Hedge fund manager Einhorn explains why he lost more than 30% last year: 'Nothing went right'

Key Points
  • All-star hedge fund manager David Einhorn explains in a letter why his hedge funds lost more than a third of their value last year.
  • Greenlight Capital, lost 11.4 percent in the fourth quarter, bringing its decline to 34.2 percent in 2018.
  • He also decided to reopen his funds to new investments, a move not seen since 2014.
David Einhorn, Greenlight Capital Inc.
Scott Eells | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Reflecting on his worst year ever, all-star hedge fund manager David Einhorn explained in a letter to investors why his hedge funds lost more than a third of their value last year.

Einhorn said the losses have forced him to reopen the funds for new investments, a move not seen since 2014.

His hedge fund firm, Greenlight Capital, lost 11.4 percent in the fourth quarter, bringing its yearly decline to 34.2 percent, the worst performance since Einhorn started the firm in 1996, according to the letter obtained by CNBC's Scott Wapner.

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"Nothing went right for the entire year," Einhorn said in the letter to investors. "In 2018, the losses were a mile wide and a yard deep. It's much easier to explain results when they are driven by large moves in a few names. It's much harder when the answer is a lot of everything. But today, it feels more like a combination of a few where we were wrong, a difficult environment for value investing, and a lot of adverse variance."

Einhorn's collapse came in a dismal year when stocks and other risk assets took a hit from the ongoing trade battles and slowing global growth. However, Einhorn's hedge funds underperformed the market drastically — the ended 2018 down just 6 percent. His funds have been lackluster since 2015 when they lost more than 20 percent. They returned 7 percent in 2016 and 1.5 percent in 2017.

The underperformance in 2018 has inevitably led to "substantial redemptions," which forced Einhorn to reopen the funds to gain additional capital. Einhorn had not allowed new investments in four years.

"At this point, we no longer believe there is risk of our assets growing too quickly (other than through improved performance), so for those interested in investing, the answer will now be yes," Einhorn said.

The downturn sharply contrasted with Einhorn's early years, when he scored some of Wall Street's best returns including 24 percent in 2006 and 32 percent in 2009. Einhorn also made the most prescient call of the entire financial crisis — the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

In the letter, Einhorn also reviewed his current positions that are 5 percent or larger, saying "they should all do better in 2019."

Greenlight's current long positions include General Motors, insurer Brighthouse Financial and homebuilder Green Brick Partners, which all struggled in 2018, bleeding as much as 47 percent. Einhorn is also shorting Tesla, saying the electric-car maker is in "such a bizarre situation," and its estimates are optimistic.

The hedge fund manager is also using gold as a hedge against "imprudent" global fiscal and monetary policies as the national debt has ballooned to more than $2 trillion under the current administration.

"When the economy eventually slows, the deficit is sure to expand rapidly, possibly catastrophically. The politicians say deficits don't matter. History says otherwise," Einhorn said.

His firm also has "a bit of a macro hedge in case the politicians and central bankers continue to act irresponsibly — which seems like a safe bet," he added. Einhorn did not disclose what the hedge was.

— With reporting by CNBC's Scott Wapner

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