Ken Griffin, local hedge fund magnate and one of the country’s wealthiest men, is the anti-Trump. Unlike The Donald, Griffin hates being noticed. Even in good economic times, or when making one of his eye-popping philanthropic donations, Griffin steers clear of the spotlight.
All that is about to change this Thursday.
Griffin is among a handful of hedge fund managers and experts taking center stage to explain to the country, via a Congressional panel, just what hedge funds do and what role they're playing in the deteriorating U.S. economy.
Inquiring minds want to know.
(Update: The hearings are underway today. Click on the Bloomberg Business News link for reports or go to a House-provided video link and web site.)
For Griffin, who founded and runs Citadel Investment Group, it does not promise to be an enjoyable session. Aside from his intense dislike for publicity, Griffin is up against Democrat Henry Waxman, who chairs the committee,and is known for being pro-regulation and not very happy with the investment banking/hedge fund world. The combative Waxman isn't shy about publicly broiling Captains of Commerce who think otherwise.
And Griffin despises the idea of greater scrutiny of his company, which has $20 billion in assets under management, or the aggressive policing of the hedge fund industry.
When I spoke to him in a rare interview in 2005, Griffin strongly asserted there were enough checks and balances within the financial system so the notion that hedge funds were unregulated was "fanciful".
His point: Get out of the way and let the free market boogie!
That attitude paid off handsomely for Citadel's investors and Griffin. For much of the last decade, Citadel posted annual investor returns in excess of 20 percent. As a result, Citadel management made a bundle by charging clients a standing fee of two percent of assets-under-management and 20 percent of any profits, a formula known in the parlance of hedge fund circles as the “2-plus-20” rule.
Citadel CEO Griffin is now super-wealthy, which enables him to be a world-class art collector and major benefactor to the Art Institute of Chicago and other causes. He’s ranked 97 on this year’s list of Forbes Richest Americans with a net worth of $3.7 billion as of Aug. 31.
Still, Griffin might look back on August as the good old days.
In mid-October, Griffin held an unprecedented conference call with bondholders designed to reassure backers of Citadel’s financial prowess. At that time, two of Citadel’s biggest hedge funds suffered asset declines of nearly 35 percent for the year, as scared investors cashed out and ran for cover.
In a letter, Griffin told Citadel investors that earnings for the remainder of 2008 would be "volatile."
Despite Citadel’s unusual public assurances, some critics say the firm’s bad run is far from over. One high-profile naysayer is Jim Cramer, the influential and energetic stock-picker who appears on financial cable channel CNBC and web site TheStreet.com. He argues that investors will continue fleeing Citadel’s hedge funds. “When you are down 35 percent, they run from you, not to you,” said Cramer in a recent web post entitled, “A Vulnerable Citadel.”
To counter its difficulties, Citadel is concentrating on building up its non-hedge fund business--something Griffin is likely to play up before Waxman's committee as he seeks to distance his company from the rest of the hedge fund riffraff.Still, that may not be enough for edgy legislators.
Expect the Waxman panel to bring up some thorny issues, including questions about how much money Citadel borrows and is it overly-leveraged?
(Citadel’s leverage ratio --the amount of money it borrows vs. the amount on hand—is three-to-one, which is down from the six-to-one ratio at the beginning of the year.)
Other questions: How much impact does Citadel have on the stock market? On any given day, Citadel can account for 6 percent of the trading on the NASDAQ and New York Stock Exchange. What happens to the rest of us, should Citadel tumble?
And then there's the issue of executive compensation. Don't expect Griffin's payday to go unnoticed by Waxman, who might just ask: "Is anyone worth that amount of money?".
Maybe no one is worthy of such a huge chunk of change. But this Thursday, publicity-shy Ken Griffin is going to earn his paycheck.