How the Winklevoss twins disrupted a big NYC hedgie event and distracted from the poor job most hedge funds are doing for clients
In a break from whistle-through-graveyard business as usual, Cameron and Tyler unconvincingly pitched Bitcoin
Here’s the thing about hedge fund managers: It’s all about the money — making it and preserving it. That mission differs from financial advisors who, in addition to making money for their clients, serve as human lightning rods that absorb the emotional and spiritual dislocation associated with having and keeping wealth. See: What is the value proposition of a financial advisor — and how is a budding RIA culture upping the ante?.
Since hedge fund managers have one thing to do and charge dearly for it — at 2% of assets and 20% of gains, more than any other financial advisor or asset manager — you’d think that they would be excellent at making money for clients.
It turns out that — at least as an industry — they’re not. The strategy, marked by the holding of long and short positions to hedge against loss in down markets, turned in a very anemic 4% this year through Aug. 9 (this according to a study by Goldman Sachs referenced in a recent Wall Street Journal article). The prolonged bull market has been unkind to hedge fund managers; the S&P 500 lapped hedge funds with 20% returns in the same time period. See: The truth about hedge fund risk.
Yet more hedge funds, with an expanded menu of strategies falling under that rubric, have come on the scene in the last few years. The result may be that formerly above-the-fray firms (when I started on the business beat in 2004, many funds didn’t even deign to list their phone numbers) will be forced to compete for the same fat-cat investor dollar.
The fact that a decades-long ban on hedge fund advertising will be lifted later this year doesn’t help matters. All this could lead to a worst-case scenario already being bandied about in business and trade publications: That the days of the unquestioned 2% and 20% rate are numbered.
With this in mind, I signed up to cover the Ninth Annual New York Value Investing Conference earlier this week. Its Warren Buffett-evoking name notwithstanding, it’s where hundreds of hedge fund executives and managers converge. This year it was held in the sleek Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center, home to Jazz at Lincoln Center, the city’s premier jazz venue. Hedge funds are associated with glamour and the venue reflected that gloss.
I was poised to hear what a bunch of contrite hedge fund experts had to say about finding redemption — ahead of investors seeking refunds. See: 8 reasons why the hedge fund industry deserves a second look in 2013 and why RIAs are so well positioned to capitalize.
What I observed instead was parade of hedge fund proprietors delivering PowerPoint-synchronized talks, discussing macro- and microtrends and best picks of undervalued companies. If any of the 200-plus attendees were at all spooked by the fact that conference coincided with the fifth anniversary of Lehman Bros.’ collapse, there was no sign of it — even if one presenter did briefly flash a disclaimer on the overhead slide before beginning his address to his peers.
Enter the Winklevosses
Then, on the second day, conference organizer John Schwartz of Tilson Information introduced his most high profile “get”: Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, entrepreneurs and Olympic rowers. The twins however, are far more famous as litigants who sued Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly swiping their Facebook idea, as immortalized in the 2010 movie “The Social Network” — in which the twins were skewered by former Treasury Secretary and then president of Harvard University, Larry Summers.
Improvisation was in short supply at
the 9th Annual Value Investing Congress
held at NYC’s toniest jazz venue.
In real life, the brothers sued Zuckerberg, claiming they had invented Facebook, settling the suit in 2011 for millions in cash and Facebook stock. Recently, as partners in Winklevoss Capital, they have taken strong positions in Bitcoin, a controversial online currency. In July, they filed with the SEC to create the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust, a proposed ETF-like exchange for the digital, non-state affiliated money. See: Why sudden wealth at Facebook is gushing into a $17-billion RIA and triggered a merger of two DFA giants.
But any dreams of picking up some good Zuckerberg dish were quickly dashed.
“If you came to hear us talk about Facebook you came to wrong place,” said Tyler.
Dressed to shill
The brothers presented themselves wearing dark suits and pastel shirts to show their Wall Street side but were tie-less, perhaps to display their Internet cred, and wore top-siders, presumably a nod to their Olympic-level sports prowess.
Schwartz acknowledged that he had booked the Winklevosses as something of a novelty act to wow hedge fund managers but realized an unexpected benefit of luring reporters channeling their inner paparazzi.
“Every once in a while we get a reaction that surprises us. Reporters got in touch and they were aghast. Why? We want to be an inclusive church and take in all sorts of people. They are smart young men who created a lot of value and they may have some interesting things to say. It’s something different.”
It wasn’t just reporters. The attendees, until then unmistakably nonplussed, perked up as the Winklevoss twins took the stage. The presentation, in the nature of a Bitcoin tutorial, started with thoughts about its creator, Satoshi Nakamoto — perhaps.
“We’re not sure if he does exist,” said Tyler. “He, she or they left voluminous body of work. He seemed frustrated with system that crashed. You don’t need to know who he is, you don’t need to trust him to do business with him.”
The brothers went on to tout the advantages of Bitcoin over traditional currency — it’s durable, portable, almost impossible to counterfeit and can bypass the “legacy rails” of transmitting money. “You can shoot money across the Internet free and instantly,” said Tyler. See: Top 10 alternatives to alternative investments for RIAs: 2013 edition.
They also floated the use of Bitcoin to help struggling foreign economies. “Last year there was a financial crisis in Cypress as I’m sure a lot of you guys are familiar with,” said Cameron. “A lot of people were apprehensive about storing money in banks and the banks took a haircut” A screen shot of a woman getting a haircut flashed above the stage. See: Column: Europe is the opportunity of a generation and the time to invest is now.
“With Bitcoin there are no bail-ins like in Cyprus,” said Tyler.
The brothers pointed out that Bitcoin is difficult to appropriate as, before it is spent, it doesn’t exist.
“In 1933, FDR ordered citizens to return gold or pay a fine,” he said. Bitcoin, having no physical mass, can be stored online, or even in one’s head with the use of a 12-word passport or “brain wallet.” A screen shot of Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke appeared above them as the brothers suggested that Bitcoin could be used as a “hedge against the Fed.”
Government approval pending
It was around this time that murmurs in the audience could be heard. In the Q&A that followed, the attendees peppered the Winklevoss’s about the probability of the U.S. government allowing a competing currency to exist.
The brothers acknowledged that their proposed Bitcoin exchange was a long way from receiving government regulation, though when asked how long, Tyler posited six months, looking doubtful he said it. Maybe 12. See: Startup firm bets its ETF research technology can cut out the middle man for advisors.
An audience member asked: Since the creation of an alternative currency is illegal, wouldn’t it therefore be illegal to distribute it?
That could be the case, they allowed, eliciting pockets of nervous laughter from the spectators. “But if government wants to shut it down it would have to shut the Internet down. So is it worth fighting it or working with it. Doesn’t make sense to fight it so governments will work with it.” They reiterated: “To shut down Bitcoin is to shut down the Internet.”
The Winklevoss twins, who are starting
an ETF exchange for Bitcoin, competed
in the men’s pair rowing event
at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
What about money laundering and the possibility of using Bitcoin to fund terrorists?
The anonymity of Bitcoin is overstated, said Tyler. It’s like owning the Mona Lisa. At some point you can trace it. You have to cash it out to buy AK47s. In that sense, the risks are the same as with cash. Cameron emphasized that Bitcoin owned is untraceable but that every transaction is public.
it’s possible that “the U.S. could regulate it and clamp down but doesn’t mean it couldn’t work everywhere else in the world. Maybe you couldn’t own it— but how could they prove it?” asked Tyler. See: Tamarac CEO: Mark Spangler’s big trouble with the feds won’t harm Tamarac.
The clacking of journalists’ keybords’ intensified as the Winklevoss’s took their bows and the meeting adjourned.
At the mid-morning break immediately following, the consensus was that the Winklevoss brothers had delivered a diverting 35 minutes, even if the chances were slim that their exchange of a virtual, parallel currency would take hold in a big way anytime soon.
John Paffendorf, partner in a $900 million Private Wealth Management boutique that operates within Morgan Stanley, had a one-word reaction to Bitcoin: “Illegal.”
Paffendorf, a regular attendee at these conferences, said it was the first time he could recall a presentation of a public security offering. The Winklevoss’s pitch was self-serving, he said, but then again, so were those of all the other speakers, albeit in the service of more traditional alternative products. See: A more liquid alternative to alternative investments catches on.
Mohan Plakkot of Valsef Capitol, based in Quebec, had listened with interest as his company holds Internet assets, but believes that at present there are too many regulatory barriers and other unknowns to think seriously about investing in Bitcoin.
“They have a huge position, this is a way to push it,” he says. Still, Plakkot thought the presentation would have been more appropriate at a technology conference.
“I was surprised it was included,” he said. “Still it’s something people like to talk about — and not something they need to make a decision about.”
Cameron S. Epard was an atypical attendee in that he’s not in the hedge fund business. Rather, as president and co-founder of AirStream Energy, a wind farm developer based in Colorado, Epard has attended the conference for the last few years to get fund and stock ideas for how to invest his firms’ profits — and enjoys the process so much that he’s thinking of starting a fund.
The brothers impressed Epard. “It’s a big deal and scary,” he says. “They’re risking a lot of money. They’re bright guys.”
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I’m not sure “dead wrong” is the wording I’d use to advocate the constructive use of word or to indicate my willingness to engage in civil debate.
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Elmer Rich III
Truth in advertising. It is not 'risk’ – risk is known probability of outcomes. 'Uncertainty’ is unknown probability of outcome. So risk is a marketing misrepresentation. In fact, it is loss management that is the need.
Let’s start with this: “The Winklevosses are onto something real here…..” statement.
My experience is that HFs sell return – period. Of course, use of the term “hedge” implies loss management. Now, let’s remember HFs are very successful in making themselves money at at least 2%. It is a deceptive practices-based business model.
Words matter immensely. In fact, getting the terminology right is often half the battle. However, be careful not to let the labels you attach to things lead you to false conclusions about the nature of those things!
I mentioned that some people are buying and holding Bitcoin because the price has been going up at a rate of about 7X per year, and they see that trend continuing (or accelerating). It’s fine if you want to conclude that the label “collectible” applies to Bitcoin. In fact, knowing that some people “collect” them might give you valuable insights to help predict their future value.
However, it would be unfortunate if your decision to call it a collectible leads you to the false conclusion that it cannot also be a currency. Since it is used as a currency by tens of thousands of people every day, a number that is growing as fast as the price, claims that Bitcoin is a currency are not just “marketing hype,” but a documented fact.
The “anti-government rant” is also a fundamental concept in Bitcoin. There were over 100 instances of hyperinflation (inflation rate of 100% per year or more) in the 20th century, all of them caused by governments expanding their currencies to pay for reckless spending. Throughout history, every time a country’s national debt has exceeded its GDP, its currency has eventually collapsed. We’ve recently passed that threshold in the United States, and many people are concerned about the future of the U.S. dollar. To not be at least somewhat concerned would be foolishly myopic.
I believe that Bitcoin has two fundamental properties that make it likely to become the global money of the future:
1. It cannot be inflated and destroyed by governments to cover reckless spending.
2. Its advanced features, like the ability for the unbanked to send and receive money globally for free, make it much more powerful than our existing forms of money.
Investing in Bitcoin now is like investing in a startup that has not yet become profitable, and whose future is not guaranteed, but whose fundamental business concept is sound. It’s like investing in Google in 2002. Too risky? I’d probably limit it to 5-10% of my portfolio.
If you cite “research”, it has to be named or it is pretty meaningless.
I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to with regards to claims anyone made and misleading words. Care to enlighten us mere mortals on what “bee has got in your bonnet” here? i just don’t see what’s gotten you so wound up. I agree that misleading words are one of the reasons regs are put in place, but what exactly was purposefully misleading in your opinion?
Elmer Rich III
Any facts to support above claims?
Elmer Rich III
If words didn’t matter, there would be be regulations for the use of them. Misleading words are not semantics but ethically and legally. This not a matter of opinion, but fact.
Elmer Rich III
Dead wrong. Words matter immensely since they are the basis for professional oversight of other people’s money. Only con men and sales men excuse their misuse of words – aka lying.
OK, so there is a whole anti- government rant behind all this. I am only interested in professional topics.
“Hedge Funds” should be renamed “Risk Funds” based on their compensation scheme, which is OK if that’s what some investors want and buy into.
But a true hedge fund should manage risk and bring it down to prevent losses. Right now, there is no hedge fund compensation scheme that rewards managers for not losing, as far as I know.
Behavioral finance has shown people value not losing money twice as much as compared to making the same amount of money.
It’s not illegal to create an alternative currency. Where did that attendee get that from? It’s a pity the twins didn’t correct her.
The reaction of Paffendorf also shows the absurdity of US laws/regulations. There’s absolutely nothing illegal in Bitcoin. But people already presume it is or at least will be, based on how authoritarian the government normally is with pretty much everything.
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Thanks for adding to the civility of the dialogue. I don’t take it for granted.
Getting one’s mind around something like bitcoin is … mind blowing. I still
don’t fully get how paper currency works (not that I’m asking for an explanation), never mind ether currency.
Very well explained!
Interesting. Hedge funds aren’t doing well, and hedge fund managers aren’t interested in an investment that’s returned 7X every year since it was created. Makes you think.
Sorry about Eli Manning. Thank you for what editors call getting outside the subject to get to the subject and for interjecting the always appreciated wry tone, with no whiff of cynicism.
Not all the 'facts’ were on the side of the Winkelvosses in their epic legal struggles with Mark Zuck but they had just enough facts on their side to get silly rich it seems. So maybe they know something about the judicious synthesis of facts and opinion to make…coin.
Elmer Rich III
Bottom line: leveraged shorts on Bitcoin and hedge funds.
All financial services firms are dedicated to their own profitability, never their clients. They sell what is best for them – what makes them money. Client benefits are irrelevant to their income statements and balance sheets, of course.
Whatever hedgies need to say/promise/powerpoint to lock down 2/20 – they will. It’s all sales and nonsensical. “It is impossible to predict the future.”
Fiduciary Advisor Advocate
I’ve been following the banter back and forth with interest and, admittedly a little humor. With the New York Giants being pummeled on Sunday- I decided to read up on Bitcoins. It seems pretty interesting- kind of like the ultimate free market. It’s a potential venture investment- not all that dissimilar to other venture investments. With the proper research, due diligence and investment vehicle…why not?
I don’t quite understand many of Elmer’s comments however. Investing is speculation based, we hope, on some form of an educated assessment of the opportunity. The only facts we have are based on historical information and/or relationships which are very helpful but not infallible. I just got a check from 'Bear Stearns Securities Litigation Settlement’. Fact of the matter is Bear Stearns was a venerable Wall Street firm for 86 years …it went poof in 6 months. 2008 was, statistically, once in a century…except for 1987. Facts are great if they are available.
There were no 'facts’ for Microsoft, Google, eBay, TheGlobe.com, Napster etc. Folks had a speculative vision…some worked and some didn’t. Bitcoins seems not different.
Hedge funds, as an asset class, are not that good at hedging risk—-for a reason. They are paid to take risk, not to not take risk. The standard is they are paid 20% on returns. If there is no risk, there is no return. The investor is sometimes better off not taking a risk, but they don’t get that result in the vast majority of hedge funds who want to take a risk to earn a return.
This is exactly the kind of thing hedge funds should be looking at as opportunistic diversifiers.
The Winklevosses are onto something real here, but I fear the difficulty will be in implementing the structure in a functioning ETF…where is the real liquidity for this currency and how does one actually own a share through the ETF? Can I request delivery of the underlying bitcoins to me?
Anyways I applaud the twins interests and fortitude for taking this on. In fact, if they can get it launched, I’ll buy a small position for some of my clients.
What “claims” did I make, Elmer? I expressed an opinion and pointed out questions that I still have. Not sure that I need facts to back up an opinion, pal.
Or perhaps you’re simply challenging your earlier post and didn’t recognize it was you posting?
Elmer Rich III
thanks for the data. So it is a collectible. Calling it a currency seems misleading. Seems like gold, stamps,
How are the claims about it being a alternative currency anything but marketing hype?
Elmer Rich III
The discussion appears to have moved into strong conservative, anti-government sentiments. Personal political opinions are not professional matters.
Elmer Rich III
Search Philip Tetlock. Watch this – http://youtu.be/f73A-HB-08M
Elmer Rich III
How is it possible for anyone to see the future, let alone something as complex as government polices – that may happen? Without facts it is just ideology and personal beliefs.
It’s impossible to be absolutely certain about the future, but intelligent people using proven methods can do a pretty good job of predicting some things.
Regarding politics, we are faced not with an absence of facts, but an overabundance. The challenge is to know which facts are important.
The national debt is almost 17 trillion. The GDP of the U.S. is less than 16 trillion. Wikipedia has a ridiculously long list of examples of hyperinflation at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperinflation, most of them from the 20th century.
This is not ideology, personal opinion, or government bashing. This is just observing that history repeats itself, and we’re currently in a position which historically has most often led to hyperinflation and the complete collapse of the currency.
That doesn’t mean it will happen to us, but it would be unwise to imagine that it’s outside the realm of possibility. The U.S. dollar is not immune to the laws of economics. It could happen here, and it might be wise to hedge your bets.
> Any facts to support above claims?
If you’re asking about my 7X per year number, here are the averages prices of Bitcoin on MtGox over the past few years:
— 2009 — not yet on exchange, but generally less than a penny each
— 2010 — $0.14
— 2011 — $5.43
— 2012 — $8.27
— 2013 YTD — $86.72
— current price — $134.52
It works out to about 7X growth per year. That’s a pretty nice return!
There is almost unlimited upside potential and very little downside risk. If Bitcoin really catches on — and there are lots of reason that it should — they could easily go to a million dollars each. If governments get serious about trying to kill it, there will still be plenty of people around the world who continue to collect them, so the price will never go to zero.
As long as governments mistreat their currencies, there will be a demand for Bitcoin!
The discussion is about whether professional money managers should invest in Bitcoin.
It would be quite short-sighted for a professional money manager not to consider the impact of politics on the future of the U.S. dollar. Stating that the national debt now exceeds the GDP, and stating that no currency in history has ever survived after passing that threshold, has nothing to do with personal opinion, conservatism, or anti-government sentiment. It’s merely an observation of indisputable facts.
I believe that a good professional money manager cannot afford to ignore the relevant facts and lessons of history!
Hedge fund managers make money by going long on one investment and short on another investment in the same sector based on their belief that one is likely to outperform the other regardless of the general direction of the entire sector.
The purchasing power of the dollar is about 1% of its value of 100 years ago, and the inflationary forces that drove its value down are still hard at work. The forces that have caused Bitcoin to increase in value are also still hard at work. Any reasonable observer, faced with these concrete facts, would conclude that Bitcoin is likely to outperform the dollar over the next few years.
Are there risks? Of course! There are risks with every investment. But governments cannot stop Bitcoin without shutting down the internet, and there will always be demand for it somewhere, so the downside risk is relatively low.
Seems to me that any professional money manager worth his salt who realistically examines the relevant facts and risk/reward ratio would conclude that a small position in Bitcoin is an excellent investment decision.
BTW — I am enjoying our civilized dialogue on this topic. It’s rare that online conversations can stay intellectual for this long and not devolve into childish exchanges.
Elmer Rich III
In fact, research has shown that predicting the future is luck and not skill – even in investing. Research says “experts” are better at predicting in subjects they know nothing about.
The whole enterprise of econ and government policy prognostication has been shown to be meaningless. Now this challenges many folk’s income so will be repressed, of course.
Anyone saying they have any reliable predictions of the future is just salesmanship.
Where is the scientific evidence that “history repeats itself?” Reading and studying beyond Wikipedia seems prudent.
In fact, it appears the global hyper-economy is now dramatically different. Appeals to look backward, based on fearful emotions, seems unproductive and an obstacle to problem-analysis and problem-solving..
The fundamental nature of Bitcoin is a currency, but I believe many people are holding them because they believe the price will continue to rise. I have some U.S. dollars saved away that I’m not spending. Does that make the U.S. dollar a collectible?
Bitcoin is a currency because people can and do use it to purchase things. BitPay is just one of several Bitcoin payment processors, and they recently passed the 10,000 vendor mark. I’ve purchased things with it. But mostly I’m holding it as an investment.
It’s an awesome currency because you can pay any amount of Bitcoins (that you own) to anyone, anywhere in the world, with the speed and cost of email. That’s not hype. I don’t know what percentage of the 60,000 network transactions each day are for purchasing goods and services, but I can speak from personal experience that it works well for that purpose.
Bitcoin is perhaps the greatest technological innovation of our time — money beyond the abuse governments and central banks, free global banking for all mankind. You can no more stop Bitcoin from replacing government money than you can stop email from replacing handwritten letters.
The early investors will reap the rewards. The question is, will you be one of them?