In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Hedge funds and VW: what a pile up!

Posted by seumasach on October 29, 2008

Robert Peston

BBC Blogs

29th October, 2008

If ever there were a country and a people that signalled their distaste for hedge funds, private equity and the self-defined alternative investment industry, that country and people were Germany and the Germans.

A VW TiguanIt was this famous quote of April 2005 to the German popular newspaper, Bild, by the then Deputy Chancellor of Germany, Franz Munterfering, that didn’t exactly represent a “come-in-and-make-yourself-comfortable” message to the rocket scientists of financial services:

“Some financial investors spare no thought for the people whose jobs they destroy. They remain anonymous, have no face, fall like a plague of locusts over our companies, devour everything, then fly on to the next one.”

There will be some pathologists of the economic mess we’re in who’ll argue that Munterfering was spot on. But we can have that debate tomorrow or the next day.

Today let’s ponder the marvel of the €22bn (£18bn) loss incurred over just two days by hedge funds and other short-sellers of shares in Volkswagen AG.

We know there is a loss of that magnitude, because the aggregated short positions in VW – or the sum of all those bets on a fall in VW’s share price – have been equivalent to 11% of the business at a time when the shares have been soaring.

In fact on Monday and Tuesday, VW shares rose an extraordinary 348% – which is enough to burn to a frazzle anyone wagering that the stock would decline – after Porsche disclosed it had taken out financial contracts that would give it a controlling stake in VW.

Shares in a company tend to rise, when a corporate bidder arrives on the scene. But in this case the increment was way beyond normal human experience: at one point yesterday VW became the most valuable company in the world, worth more even than Exxon.

You may ask why VW’s shares have risen quite so much in so short a time. And the explanation is that there are very few of its shares available to trade, as the German state of Lower Saxony controls more than 20% of VW stock with voting rights.

When the share price started to rise, those who had bet on it falling had to scramble to buy, to cover their short positions and limit their losses (they had borrowed shares, and had to buy them so as to be able to repay these loans).

Which hedge funds have been wounded, possibly mortally?

Not, in spite of widespread press reports to the contrary, Marshall Wace of the UK.

It has incurred a tiny loss on VW, of just €5m, and the value of its core fund is up a tiny bit on the month.

So the hunt is on.

Those in the somewhat stressed hedge fund world say those most likely to have been seriously burnt are the so-called quant funds that try to replicate the performance of stock-market indices by buying and selling a few representative shares – because they are more likely than others to have taken out short positions in a mechanistic way, unmitigated by human judgement (“computer says yes”).

Inevitably some traders and investors are calling foul.

They’re furious with Porsche – because the astonishing surge in VW’s share price was precipitated after the maker of the City traders’ favourite vroom-vroom disclosed on Sunday that it had acquired financial contracts (cash-settled options) to buy more than 30% of VW.

If it exercises those options, it would have almost 75% of VW.

What annoys the hedgies is that they feel Porsche has been less than clear about its intentions towards VW – since in March Porsche said that the probability it would take its stake in VW to 75% was “very small indeed”.

Some of the hedgies are therefore complaining to the German regulator, BaFin.

Which, in view of German attitudes to hedge funds, may represent the supreme triumph of hope over experience – and a slightly surreal postscript to the years of super-boom for debt-fuelled investment.

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