The Journal Can’t See Through the Hedges

How do you write about the hedge-fund industry being ticked off at Obama without noting one of the biggest reason they’re mad: The president is going to raise their taxes through the roof.

The The Wall Street Journal C1 story is headlined “Hedge Funds Are Piqued by White House” and the impetus is that hedgies are pushing back against recent Obama comments like the one where he called Chrysler bondholder holdouts “speculators” for pushing it into bankruptcy.

Of course, speculators they are, but the industry points out the administration’s hypocrisy in wanting them to speculate through its PPIP plan to bail out the banks:

“Let’s also mention only in passing the irony of this same president begging hedge funds to borrow more to purchase other troubled securities,” wrote (Cliff) Asness, 42 years old, whose firm (AQR Capital) wasn’t directly involved in the Chrysler situation.

Problem is, that plan is essentially a giveaway to the financial industry, giving them loads of government debt to lever up a small amount of their own equity for the chance for blockbuster upside with little downside. It’s speculating with other people’s (think: ours) money.

The Journal notes that the hedge-fund industry helped put Obama into office—70 percent of its donations went his way—but is “disgruntled” with his performance as president.

I’m sure they are, but I’d imagine the biggest reason isn’t that he’s slapped them around a bit in public. That’s a politician covering his flank with rhetoric, and these are big boys. A bigger motivator would presumably be that the president plans to end their lucrative tax benefits on so-called carried interest. Obama’s plan would force hedge funds and private equity and the like to pay income tax like the rest of us instead of much-lower capital-gains rates they pay now on their earnings. Sure, some hedge funds have honorably acknowledged they ought to pay the same rates as everyone else, but nobody likes to effectively have their tax rate doubled overnight—especially when their earnings are already down.

But the Journal somehow doesn’t mention this at all. It really should have.

It gives plenty of space to industry beefs:

Hedge funds have historically shied from the spotlight, hoping to avoid the attention of regulators, politicians and the general public. But as the industry is beset by asset declines, political barbs and the Madoff fraud scandal, Mr. Asness and others say the approach is too passive. “Hedge funds really need a community organizer,” Mr. Asness quipped in the three-page letter, pointedly signed as “Unafraid in Greenwich, Conn.”


Some hedge funds have said that a key part of PPIP could unfairly benefit Allianz SE’s Pacific Investment Management Co. and BlackRock Inc. among a handful of large asset-management firms seen as more politically connected.

Look, thanks for raising the point about PIMCO and the like—I agree. But nobody’s sympathetic with you, guys. The Journal falls down on the job here by not bringing in someone to say that. There’s no one quoted giving an outside, skeptical perspective on the industry and its motives.

There should have been. And it should have mentioned the real reason behind much of the industry’s disenchantment—their subsidized low-tax ride is about over.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.