Monday, May 14, 2007

Betting the Bank, and then some.....

Who hasn't heard stories of inveterate betting men fully alert to the essential truth that everything in life is a wager. It's chilling to think that the progress of the subprime bubble may well depend on the progress of two flies on a window pane, but let's not forget the idea attributed to chaos theory of the connection between the flapping of butterfly wings and the tornado that topples an economy. (A fascinating area in which to see the dissipation of risk based on essentially the same notion is the apparently mundane world of Insurance and Re-Insurance where the losses from disasters are spread in a worldwide market. Mundane until it's recalled that the men in the London coffee-houses were themselves no stiffs when it came to a bet).

The wild frenzy of gambling that now grips the world is not only attested to by the 54 million casino visits made by Americans in 2004 to lose more than $78 billion on the turn of a card or the spinning the slots, in effect sophisticated mechanical flies. James Mackintosh in The unbearable obscurity of exotic hedge funds gives a truly hair-raising listing of the current trend in hedge fund products. These make the sorties into housing speculation of the American homeowner positively parochial. You start to get the flavor of the 'New Economy' on learning from Mackintosh, "As hedge funds move into the mainstream, managers are testing demand for ever-more exotic investments - and finding backers willing to stump up millions of dollars for funds putting cash into everything from football players, wine and art to aircraft leasing and carbon credits."

A telling clue to the unease of large investors in the plain old vanilla securities market can be had from the tendency of big institutions to ensure that their fortunes "will not move in line with shares, bonds and other traditional investments." Following on this in the recent period money has flowed to a range of 'exotic' funds. These include football funds that buy the rights to talented young players in the hope of profiting from transfer fees should these achieve star status; instead of boring old charts investors must assess the risks of injury, drug abuse etc. (American Idol Fund anyone?). Others include fund specialising in sugar, film financing, art and wine.

Ominously, given the level of consumer debt, there are also funds investing in defaulted credit card debts and partnering with collection agencies in recovering the debt. This in an era when some credit card debt carries interest approaching 30% and when the UK for example is beset with problems stemming from the practices of doorstep consumer loan companies. There was a time when this kind of debt was purely a 'family' affair. Perhaps these developments lend a new meaning to the expression 'gangster-capitalism.'

Enter the multiplier, never far behind. Not to be outdone, Orthogonal Partners is launching a fund dedicated to - investing in exotic hedge funds. "There is a wall of money chasing every opportunity in the alternative scene so you really want to be targeting new niches where you still have a scarcity of capital and inefficiencies that can be exploited," says Dan Gore, Orthogonal's co-founder.

A staid voice intrudes; 'Tracy Pearson, head of alternatives at London fund of hedge funds Forsyth Partners, says it is questionable how many of the exotic funds are really hedged. "If it is offshore and they can charge 2 [per cent a year] and 20 [per cent of profits] it is a hedge fund," she says. "We get all sorts of stuff, usually sent from a Yahoo e-mail account."'

Any day now I expect offers from Nigeria to arrive in my inbox; they may even be packaged with the scams offering to make me an instant multi-millionaire in exchange for help with repatriating the fortunes of some hapless tyrant. Hey, I just thought of a great hedge fund idea.