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Rainwater's 'Single Worst Investment'

Renowned investor Richard Rainwater saw 70% of the value drain out of his $100 million investment in Thornburg Mortgage

Sometimes even billionaires make bone-headed moves. Richard Rainwater, the legendary Fort Worth investor, has seen a 70% decline in just two months on some $100 million he put into troubled home lender Thornburg Mortgage (TMA). Rainwater calls it the "the single worst investment of my career."

The 65-year-old-financier, with a fortune estimated at $3 billion by Forbes magazine, told he was watching TV last year when he saw Thornburg's chief executive, Larry Goldstone, speaking about the mortgage crisis. "He seemed like a bright guy," Rainwater recalls. Rainwater says he then checked with some of his investment industry sources who said they considered Thornburg a "capable group."

Buying into the Jumbo Market

In January Rainwater plunked down about $100 million to buy roughly 5 million shares of the Santa Fe (N.M.) company's preferred stock. Rainwater bought shares both in a public offering that Thornburg had arranged and on the open market. He says his average cost was 21.45 a share. The preferred stock trades today at 6.25 per share; Thornburg common shares closed Mar. 13 at 2.26, down from 28 in May.

Filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission show that Rainwater and his wife, Darla Moore, own preferred stock convertible into 9.3 million shares of Thornburg's common stock, about 6% of the company's shares outstanding. By the time Rainwater invested, Thornburg was already in trouble. That was reflected in the fact that Thornburg was offering a dividend on the preferred shares of 10%. The company declined to comment on the issue.

Founded in 1993 by the current chairman, Garrett Thornburg, the company specializes in making "jumbo" single-family home loans to what it calls "superprime" customers. Those are individuals with credit scores of 744 or higher. Some 97% of its investments are in loans rated AA or higher by ratings agencies. Thornburg says just 0.4% of its loans are delinquent, compared to an industry average of more than 4%.

Rainwater says it was the high-end nature of Thornburg's business that attracted him to the company. "Housing values are suffering everywhere," he says. "But at the high end things are holding up better." On its Web site Thornburg is offering mortgage rates as low as 7.9%.

Crumbling Credit Markets

Last summer Thornburg averted greater financial difficulties by selling $20 billion of its assets. In recent weeks, though, its problems have escalated as lenders began requiring the company to put up more capital to back its mortgage investments. The company says it is presently negotiating with creditors who want $600 million in additional financing.

The problem, says Keefe, Bruyette & Woods (KBW) analyst Bose George, is that Thornburg has been funding its business with short-term loans. That worked when capital was easy to find. "They have one of the best balance sheets on the asset side," George says. "The problem is in the market—it's hard to borrow money." George says he sees the market shifting away from independent lenders such as Countrywide Financial (CFC) and Thornburg. In the future, "mortgage lending is going to be done by banks," he says. "Nonbanks have turned out to be extremely vulnerable to this kind of downturn."

Win Some, Lose Some

Rainwater is famous for scooping up assets in troubled companies. As a chief adviser to Fort Worth's billionaire Bass brothers in the 1980s, he directed the family to invest in then-floundering Walt Disney (DIS). That company went on to great success under Chief Executive Michael Eisner. In the 1990s, Rainwater plunged into oil and gas companies then struggling with low commodities prices. He invested in the Hunt brothers' bankrupt Penrod Drilling, since merged into Ensco International (ESV), and T. Boone Pickens' Mesa Petroleum, now a part of Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD). "Oil I understand," Rainwater says. "Interest rates…?"

Last August Rainwater sold Crescent Real Estate Equities to Morgan Stanley (MS) for $6.5 billion. Crescent was a big owner of office buildings. Rainwater sold at what now looks to have been the peak of the recent commercial real estate cycle. "It just seemed like the right time to do it," he says, with the prices paid for office property working out to yield just 4% to 5% for buyers.

Rainwater says his portfolio is still up for the year thanks to his energy holdings, which include blue chip oil and gas companies such as Chevron (CVX) and ConocoPhillips (COP).

Nonetheless, he says, the losses so far on Thornburg "still don't feel good."

Palmeri is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau .

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