WSJ’s Weak Hedge-Fund Story

This Journal story today is frustrating.

Investors in a fund run by hedge-fund impresario James Simons are ticked off that they’ve lost a bunch of money while a separate, exclusive fund where Simons parks his own money is raking in the cash.

Sounds like a good story, huh?

But there are some qualifiers here. First of all, they’re different types of investments:

RIEF, a $5.5 billion fund, invests in U.S. stocks, typically holding many positions for a year in an effort to outperform the S&P 500 Index over the long haul. The other fund at issue, the roughly $9 billion Medallion fund, has a rapid-fire trading style and flexibility to roam the globe to find stocks and other securities its algorithms consider mispriced.

So they’re totally different types of investing, which make it likely they’d have totally different types of returns.

The Journal says later on that:

The gulf in returns signals how much the markets in recent months have favored investors whose strategies are tied to fast-action trading among many types of assets.

Sounds interesting, but what does that mean and why? We’re not told. That’s a crucial point in determining the legitimacy of Simons’ investors’ complaints.

Simons’ company also says this:

Renaissance managers say RIEF never was advertised to provide the same returns as Medallion, which they say has a different investing strategy.

That’s a silly bit of spin that the Journal shouldn’t let them get away with. Of course, it wasn’t advertised to provide the same returns as another fund with different investments.

Then we have a buried lede:

The SEC also is examining hedge-fund trading and whether sophisticated strategies — including ones driven by computers and known as “quantitative” — involve manipulative or abusive practices, a person familiar with the matter says.

The regulatory interest is part of a broader effort by the SEC to examine whether hedge funds are manipulating trading or engaging in insider trading using complex derivatives called credit-default swaps, the person says.

That’s ten paragraphs in and in the middle of a bunch of context graphs that don’t do much for the story, which doesn’t exactly have a laser-beam focus.

The Journal also doesn’t explore reasons why investors might be legitimately concerned. We’re left to scratch our heads and try to determine if they’re just squawking or what.

The key problem it seems to me that Simons and his colleagues are much more likely to spend their time and attention on the fund that has their billions in it and neglect the one that just has their investors’ money. I mean, that’s a huge conflict of interest inherent in this company’s setup.

Here’s all the Journal has to say about that, in the last paragraph of the story:

In recent weeks, Renaissance told investors, it has moved some members of its research staff away from Medallion to focus more of their time on RIEF.

That’s nowhere near good enough. The Journal is dancing around the issue, leaving its readers to read between the lines. It should have explicitly spelled out this conflict instead of backing into it.

This one’s a mess.

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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.