought or sold and make a tiny profit. This skims off millions of dollars from investors. It means the hedge funds don't care about the quality of the companies they are investing in — they are in and out in nanoseconds — and don't serve the function of allocating capital efficiently toward growth, as their supporters claim.

Members of the million-dollar-an-hour club need to have their casino counter closed with fair regulations, more government enforcement and new taxes, such as a financial transactions tax (which would put an end to high-frequency trading). Their 10-figure pay has destroyed America's once-healthy distribution of rewards for work. They are the real moochers.

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