Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Treasury Outlines Toothless Hedge Fund Rules

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By Kevin G. Hall

Washington - With an eye toward shoring up shaky financial markets, Treasury Department officials unveiled a plan Tuesday to provide greater transparency and management of risk in hedge funds.

However, the Bush administration's "best practices" proposal is voluntary, and less than two dozen of the more than 8,000 registered hedge funds signed onto the plan.

Hedge funds are large pools of investment capital owned by the wealthy. They are largely unregulated.

The plan, presented by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, doesn't introduce new regulation. It depends instead on self-policing and good behavior by hedge fund managers - two qualities missing in action in recent years as Wall Street excesses have led to what former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently called the worst global financial crisis since World War II.

A former CEO of investment bank Goldman Sachs & Co., Paulson didn't rule out the possibility of future regulation.

"Both market and regulatory practices will evolve from here, but this is certainly a logical step at this time," Paulson said. "We must implement best practices and continually seek to strengthen our market and regulatory practices."

Critics of the plan, such as Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, think it gives hedge fund managers, who helped devise the "best practices," a free pass.

"This plan is one small step when giant strides are needed. The Treasury Department's proposals for greater transparency and risk disclosure must be mandatory or they are meaningless," Blumenthal said in a statement. "Non-binding best practices or voluntary guidelines are an imaginary fence and virtual farce: They stop nothing."

Many economists have warned that loosely regulated hedge funds pose a system-wide risk to financial markets, but so far they've emerged from the current credit crisis in good shape. Instead it has been the investment banks - their business partners - whose losses now pose risks to global finance.

Hedge funds require investors to have a minimum net worth of more than $1 million and prior-year income above $200,000. Upon meeting that qualification, investors are required to have a minimum investment, matched by a small pool of partners, that can range from $250,000 to as high as $10 million.

These hedge funds are closed to small investors under the premise that only the rich can afford the risk of high hedge fund losses. The funds also offer far greater rewards to investors than is generally available through safer mutual funds and 401(k) retirement plans.

Although an average American cannot invest in hedge funds, which now boast more than $2 trillion in assets under management worldwide, state pension funds can and increasingly do.

This has raised concerns about accounting practices, fees, transparency and risk-management practices, particularly after the spectacular September 2006 collapse of Amaranth Advisors LLC. It had such a large concentration of investment in contracts for future delivery of natural gas that it was later charged by federal regulators with price manipulation.

Eric Mindich, founder of giant hedge fund Eton Park Capital Management and co-drafter of the "best practices" plan, told reporters Tuesday that "a bunch of warning flags would have been triggered (about Amaranth) if this had been in place at the time."

The state employee pension plans of California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey were among those that lost money during Amaranth's collapse. Employees of San Diego County in California also lost big.

The chief investment officer of California's state pension fund, Russell Read, led one of two working groups that together came up with Treasury's "best practices" plan. He acknowledged that there was nothing to compel compliance and that there would be no public record of which companies are adopting "best practices."

There will be a "fair amount of missionary work" to convince companies it is in their interest to adopt these proposed standards, Read said.

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