Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tom Wolfe on hedge funds

There's a new glossy business/finance magazine on the racks, called Portfolio. In their first issue they've got a profile of Citadel's Ken Griffin and a long piece by Tom Wolfe on hedge funds. As I've said many times here, it's the new Gilded Age.

I can't think of anyone better to write this story except possibly Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker.

Twenty years after Bonfire of the Vanities, the author checks in on the new masters of the universe and finds them even coarser and ruder than their predecessors could have ever imagined being.

...First, they have more money, infi-nitely more, than any of the various waves of new money that preceded them, with the possible exception of robber barons on the order of John D. Rockefeller, who, incidentally, was regarded as a rude Pocantico hillbilly Baptist by society in New York a hundred years ago. Hedge funds have what investment managers call “the greatest business plan of all time,” known as “2 and 20.” Each year the typical fund takes 20 percent of the return plus 2 percent of the total investments. Some of the hottest managers, such as Icahn and Stevie Cohen, reportedly take 50 percent of the profits.

In 2005—the figures for 2006 are not yet available—Cohen’s SAC Capital Advisors, of Stamford (he himself lives in Greenwich), made an 18 percent profit on its investors’ $8.5 billion, meaning that Cohen’s income for that one year was in the neighborhood of a billion dollars. This and the figures that follow are the calculations of Trader’s Monthly and Alpha magazine, a niche publication created for the hedge fund industry. No magazine was ever named with greater psychological accuracy, as we are about to see.

Neck and neck with Cohen were James Simons of East Setauket, New York (between $900 million and $1 billion), and Paul Tudor Jones II of Greenwich (between $800 million and $900 million). Further back in the field, nose to nose at $500 million to $600 million each, were Eddie Lampert of Greenwich and Stephen A. Feinberg and Bruce Kovner of New York City. But all six were far, far behind the old man, T. Boone Pickens, who you’ll recall made $1.5 billion in 2005.

Second, hedge fund managers are possessed by a previously unheard-of status fixation. The bellowing door-banger had that status fixation and then some. In Greenwich such characters are not shoehorned into the same buildings as ordinary rich people, which is to say, those with older and far less money. Given Greenwich’s zoning, these people are not likely to express that status fixation neighbor to neighbor. It comes out in other ways.

...The tales are endless: the hedge fund founder desperate to get his son into one of Greenwich’s socially swell private schools who clips a six-figure check to the first page of the application, witlessly forcing the school to reject both his son and his check or lose all credibility—

The lone-wolf entrepreneur who keeps an old-money matron and charity fundraiser waiting outside his office in Greenwich for an hour, remains reared back in his chair with his feet propped up on top of his desk as she comes in, listens to her pitch with his feet on top of his desk, utters a sum total of two words, “Not interested,” with his feet up on top of his desk, and offers no farewell, not even a Godspeed tap-tap of the shoes on his feet up on top of the desk—

The many of these people who spend entire meetings with eyes cast down at their BlackBerrys, thumbing out text messages to God-knows-what-people elsewhere—

The hedge fund manager who, during a 40-minute meeting, takes four telephone calls from his wife on the subject of a dinner party they’re planning, down to the level of who should sit next to whom, whether to serve the champagne in the new flutes or the art deco bowl-and-stem glasses, whether or not endive works as an hors d’oeuvre or is it a little too bitter?—

The hedge fund managers who hold meetings with their shirttails hanging outside their jeans, like college boys—

The former manager of Tremont Capital Group who came to meetings with the fund’s investors barefoot—

The twinkie wives of these people who arrive at real estate offices seeking to-die-for houses and apartments wearing jeans and stiletto-heel boots, with gotta-be-blond hair streaming down to their shoulder blades, holding a baby on a cocked hip with one hand and a cell phone to the ear with the other while a limousine waits outside, motor running—

The twinkies who have their eggs fertilized by their husbands’ sperm in a laboratory, creating embryos for implantation in the wombs of surrogate mothers who are paid to manufacture children for delivery in nine months, since why on earth should any wife whose husband is worth a billion or even $500 million have to endure the distended belly, bilious mornings, back cramps, not to mention a cramped social life, to end up with her perfect personal-trainer-sculpted boy-with-breasts body she has spent thousands of sweaty hours attaining, ruined … tempting her husband to survey all the little man-eaters out there, including those former wives who used to meet regularly at the Boxing Cat Grill until it burned down, whereas the current wives leave their husbands catatonic before the plasma TV and meet three or four times a week at one local bar or another and drive home in their Hummers and bobtail Mercedes S.U.V.’s, bombed out of their minds, while waiting for the baby to come from the factory—

Whenever such rich gossip is re-peated, somebody invariably says, “Who are these people?”


David Kane said...

The Wolfe piece is worth reading but not nearly as good as The Right Stuff or Bonfire of the Vanities. Despite being 20 years old, BotV captures the psyche of men in finance perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Personally I prefer American Psycho.

I enjoy reading Leveraged Sellout, but really it's nothing more than a mashup of BotV, American Psycho, and Liars Poker, with some modern names and references thrown in. There's nothing new under the sun.

Unknown said...

Nah, American Psycho was too unrealistic, most traders are not psychopaths. Bonfire was the best portrayal of them, lunch is for wimps! From the looks of things Wolfe may have another book in him, I though Charlotte Simmons was a bit disappointing, hopefully another zeitgeisty book will come along.

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