Hands Off Hedge Funds

LOCUSTS OR FIRE FIGHTERS?

Imagine two successful companies. Both are staffed by very smart people; both are innovative; both have an impact far beyond their industry, improving the productivity of the capitalist system as a whole. But the first, based near San Francisco, is the subject of adoring newspaper profiles, whereas the second, based in the New York area, is usually vilified.

Actually, you do not have to imagine any of this, because it describes a double standard that already exists. The first company in the story is a technology firm; the second is a hedge fund. As any newspaper reader knows, technology firms are the leading edge of the U.S. knowledge economy; they made possible the productivity revolution of the past decade. But the same could just as well be said of hedge funds, which allocate the world's capital to the companies, industries, and countries that can use it most productively.

Of course, that is not how hedge funds are viewed most of the time. The recent implosion of Amaranth Advisors -- a hedge fund that lost $6 billion in a matter of days thanks to one Ferrari-driving 32-year-old trader (and his greedy bosses' abandonment of proper risk management) -- has rekindled the fears that attended the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, an event that even then Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan believed "could have potentially impaired the economies of many nations, including our own."

In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has tried to regulate the sector further -- a 2004 SEC rule requiring the registration of hedge-fund advisers was vacated by a federal court in 2006 -- and continues to be interested in increasing oversight. The attorney general of Connecticut, a state in which many hedge funds are headquartered, has set up a special unit to prosecute hedge-fund abuses and decries what he regards as the "regulatory black hole" in which these funds exist. In East Asia, governments still blame hedge funds for their supposed role in the 1997-98 financial crisis. And in Europe, Franz Müntefering, Germany's deputy chancellor, has complained that hedge funds "remain anonymous, have no face, fall like a plague of locusts over our companies, devour everything, then fly on to the next one."

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