Tuesday, January 15, 2008

And the winner is...

We all know who the losers are in the subprime meltdown: shareholders of Citi, Merrill, Countrywide Financial, etc. One of the winners is profiled below, a hedge fund manager who made $15B (keeping $3-4B himself!) from the bursting subprime housing bubble.

WSJ: Trader Made Billions on Subprime
John Paulson Bet Big on Drop in Housing Values

January 15, 2008

On Wall Street, the losers in the collapse of the housing market are legion. The biggest winner looks to be John Paulson, a little-known hedge fund manager who smelled trouble two years ago.

Funds he runs were up $15 billion in 2007 on a spectacularly successful bet against the housing market. Mr. Paulson has reaped an estimated $3 billion to $4 billion for himself -- believed to be the largest one-year payday in Wall Street history.

Now, in another twist in financial history, Mr. Paulson is retaining as an adviser a man some blame for helping feed the housing-market bubble by keeping interest rates so low: former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. (See article.)

On the way to his big score, Mr. Paulson did battle with a Wall Street firm he accused of trying to manipulate the market. He faced skepticism from other big investors. At the same time, fearing imitators, he used software that blocked fund investors from forwarding his emails.

One thing he didn't count on: A friend in whom he had confided tried the strategy on his own -- racking up huge gains himself, and straining their friendship. (See article.)

Like many legendary market killings, from Warren Buffett's takeovers of small companies in the '70s to Wilbur Ross's steelmaker consolidation earlier this decade, Mr. Paulson's sprang from defying conventional wisdom. In early 2006, the wisdom was that while loose lending standards might be of some concern, deep trouble in the housing and mortgage markets was unlikely. A lot of big Wall Street players were in this camp, as seen by the giant mortgage-market losses they're disclosing.

"Most people told us house prices never go down on a national level, and that there had never been a default of an investment-grade-rated mortgage bond," Mr. Paulson says. "Mortgage experts were too caught up" in the housing boom.

In several interviews, Mr. Paulson made his first comments on how he made his historic coup. Merely holding a different opinion from the blundering herd wasn't enough to produce huge profits. He also had to think up a technical way to bet against the housing and mortgage markets, given that, as he notes, "you can't short houses."

Also key: Mr. Paulson didn't turn bearish too early. Some close students of the housing market did just that, investing for a downturn years ago -- only to suffer such painful losses waiting for a collapse that they finally unwound their bearish bets. Mr. Paulson, whose investment specialty lay elsewhere, turned his attention to the housing market more recently, and got bearish at just about the right time. ...

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