How Boaz Weinstein and Hedge Funds Outsmarted JPMorgan
Boaz Weinstein didn’t know it, but he had just hooked the London Whale.
It was last November, and Mr. Weinstein, a wunderkind of the New York hedge fund world, had spied something strange across the Atlantic. In an obscure corner of the financial markets, prices seemed out of whack. It didn’t make sense.
Mr. Weinstein pounced.
As the financial world now knows, what was out of whack was JPMorgan Chase & Company . One its traders, Bruno Iksil, the man later nicknamed the London Whale for his outsize trades, was about to blow a multibillion-dollar hole in the mighty House of Morgan.
But the resulting uproar, in Washington and on Wall Street, has largely obscured a simple truth of the marketplace. Yes, Morgan lost big — but, as Mitt Romney has pointed out, someone else won. And that someone or, rather, those someones, turn out to be Boaz Weinstein and a wolf pack of like-minded hedge fund managers.
In the London Whale, these traders saw a rich opportunity, and they seized it with both hands. That, after all, is the way hedge funds roll. His cool calculus has made Mr. Weinstein a very rich man: he is in talks to buy the Fifth Avenue co-op of a reclusive heiress, Huguette Clark, for $24 million.
It might seem remarkable that someone like Mr. Weinstein, a man virtually unknown outside of financial circles, could deal such a stinging blow to one of the world’s largest, most respected banks. Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan and a face of the banking establishment, is struggling to contain the damage from what he has called a “terrible, egregious mistake.” The loss — JPMorgan put it at $2 billion, but it may turn out to be $3 billion or more — has renewed calls for stronger financial regulation.
Given the secretive nature of the business, few on Wall Street, including Mr. Weinstein, were willing to speak publicly about how the hedge funds harpooned the London Whale. But interviews with more than a dozen hedge fund managers, investors and traders pull back the curtain on the ways of this band of traders, and on what really happened.
One thing is sure: Mr. Weinstein, 38, played a central role in this, one of the biggest trading blowups since the financial crisis of 2008. Mr. Iksil and his colleagues in the chief investment office at JPMorgan may have lighted the fire, but Mr. Weinstein and his cohorts fanned the flames. In the hedge fund game, a business in which ruthlessness is prized and money is the ultimate measure, Mr. Weinstein is what is known as a “monster” — an aggressive trader with a preternatural appetite for risk and a take-no-prisoners style. He is a chess master, as well as a high-roller on the velvet-topped tables of Las Vegas. He has been banned from the Bellagio for counting cards.
From offices on the 58th floor of the Chrysler Building in Midtown Manhattan, Mr. Weinstein runs a $5.5 billion hedge fund firm called Saba Capital Management. (“Saba” is Hebrew for “grandfatherly wisdom,” a nod to his Israeli roots.) It was there, last autumn, that he noticed an aberration in the market for credit derivatives. He knew from experience what it was like to lose a lot of money at a big bank. Before starting Saba, he was responsible for a team that lost nearly $2 billion, in the depths of the financial crisis, at Deutsche Bank. Others lost even more. Last November, however, he saw that a certain index seemed to be trading out of line with the market it was supposed to track. He and his team pored through reams of data, trying to make sense of it.
Finally, as Mr. Iksil, the London Whale, kept selling, Mr. Weinstein began buying.
At the time, traders in London had no real idea that JPMorgan was behind the trades that were skewing the market in credit derivatives. In fact, they weren’t even sure that it was a single bank or trader. But soon the City of London, Europe’s financial hub, was buzzing. Whoever the mysterious trader was, he or she kept selling derivatives intended to rise in value in the event that certain corporate bonds became riskier. The volume of trades was off the charts. Who could possibly sell so much? And, what if the trade reversed, as it inevitably would?
And so the battle lines were drawn. On one side was JPMorgan, the American banking giant that had weathered the financial crisis far better than so many of its peers. On the other were hedge fund managers, including Mr. Weinstein at Saba.
Such standoffs are not uncommon on Wall Street. An aggressive trader makes a wrongheaded bet, then doubles down to scare off competitors on the other side of the trade. Market rivals often get slapped down, unwilling to keep buying as the other side is selling, or vice versa. For traders with the backing of a major bank, like JPMorgan, the task is much easier.
But not always. Sometimes, the other side sits tight, then hits back in force. And it does so in numbers.
By January of this year, the trade against the London Whale was not going well for the hedge funds. The price of the index, as well as others, was still falling, and the losses were mounting for Mr. Weinstein and the others. But by February, it was clear that a single, big player was behind the selling. On trading desks in London and New York, everyone was talking.
It had to be JPMorgan.
Boaz Weinstein has always played the wild card in the markets. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in relatively modest surroundings, the son of an automobile insurance salesman and a translator, both regular watchers of “Wall Street Week.” As a student at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, he entered a contest to see who could pick the best stocks. He won — by selecting an assortment of the fastest-growing stocks he could find from newspaper charts. He studied philosophy at the University of Michigan — he was partial to Hume and Camus — but today favors behavioral finance, particularly the work of his friend Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke. Mr. Weinstein is married to Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a rising lawyer in the Justice Department.
Last February, at a conference organized by another hedge fund manager, his friend William A. Ackman, Mr. Weinstein was hailed as one of the savviest credit traders in the business.
The February conference was held, ironically, in JPMorgan’s offices on Madison Avenue. Workers at the bank milled about as Mr. Weinstein and others offered investment tips.
Dressed in a sharp blue suit, Mr. Weinstein stepped up to the microphone and opened with a joke that only a financial wonk would appreciate. He showed a slide comparing the cost of credit default swaps on various government debt to the percentage of young men in those countries who live with their parents. The slide titled “Mamma Mia!” suggested that, by that measure, Greece, Portugal and Italy were in trouble.
But what really got people’s attention was his second-to-last slide. It was his pick for the “best” investment idea of the moment. Mr. Weinstein recommended buying the Investment Grade Series 9 10-year Index CDS — the same index that Mr. Iksil was shorting.
The crowd, 300 or so investment professionals, began buzzing.
“Once he came out in that meeting and was so specific, others jumped in,” one hedge fund manager said.
But the London Whale was so big that, for months, the hedge funds betting against him simply got steamrolled. One of Mr. Weinstein’s funds at Saba was down 20 percent heading into May.
Then the tables began to turn, as news reports about Mr. Iksil, fed by the hedge funds, began to surface on both sides of the Atlantic. Suddenly, everyone was checking out the obscure index that Mr. Weinstein and others had seized upon.
By May, when fears over Europe’s debt crisis again came to the fore, the trade reversed. The London Whale was losing. And Mr. Weinstein began to make back all of his losses — and then some — in a matter of weeks.
Other hedge funds were also big winners. Blue Mountain Capital and BlueCrest Capital, both created by former JPMorgan traders, were among those winners. Lucidus Capital Partners, CQS and a fund called III came out ahead, too.
Inside the hedge fund world, some joked that Mr. Weinstein had been able to spot the London Whale because he himself had been a whale once, too.
Mr. Weinstein was a pioneer in complex credit derivatives, latching onto them early in his tenure at Deutsche Bank, before they became the financial weapons of mass destruction that worsened the financial crisis. He was a profit machine at the bank, notching earnings in 10 of his 11 years trading there. At 27, he became one of the youngest managing directors in the bank’s history. Before his book blew up, Mr. Weinstein was reportedly pulling down about $40 million a year. He exploited price discrepancies and piled leverage into his trades.
Then his team at Deutsche Bank lost $1.8 billion during the 2008 financial crisis. The trading losses ruined bonuses throughout the bank, and ruffled more than a few feathers.
He would later leave the bank and, along with 12 of his colleagues, set up Saba. Mr. Weinstein started it with $140 million — a pittance by hedge fund standards. In the intervening years, he has outperformed his peers and managed to vacuum up assets at a time when most growing hedge funds have been struggling to hold on to what they’ve got. He now controls more than $5.5 billion.
The similarities between Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Iksil still resonate in the market.
“It was one whale versus another whale,” one hedge fund manager said.
Those who have traded against Mr. Weinstein describe him as an aggressive trader who bets big and moves fast. He values a deal more than old-fashioned etiquette. Traders tell tales of losing money to him because of split-second price differences he picked up faster than they did. While that kind of behavior doesn’t win a lot of friends on Wall Street, these traders concede that Mr. Weinstein is too big and powerful to ignore.
At a lot of large hedge funds, the top dogs bark orders to underlings, but Mr. Weinstein is almost always the one doing the trading at Saba. He calls around to the banks daily. His confidence and willingness to take on risk, however, leave some worried that he’s never too far away from another Deutsche Bank trade — from, in essence, becoming the whale.
“If you hand me a list of the top-performing guys in the space, I’d expect to see his name on it,” said one bank executive who works closely with hedge funds. “If you hand me another list of hedge funds that might blow up, I’d expect his name to be on that, too.”
Others disagree, saying that Mr. Weinstein has a long record as a steady performer.
Like many hedge fund traders, Mr. Weinstein is comfortable with risky pursuits, particularly those that require spot calculations and a cool head. A gambling enthusiast, he has an affinity for blackjack and poker. In 2005, Mr. Weinstein won a Maserati by competing in poker in a tournament sponsored by a unit of Warren E. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Mr. Weinstein still drives the car. He plays with celebrities like Matt Damon, too.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about Mr. Weinstein’s playing style. A few years back, on a trip to Vegas, he was banned from the opulent Bellagio casino for counting cards while playing blackjack.
Much has also been made of his prowess as a chess player. He earned the chess master designation at the age of 16, and has remained a lifelong fan, though he plays less these days. At a charity auction in 2010, he paid $10,500 to play alongside the chess legend Garry Kasparov and the young chess sensation Magnus Carlsen.
Mostly, he sneaks in quick games online, sometimes with Peter Thiel, a hedge fund manager and Silicon Valley star who was an early investor in Facebook.
Both chess and playing the markets require a mind that can see several steps ahead of the next man — a fact that has not been lost on Wall Street. Privately, Mr. Weinstein tells friends that while skill at chess is great to have, it’s hardly a requisite for being a good trader.
Whatever the case, chess helped him gain his first real shot on Wall Street. At 18, after failing to land a summer job at Goldman Sachs, Mr. Weinstein ran into a senior partner in the bathroom on his way out. The partner, David F. DeLucia, a chess expert, had played Mr. Weinstein numerous times, and quickly arranged more meetings for him.
Now Mr. Weinstein is practically a featured attraction on Wall Street. He attends galas and charity events, and is sought out to speak at big events. Pictures of him clasping a drink at last night’s party appear with regularity on business Web sites.
And, financially, the payoff has been enormous. Last year, he earned more than $90 million and, by some estimates, landed on the rich lists of the hedge fund industry. Such figures aside, he is described as someone who doesn’t flash his wealth. Before he won his Maserati, he didn’t own a car.
At another recent investor conference, Mr. Weinstein strolled among the crowd in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Accompanying him was his mother, Giselle, with whom he watched “Wall Street Week” as a child.
While hedge fund managers, investors and analysts mingled over cocktails, Mr. Weinstein appeared buoyant. His trade against the London Whale was finally paying off, a vindication — and a profitable one — of his hunch months earlier. That same day, news reports said Mr. Iksil, the London Whale, would soon be leaving JPMorgan.