Europe Tops Hedge Funds' Worry List With Portugal at Risk in Debt Crisis

David Gerstenhaber, founder of $1.6 billion hedge fund Argonaut Capital Management, said Portugal may be the next casualty of Europe’s debt crisis.

“Portugal is structurally weak,” he said in a telephone interview from New York. “There’s a 90 percent chance that they will get some form of help” to keep concern over the country’s creditworthiness from spreading to Spain and Italy, he said.

Gerstenhaber, 50, is among macro hedge-fund managers who say Europe’s debt woes pose one of the biggest risks to a global economic outlook that has only gradually improved this year. Stocks and the euro retreated in the past month as the crisis worsened, forcing Ireland to follow Greece and ask for a bailout. Standard & Poor’s said it may cut Portugal’s credit rating on concern the country may have to seek a bailout, something Prime Minister Jose Socrates has rejected.

John Taylor, founder of FX Concepts LLC, the world’s biggest foreign-exchange hedge fund, forecast the euro region will enter a recession next year and the euro will weaken as the debt crisis worsens.

“The risk that Spain and Italy will get into trouble is going to cause the euro to get quite weak,” Taylor said today at the Hedge Funds New York conference hosted by Bloomberg Link. Investors should sell German stocks because efforts by governments to cut back spending will hurt the region’s economy next year, he said.

Selling Euros

Macro hedge funds have been selling the euro, commodities, emerging markets, and Standard & Poor’s 500 Index futures while buying the dollar and U.S. 10-year notes, Bank of America Corp. analyst Mary Ann Bartels said in a Nov. 29 report.

“Despite the problems in the U.S., Europe’s are worse,” Dean Curnutt, chief executive officer of Macro Risk Advisors LLC, said the Hedge Funds New York conference.

Colm O’Shea, founder of $5.9 billion Comac Capital LLP in London, and Brevan Howard Asset Management LLP, the $32 billion hedge fund run by Alan Howard, both told clients in investor letters last month that problems in Europe’s “peripheral” countries may force the European Central Bank to stimulate the economy longer than planned.

“Fiscal issues and financial stress in some of the euro- zone peripheral countries are worsening even as the German economy strengthens,” O’Shea wrote. “These stresses argue for the ECB to delay its steps away from extraordinary policy.”

‘Headwinds’

Stocks and the euro rose today after ECB President Jean- Claude Trichet said the central bank will delay the withdrawal of emergency liquidity measures and keep buying government bonds as the debt crisis creates “acute” tensions in financial markets.

The S&P 500 advanced 0.7 percent at 10:21 a.m. in New York, led by a rally in financials. The Stoxx Europe 600 Index gained 1 percent, while the euro rose 0.3 percent to $1.3179.

Brevan Howard, which is run out of London, said efforts by the U.K. to reduce borrowing may undermine the economic recovery in that country.

“The intended reduction of the structural deficit by 2.3 percent of GDP next year creates substantial downside risks to the economy, given already weak underlying growth and ongoing private sector deleveraging headwinds,” the firm said in the letter.

The Brevan Howard Master fund returned 1.75 percent this year through October, according to the report.

Stymied

Macro hedge funds, which seek to profit from broad economic trends by trading currencies, bonds and commodities, returned 3.2 percent this year through October, compared with 5.4 percent for the hedge fund industry, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Macro managers have been mainly using currencies and credit default swaps to make money,” said Rickard Lundquist, portfolio strategist at Stockholm-based SEB AG’s private banking unit, which invests about $6 billion in hedge funds for clients. “They have started taking on more risk than they were earlier in the year, when there was more economic uncertainty.”

Hedge-fund managers were stymied earlier this year as the European debt crisis, concern about U.S. government borrowing, uncertainty about new financial regulation and fears of an economic slowdown in China prompted investors to cut back risk. While stocks markets stabilized in the second half and fears of another recession abated, asset managers will have to contend with volatile markets into next year, said Bank of America’s Bartels.

QE2

“This year, the bulls have been frustrated and the bears have been frustrated,” she said in an interview. “Just when investors thought that there’s a trend, it reverses. These choppy markets are going to continue into next year, though with a bias to the upside.”

Global stock markets, as measured by the MSCI World Index, have gained 17 percent since the end of June, spurred in part by the U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision to buy an additional $600 billion in Treasuries to lower borrowing costs and stimulate the economy.

The Fed measures will encourage investors to take more risk and keep the dollar from appreciating against the euro, Fortress Investment Group LLC’s Michael Novogratz and Adam Levinson said in a Nov. 15 letter to investors. The program hasn’t been enough to ignite a sustainable economic recovery in the U.S., they wrote.

Housing, Consumption

“Even with the better demand data, we do not believe that the overall trend has been lifted substantially, or that job gains have clearly moved to a sustainable higher trajectory,” said the two, who manage about $3.2 billion in macro hedge funds at the New York-based investment firm. “From our perspective consumption and housing, in particular, remain big question marks.”

Spokesmen for Brevan Howard, Fortress and Comac declined to comment beyond the investor letters.

Novogratz and Levinson said they are closely monitoring the risk that in the coming months the Fed’s quantitative easing program won’t be as successful as policy makers and investors had anticipated.

Fortress’s Macro Fund returned 7.6 percent this year through October, according to an investor letter.

Gerstenhaber, whose Argonaut Macro Partnership LP fund returned 4.3 percent through October, said there’s a “reasonable” chance that the Fed they may step up efforts “if the economy continues to show modest but not substantial progress.”

Fed’s Credibility

O’Shea, 40, had told clients in August that the Fed would risk its credibility with a second round of so-called quantitative easing because it may have little impact on economic growth.

Comac returned 1.8 percent this year through October, according to the letter.

Brevan Howard said while it expects U.S. GDP to accelerate “a little” next year, elevated unemployment, a weak housing market and debt reduction measures will restrain the economy.

“There do appear to be more reasons for optimism,” Brevan Howard said. “However, to expect robust self-sustaining expansion in the U.S. would be a mistake.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Saijel Kishan in New York at skishan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christian Baumgaertel at cbaumgaertel@bloomberg.net

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