Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Lessons of John Paulson & The Greatest Trade Ever

By Eric Jackson, Senior Contributor 11/18/09 - 06:00 AM EST

Stock quotes in this article: C , GS

If it wasn't clear already that John Paulson had reached the zenith of his hedge fund profession, one only had to watch how fervently the media and blogosphere digested the news of Paulson & Co.'s quarterly holdings which was released last Friday.

Market commentators immediately pounced on how the one-time housing bear had loaded up on 300 million shares in Citigroup(C Quote) during the quarter, while dumping his entire holdings in Goldman Sachs(GS Quote).

Similar 13-F holdings of other hedge fund managers like David Einhorn and George Soros filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in recent days have been summarily ignored compared to the reaction to Paulson's. (Citi shares jumped 3.2% the day after Paulson's announcement, far outpacing the S&P and Financial index that day.)

As far as hedge fund managers go today, John Paulson is the man. Ken Griffin, Stevie Cohen, and Eddie Lampert and others are afterthoughts.

In Gregory Zuckerman's new book, The Greatest Trade Ever, the Wall Street Journal reporter chronicles how Paulson mounted his ascent from nobody to this industry's seer of the moment.

Seven years ago, Paulson was relatively unknown. He was a merger-arbitrage guy running $300 million dollars. The former Baker Scholar from Harvard Business School couldn't help but feel that - in his mid-40s - he had under-achieved his career potential.

A key analyst alongside Paulson was Paolo Pellegrini. A failed Lazard banker with two divorces and zero net worth at the time he joined Paulson, Pellegrini had to make this last career chance work.

He lived in a one bedroom apartment up in Westchester and would arrive at work at 6:30 am in order to get the cheapest parking lot rate nearby. No one seemed to like him at first. He was a bit of a hot-head and talked too much. Yet, eventually he helped identify the housing bubble that Paulson would turn into a $16 billion winning trade for his firm and $4 billion for Paulson.

Beyond the interesting outsider-type characters working at Paulson, Zuckerman's book offers many lessons for small and large investors. One is the risk, but potential reward, that comes from breaking away from the herd mentality that surrounds Wall Street.

Nobody on Wall Street gave these guys a chance, when they started betting against housing. In fact, Paulson was routinely laughed at. Because the banking infrastructure was making so much money off of housing in 2004 - 2006, there was no reason for so many people to imagine it would end.

Even among hedge funds -- who are paid handsomely to anticipate and invest in where the puck is going, not where it's been -- precious few made this bearish trade. At the time, wise managers saw only the obstacles to the trade working out (like the federal government bailing out sub-prime borrowers and "containing" the problem from other parts of housing) and they clung to a misplaced blind trust in "their models" which showed housing couldn't decrease in value.

Even after he makes the bet, Zuckerman points out how there are so many times that people tell Paulson to take the bet off or cash in his profits too early. His own investors complained. Complaints also came from brokers from Bear Stearns and others who helped sell him the credit default swaps on the toxic tranches of mortgage bonds, as well as the most troubled sub-prime lenders and banks holding the troubled securities.

Even his own staff complained that he wasn't taking money off the table. They told him to sell when he was down in his trade and they told him to sell when he was up on the trade after New Century reported its first blown quarter in early 2007. Through it all, Paulson stuck to his guns because he foresaw even bigger profits ahead - and he was proved right.

As a fund manager, I often ponder the challenge of balancing between (1) trusting yourself and your investment thesis completely even when no one else does and (2) being aware enough to know when you're being too stubborn and "not seeing the facts" or when the trade is going against you.

In Paulson's case, every new bit of data which came to light and possibly contradicted his investment thesis was always scrutinized by him and his team to see if they had "missed something." He always stuck with the trade because he felt confident in the depth of research they had invested in understanding the problem/investment opportunity.

For Paulson, it all boiled down to one chart which Pellegrini produced showing the inflation-adjusted growth in housing prices over time divided by wage growth. The data clearly showed a rapid explosion upward away from the general trend starting in 2000. He assumed this trend would not continue indefinitely and revert (even overshoot). He was right.

The Greatest Trade Ever isn't just about John Paulson. It describes some smaller players who also bet against housing. Their stories are also very interesting and some of the characters are really colorful and interesting. Some run into the problem of not having enough capital to implement the trade to the degree they want to. Some wait too long.

One investor, Michael Burry, got his break as a fund manager when well-known value investor Joel Greenblatt made a big investment in him. Later, after taking a big bet against housing early on, Burry faced Greenblatt's wrath. In no uncertain terms, Greenblatt told him to get out of the trade. Burry didn't but not without taking a huge mental and physical toll on himself. Put yourself in Burry's shoes. What must it have felt like to tell your maker to take a hike?

There are several lessons in The Greatest Trade Ever for investors: believe in yourself (assuming you've done your homework), be skeptical of others' free opinions and assumptions, persist, and take the long view and don't take profits too early.

Every investor involved in this bearish housing trade early on referred to it as their potential "Soros trade" - referring to the famous 1992 bet against the British pound which netted Soros' fund $1 billion.

Paulson used this line himself, but he also remembered another Soros comment that stuck in his mind as he executed his trade. When you see the perfect trade set-up in front of you, Soros advised to "go for the jugular." Paulson did and it paid off big-time. Some of us will never see a trade like that for the rest of our lives. When opportunity knocks, you have to answer.

At the time of publication, Jackson's Fund had no holdings in any of the equities mentioned.

Eric Jackson is founder and president of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd.

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