These Are the 7 Biggest Hedge Fund Disasters of 2016
By Jen Wieczner
As far as financial returns go, 2016 was actually pretty good for hedge funds—at least compared to the last couple of years. But several of the industry’s bigwigs still took it on the chin this year.
After losing money last year, hedge funds are on track to register their best year since 2013, returning 4.5% as a group in 2016, according to Hedge Fund Research’s fund-weighted composite index. That’s still not nearly as good as the S&P 500, which has returned 11%. Indeed, hedge funds overall have underperformed the broader market index every year since the 2008 financial crisis, when their high-fee managers lost only 19%, half as much as the S&P 500, which was down more than 38%.
Yet although hedge funds’ middling performance this year was somewhat of an improvement, many of their managers undoubtedly can’t wait for the year to end. Some are in deep trouble with the law or their shareholders or both—and some are out of business entirely. Read on for the biggest hedge fund meltdowns of 2016.
1. Platinum Partners
Early this year, a growing chorus began to question whether Platinum Partners’ market-beating performance was too good to be true. Claiming 17% annual returns since 2003 in its flagship fund despite multiple blowups of its high-risk portfolio companies—including several that had gone bankrupt—the hedge fund’s co-founder Mark Nordlicht appeared to possess a “peculiar genius,” according to a Reuters article in April. Then in December, Nordlicht was arrested along with five others and charged with perpetrating a $1 billion fraud that federal prosecutors called a Ponzi-like scheme—one of the largest such frauds since Bernie Madoff’s. The government alleged that the hedge fund was faking its numbers, artificially inflating the value of some investments that in fact were worthless.
Platinum Partners had already begun liquidating the flagship fund in June, after struggling to meet investors’ requests to withdraw their money, and had filed for bankruptcy protection in October . In addition to the fraud investigation, the hedge fund was also facing charges of bribery, which had resulted in the arrest of another Platinum Partners co-founder and an FBI raid of its offices in June.
File this under white-collar tragedies: In June, less than a week after being charged with insider trading, Visium hedge fund manager Sanjay Valvani, 44, committed suicide at his home. Federal prosecutors had accused Valvani of making $32 million in illicit profits by trading in pharmaceutical stocks using confidential FDA information. Valvani’s tipster, a former FDA official, pleaded guilty to charges with a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $5 million in fines. Two former Visium portfolio managers were also charged; one pleaded guilty, while the other is fighting the allegations in court.
Neither Visium itself nor its founder and CIO Jacob Gottlieb were implicated in the crime, but Gottlieb chose to shut down the $8 billion hedge fund anyway. The whistleblower in the insider trading investigation: A former trader at Visium itself, according to Bloomberg.
3. Bill Ackman and Valeant
Here’s a record most hedge fund managers would rather not break: After Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square delivered its worst performance in history in 2015, down 20.5% after fees, 2016 was on track to be even worse. In the first 10 months of this year, the publicly traded Pershing Square fund had lost 22.5%, after Ackman disastrously doubled down on his investment in troubled drugmaker Valeant (VRX, -1.81%). In all, that investment has cost him more than $3 billion in losses, as Valeant stock has plummeted 95% since its peak in 2015.
Since the presidential election, though, some of Ackman’s other holdings have buffered his returns, particularly Fannie Mae (FNMA, +1.27%), whose stock price has more than tripled on hints that Donald Trump’s administration might seek to privatize the mortgage giant. Herbalife (HLF, +0.59%) stock, which Ackman has long been shorting—or betting against—has also recently struggled, down nearly 12%, boosting Pershing Square’s performance. The hedge fund is now only down 12.2%, as of Pershing’s weekly performance report on Dec. 13, though its publicly traded stock has fallen 28% year to date. And after two years of steep losses while the broader market has risen, the pressure is on Ackman to make up for it with big returns next year.
4. Leon Cooperman, Omega Advisors
In September, venerable hedge fund veteran Leon Cooperman, CEO of Omega Advisors, was charged with insider trading. The Securities and Exchange Commission accused Cooperman of making $4 million on illegal trades of an energy company’s stock, using information he allegedly gleaned from an executive in confidence, promising he wouldn’t trade on it. Cooperman, 73, denied the charges. The SEC had reportedly tried, unsuccessfully, to offer the hedge fund manager a deal that would ban him from Wall Street, but Cooperman refused.
Cooperman may still live to regret that decision: A Supreme Court rulingearlier in December bolstered the government’s tool box when prosecuting insider trading.
5. John Paulson
In the middle of 2015, John Paulson’s hedge fund Paulson & Co.—famous for making billions betting against the subprime mortgages that led to the 2008 financial crisis—had $21.7 billion in its equity funds. Today, more than half of that is gone: Paulson’s stock portfolio is only worth $9.2 billion, as of its latest regulatory filings. The hedge fund manager took a wrong turn when he put $2 billion in Valeant—once among his top holdings, before Valeant stock declined precipitously—and made billion-dollar bets on other pharmaceutical companies, including Shire (SHPG, +0.03%), Allergan (AGN, +0.71%), Mylan (MYL, +0.21%) and Teva (TEVA, -1.22%). Those four stocks currently make up Paulson’s largest four holdings, but have suffered on concerns over drug price hikes—which politicians have threatened to regulate—as well as a government investigation into generic drug price-fixing, which has led to civil chargesagainst Mylan and Teva.
Together, the five pharmaceutical stocks have generated at least $4 billion in losses for Paulson’s fund, Fortune estimates. And while some of those stocks got a boost following Trump’s victory in the presidential election—partly on the belief that the Trump administration will go lighter on pharmaceutical regulation than Hillary Clinton would have—Paulson, who himself is part of Trump’s inner advisory circle, missed out on some of the gains, having sold down his drug company positions just before their rally, according to securities disclosures.
But even the drug stock losses don’t entirely account for the huge $12 billion dent in Paulson’s fund since last year. Paulson’s investors are also having a crisis of confidence: They’ve pulled $2.5 billion out of the hedge fund this year alone, according to a person close to the firm. Among those abandoning Paulson is Anthony Scaramucci, the influential founder of hedge fund “fund of funds” investment firm SkyBridge Capital, which had withdrawn the last of its Paulson investment by mid-2016. It’s unclear whether another high-profile investor is still sticking with Paulson: President-elect Trump himself, who at one point had at least several million dollars invested in the hedge fund, according to Trump’s most recent financial disclosure in May.
Daniel Och and his hedge fund firm Och-Ziff Capital Management (OZM, +0.66%)found themselves in hot water this year after one of the firm’s foreign funds got mixed up in a bribery scandal in Africa. In September, Och-Ziff’s African subsidiary pleaded guilty in a U.S. federal court to bribing officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo in exchange for access to exclusive mining deals in which to invest. Och-Ziff and its founder agreed to pay more than $414 million to settle the investigation.
Prosecutors said the corruption went further, with Och-Ziff bribing Libyan officials in order to land an investment from that country’s sovereign wealth fund, and committing other offenses in Africa. But the settlement includes a deferred prosecution agreement that allows the hedge fund to escape further charges if it maintains good behavior. Still, the investigation has spawned other problems at Och-Ziff: Its stock price is down more than 51% so far in 2016, and it recently topped a list of hedge funds with the biggest decline in assets this year.
As disastrous an investment as Valeant was for many hedge fund managers, SunEdison (SUNE) did almost as much damage to those who were still invested when the renewable energy company went bankrupt in April. SunEdison’s fate was especially painful for hedge fund manager David Einhorn, founder of Greenlight Capital, who had believed so much in the company that he presented his case for investing in it in a 50-slide presentation in 2014. Einhorn managed to dump most of his SunEdison stock before it officially filed for Chapter 11, preserving his fund’s returns—but not before the debacle led some shareholders to pull out a chunk of the fund’s assets. (SunEdison had hurt Einhorn’s performance significantly in 2015, when his fund was down more than 20%, one of his worst years ever).