COVER STORY PODCAST
Ralph R. Cioffi seemed as cool and confident as ever. The market for subprime mortgages was crumbling, but the 51-year-old manager of two Bear Stearns (BSC ) hedge funds offered nothing but reassurances to investors. "We're going to make money on this," he promised his wealthy patrons in February. "We don't believe what the markets are saying."
He should have known otherwise. The hedge funds were built so they were virtually guaranteed to implode if market conditions turned south, according to a BusinessWeek analysis of confidential financial statements for both funds and interviews with forensic accounting experts, traders, and analysts.
The funds had another potentially fatal flaw: an unusual arrangement with Barclays (BCS ) that gave the giant British bank the power to yank the plug--a deal that ran counter to the interests of other investors, many of whom didn't even know about it.
The documents also cast serious doubt on the funds' supposedly strong performance before their July bankruptcies. More than 60% of their net worth was tied up in exotic securities whose reported value was estimated by Cioffi's own team--something the funds' auditor, Deloitte & Touche, warned investors of in its 2006 report, released in May, 2007. What emerges from the records is a portrait of a cash-starved portfolio piled high with debt and managers all too eager to add to the heap.
The revelations shed new light on the murky dealings inside the booming $1.3 trillion hedge fund industry, which now accounts for up to a third of all daily trading on Wall Street. They seem to underscore critics' biggest complaint: that many hedge funds use astonishing amounts of leverage, or borrowed money, in sometimes reckless ways. The risks of "fair value" accounting, the practice that allows money managers to estimate the values of securities for which they can't find true market prices, are thrown into sharper focus as well. Coming soon, for better or worse: louder calls in Washington for more oversight of the largely unregulated hedge fund industry.
These new details could further damage the relationships that thousands of pension funds, university endowments, and wealthy individuals have with the Wall Street chieftains they entrust to manage their money. The Bear funds weren't stand-alone portfolios like the ones that blew up on Amaranth Advisors and Sowood Capital Management in recent years--they carried the imprimatur of one of the Street's oldest and most storied firms. The funds marketed themselves with the implicit backing of Bear Stearns and played up the fact that they were run by its experts in mortgage-backed securities. Now investors are left with a troubling question: If they can't count on big, well-established firms to operate hedge funds properly, whom can they count on?
For Bear and its 72-year-old chairman and chief executive, James E. Cayne, the findings could prove troubling. Warren Spector, then-president and co-chief operating officer, has already resigned his posts in the aftermath. The scandal could do lasting damage to Bear's once-mighty, mortgage-backed bond underwriting and trading businesses, says Frank Partnoy, a former Wall Street derivatives trader turned professor at the University of San Diego Law School. "It's hard to imagine the brand recovering," he says. "It's going to be a long road to get there." The SEC, meanwhile, is looking into the hedge funds, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York in late September launched an investigation of its own.
Now the 84-year-old investment bank, long admired for its scrappy ways in a world once dominated by white-shoe elites, may begin to distance itself from Cioffi, who remains a paid adviser there. Cioffi, meanwhile, may have to fight off accusations that he was a rogue trader. He will likely seek to prove that the valuations he oversaw were reasonable and that his comments to investors weren't intentionally misleading. Bear Stearns spokesman Russell Sherman says the firm took precautions against a market downfall, but the decline in mortgage-backed securities was unprecedented.
The quick collapse of the inelegantly named Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies fund and High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage fund conjures memories of Long-Term Capital Management, the multibillion-dollar fund that blew up in 1998. In both cases, the damage helped ignite a worldwide credit crunch that prompted intervention by central bankers. But there's an important difference: LTCM, run by some of the sharpest minds in finance, was built to do well in rising and sinking markets alike. It failed because its impossibly complex trading strategies went haywire. The Bear funds cratered because their managers never came up with a Plan B to survive a downturn. Cioffi was more like a day trader chasing tech stocks in the late 1990s than the Nobel laureates at LTCM.
Until recently, Cioffi was a Bear Stearns star. The 1978 business administration graduate of Vermont's Saint Michael's College joined the firm in 1985 as a bond salesman and rose quickly. By 1989 he was head of the fixed-income sales group and eventually became a driving force behind Bear's move into sophisticated structured-finance products. About five years ago he considered leaving to launch his own hedge fund, people close to him say. But Bear enticed him to stay and run it out of Bear Stearns Asset Management.
Despite Cioffi's considerable expertise, however, there was surprisingly little financial artistry taking place inside the funds' Park Avenue corridors. The managers hadn't arrived at any blinding new insight into how markets work. Documents show that they were simply taking investors' money, leveraging it to the hilt, and then buying complex bonds called collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, that were backed by subprime and other mortgages.
At the height in 2006, Cioffi was a central character in the booming mortgage CDO market, holding nearly $30 billion worth of securities. "Everybody wanted to do business with him because he was The Buyer," says a portfolio manager who was not authorized by his firm to speak for attribution. Cioffi's easygoing manner made him popular with investors, the bankers who lent his funds money, and the charities he supported.
But his investment strategy turned into subtraction soup: The more he ate, the hungrier he got. The funds' voracious buying of lightly traded bonds drove down their yields, meaning Cioffi's team had to buy more and more of them to boost returns. That meant more borrowing. Banks such as Merrill Lynch (MER ), Goldman Sachs (GS ), Bank of America (BAC ), and JPMorgan Chase (JPM ) lent the funds at least $14 billion all told. Cioffi also used a type of short-term debt to borrow billions more; in some cases he managed to buy $60 worth of securities for every $1 of investors' money. But he made a critical trade-off: For lower interest rates, he gave lenders the right to demand immediate repayment.
For a while the strategy worked, and the fund became a hit. Cioffi started dabbling in fashionable hedge fund manager accoutrements, weighing a partnership stake in a Gulfstream jet and even getting into the movie business. In 2006, he was executive producer of the indie film Just Like My Son, starring Rosie Perez.
But when the markets turned earlier this year and the CDOs values plunged, Cioffi's lenders demanded repayment, and the borrow-and-buy game was over. Making matters worse, the funds held only about 1% of their assets in cash, much less than the 10% that many hedge funds keep on hand for emergencies. "This is not prudent investing," says one structured-finance market veteran who asked not to be identified. "It's not rocket science to conclude that piling market-value risk on illiquid instruments is risky."
If the extreme leverage hadn't killed the funds, their Byzantine structure might have. The Enhanced fund, launched in August, 2006, gave an enormous amount of control to Barclays. The British bank provided at least $275 million in capital and in exchange was designated the sole equity investor, according to the fund's 2006 audited financials and bankruptcy filings. The other investors in the Enhanced fund merely held a stake in a complicated derivative contract that mimicked the fund's gains or losses but conferred no actual ownership rights.
The arrangement allowed Bear to get the fund up and running quickly, but it also meant that Barclays held the power to pull its stake and potentially close the fund down. Such a move could have weakened the High-Grade fund, too, because that fund was invested in similar securities. If the Enhanced fund started dumping its holdings to pay back Barclays, that could send the prices of the securities in the High-Grade fund tumbling (just as massive selling of a stock would drive down its price for other investors). A cascading event could have brought down both funds.
The final blow for the Enhanced fund came when Barclays told Bear it wanted out, according to the bankruptcy filings. The timing of the redemption notice isn't clear. Barclays declined to comment on the relationship, except to say its losses were minimal.
Hedge fund experts say the setup was unusual. It's not uncommon for investors to use derivatives to gain exposure to market indexes and indexes of broad hedge fund management strategies. But funds rarely allow them on a single portfolio fund with one equity investor. "A few hedge funds have done this kind of [deal], but it isn't terribly common," says Janet Tavakoli, a derivatives trading consultant.
Some of the details were spelled out in the abstruse language of the Enhanced fund's confidential offering memorandum. On page 50 it says Barclays' "interests in terminating the Leverage Instrument might conflict with the interest of the shareholders." But many investors now say they didn't understand the warning. A number of them had already been in the High-Grade fund, which was launched in October, 2003, and say they were encouraged by Cioffi's team to move their money to the Enhanced fund. They say they were led to believe that the newer fund would have a similar structure, except that it would use more leverage through a deal with Barclays.
A RED FLAG
The investors who remained only in the High-Grade fund say they were told nothing of the Barclays relationship. Doug Hirsch, an attorney with New York-based Sadis & Goldberg, who represents Navigator Capital Advisors, a hedge fund that has filed a class action over the collapse of the fund, says: "If the viability of the High-Grade fund was jeopardized as a result of the structure of the newly formed Enhanced leverage fund, then that is certainly a risk factor that needed to be disclosed."
The funds' peculiar architecture wasn't their only problem. As the borrow-and-buy gambit grew less profitable, they sought out increasingly esoteric bonds and other lightly traded securities that offered higher yields. The funds were big buyers of so called CDO-squareds--CDOs that invest in other CDOs. For example, the funds at one time held $135 million of securities issued by Mantoloking CDO, a CDO-squared; $135 million of Pyxis Master, a one-of-a-kind CDO structure; and $120 million worth of securities from CDO issuer Abacus. Over time the holdings got so exotic that some had no published credit ratings and couldn't be valued by outside pricing services. The funds held $280 million worth of various entities so obscure that one bond veteran found no trace of them in any market registries.
The irregular and illiquid securities seemed to help boost returns. The High-Grade fund posted a cumulative gain of 46.8% before the bottom began to fall out, say reports to investors. In 2006 it rose 11%. The Enhanced fund returned 6.3% in less than six months' time in 2006.
But documents suggest those return numbers may have been shaky. The 2006 audited financial statements for both hedge funds contained a potentially worrisome note from Deloitte & Touche, the longtime auditor for Bear Stearns and its affiliated entities. Deloitte warned that a high percentage of net assets at both funds were being valued using estimates provided by Cioffi's management team "in the absence of readily ascertainable market values." Deloitte went on to caution: "These values may differ from the values that would have been used had a ready market for these investments existed, and the differences could be material." In the case of the High-Grade fund, 70% of its net assets, or $616 million, were being valued in such a manner, up from just 25% in 2004. For the Enhanced fund, 63% of net assets, or $589 million, were "fair valued."
A hedge fund's net asset value is simply its assets minus its liabilities, akin to a small investor's net worth. It's the key to tracking its profitability--and the measurement on which its fees are based. Deloitte's language was a warning to investors that if the estimates were wrong, they could have substantial losses. It also raised the possibility that the past performance, and hence fees, might have been based on squishy numbers. "It may have been an early warning sign," says Barry M. Levine, a hedge fund forensic analyst who often serves as an expert witness in securities litigation and who reviewed the Bear Stearns funds' financial statements for BusinessWeek. "Obviously, Deloitte had misgivings. I'm not saying there was anything wrong, but if there was an overvaluation, it could have had a big impact on the funds' profitability." Deloitte says it doesn't comment on client matters.
Bear spokesman Sherman says net asset value is the wrong point of comparison. Bears' fair-value assets accounted for less than 10% of the funds' total assets, he says, and the Deloitte comment was a "standard disclosure."
Valuation games are surprisingly common. A study this summer by Riskdata, a hedge fund risk consulting group, found that at least 30% of hedge funds that rely on illiquid trading strategies are "smoothing returns" to make a fund's performance appear less risky by evening out month-to-month volatility. The study, which was published in June, included the Bear funds among those it examined. "The Bear Stearns hedge funds had a profile that's typical of funds that smooth earnings," says Olivier Le Marois, Riskdata's chief executive officer. "Smoothing returns is very misleading."
Deloitte's warning came too late to matter to investors turning wary in the spring. The 2006 audited financials for the High-Grade fund didn't begin arriving in investors' e-mail until mid-May, just two weeks before Bear Stearns suspended redemptions in the Enhanced fund. Many investors in the fund say they never received a copy.
What drove Cioffi and his team? It may have been the fees. Like most hedge funds, Cioffi's kept 20% of any profits they generated, plus 2% of the net assets under management. The High-Grade fund had become a fee engine for Bear Stearns Asset Management, accounting for three-quarters of its revenues in 2004 and 2005, according to CDO tracker Derivative Fitch. The deal with Barclays was a way to start a new fund and prime it for returns--and more fees--quickly. And by encouraging the investors in the High-Grade fund to transfer money to the Enhanced fund, Cioffi didn't have to waste time wooing new customers; he could go to the same ones he'd already won over.
Now many of those who bought in claim they were misled. The offering memoranda for both funds contained the usual statements about how investors could lose all of their money. But some of the investors say that's not how the Bear Stearns funds were marketed by Cioffi and co-manager Matthew Tannin. They say they were told to expect small but steady gains of 1% to 2% a month, and never had to fear losing their entire investment. In a worst-case scenario--a perfect storm, they called it--the funds might lose 10% in a year.
Not everyone was convinced. Neil Smith, director of money manager Altus Investment Management in London, learned of the High-Grade fund during a hedge fund conference at London's Four Seasons Hotel (FSH ) in February, 2006. He says the presentation left him thinking the managers were making impossible claims. Smith says Tannin explained the fund needed a lot of leverage to generate high returns, but that it was O.K. because the investment strategy was sound and the CDOs were highly rated securities. "What he was trying to do was say how safe it was, how conservative it was," says Smith. "I came away thinking it was a disaster." A friend who attended the same conference wasn't so skeptical. Now he says he's trying to line up a lawyer for a potential suit. Tannin's lawyer, Nina Beattie, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The managers' upbeat talk continued well into the subprime meltdown. Tannin told several investors in March that "we wouldn't have made money in February if we were long, or overexposed, to subprime," recalls one listener. Tannin went on to say he was putting more of his own money into the funds, and that "it was a very bad time to redeem."
In a brazen effort to stay afloat, Cioffi's team unveiled on May 9 a plan to bring public Everquest Financial. The company, formed in late 2006 and co-managed by Cioffi and Bear Stearns, had acquired some of the riskiest securities in the hedge funds' portfolios. A public offering could have created a rich trading vehicle to prop up the hedge funds until the storm passed. But the plan was met with a howl of protest on Wall Street and was scrapped. The reaction unnerved bankers and set in motion the process that resulted in the lenders calling their loans.
Now Cioffi, who has been named an adviser to Bear Stearns Asset Management, and Tannin, still a senior managing director there, face major legal troubles. Securities lawyers say valuation issues often pique prosecutors' interest. In 2004, managers of Beacon Hill Asset Management paid $4.4 million in penalties to the SEC to settle charges that they fudged valuations. That same year, Edward Strafaci pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that he manipulated the valuations for securities held by a fund run by former New York City Deputy Mayor Kenneth Lipper. "Valuation fraud is one of the touchstones of hedge fund fraud," says Scott Berman, a New York securities attorney who has litigated several hedge fund fraud cases. "It typically occurs when people don't start out to commit a fraud, but have losses they are trying to cover up."
The new revelations about Bear don't prove the firm intended to defraud investors, but they raise many troubling questions. Now lawyers are circling, and Cioffi, the man once so good at convincing investors and lenders to turn over money, is facing the toughest sales job of his life.
By Matthew Goldstein & David Henry