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Bear Stearns Hedge Fund Fire Sale Already Under Way

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The last minute effort by Bear Stearns to rescue its High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Fund seems to have collapsed. Moments before midnight last night, the Wall Street Journal’s Kate Kelly reported that Merrill Lynch was going to push forward with its plan to sell at least $850 million of mortgage-related securities it seized from the hedge fund. This morning the New York Post's Roddy Boyd said that end had come for the fund. And now CNBC’s Charlie Gasparino is reporting that JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank have already begun selling collateral they seized from the hedge fund.
The securities were collateral assets for leverage the banks had extended to the debt-heavy fund. The fund has reportedly been battered by bad bets in collateral debt obligations and mortgage securities. The widely publicized trouble in the subprime sector helped make shorting subprime—which hedge funds did through a complex array of swaps and derivative products offered by investment banks—a popular and profitable bet late last year and earlier this year. But when banks reportedly began to ease credit terms on mortgage holders in a coordinated effort to stave off mass defaults and a meltdown in the market, many of these positions went bad for the fund.
[How leverage and bad directional betting crushed the fund, after the jump.]

We’re told that the Bear fund was purchasing credit default options that essentially amounted to a bet that the market would recover earlier this year, and ran into trouble when the ABX, an index for mortgage backed securities, took a nose dive earlier this year. It seems the fund then took the opposite position—so that it was short subprime—just as the market turned around. The fund took its position by buying and selling credit default options as well as credit products that aggregated those options—sometimes called CDO2s, we’re told.
These somewhat illiquid securities are priced according to complicated mathematical models worked out by guys who would be rocket-scientists if rocket-scientists made more money, and some observers wonder if anyone really has a good way of evaluating their worth.
Ironically, Bear Stearns itself has been accused by some hedge fund managers of manipulating the market in subprime mortgages to prevent defaults and prop up the ABX. The bank is one of the largest players in the market, and hedge funds have accused it of bailing out the mortgage market to avoid paying out on credit default swaps that it sold to the hedge funds.
What really seems to have got the Bear fund in trouble was the massive amount of leverage it was employing in it’s bets. Leverage ratios climbed as high as 10-to-1 and 15-to-1, according to Boyd in today’s New York Post. We’re told that one senior banker at Bear Stearns calls this “a stupid amount of leverage.”
The bear fund, which is less than a year old, was reportedly down 23% by the end of April. The situation looked so bad that its managers suspended redemptions, locking in investors. Because the fund was highly levered, it’s lenders began fearing that they might lose out if the fund collapsed. When Merrill, which is reportedly the fund’s biggest lender, made its move to seize collateral with plans to auction it off, it seems to have set off a chain reaction with other lenders.
Various schemes to rescue the fund seem not to have satisfied the lenders. The fund sold some of its trouble mortgage back securities to another Bear investment vehicle that the bank plans to sell to the public, raising some capital. It’s managers reportedly gained access to a $1.5 billion line of additional credit from Bear, and planned to take in an additional $500 million of investment equity. Blackstone was reportedly advising the fund on how to prevent a total collapse.
The fund’s managers—who are led by Ralph Cioffi—argued that a forced dissolution of the fund and an auction of its positions might lead to a systemic event or domino effect in the marketplace, damaging other market players.
“The bond market's most battered players - the hedge funds and trading desks specializing in mortgage-backed securities - now have to handle a total of $2 billion or more hitting a market that is still licking its wounds from the first burst of sub-prime woes,” the Post’s Boyd writes. “The sales are likely to force a serious re-pricing of billions of dollars worth of highly complex and often illiquid securities called collateralized debt obligations, or bonds made from other bonds. Held by both Wall Street firms and hedge funds, the CDOs stocked with sub-prime bonds have not collapsed in price alongside other sub-prime bonds. This will hurt returns at hedge funds and profits at Wall Street trading desks.”
It seems that the lenders to the Bear fund have decided that this risk is worth taking on. Or at least, that taking money off the table now is a safer bet than going forward with the Bear fund.
A 'Subprime' Fund Is on the Brink [Wall Street Journal]
Bad News Bear [New York Post]
Hedge Fund Sale [CNBC]