Back in December, the start of the worst oil rout since the financial crisis claimed its first victim when 113 year old Phibro, then owned by Occidental Petroleum after its sale by Citigroup, would liquidate in the US after it failed to buy a buyer. Phibro, of course, was made famous or perhaps infamous (after his $100 million Citi bonus in 2008 prompted a Congressional inquiry) by its star employee, "oil god" Andy Hall. Yet while said god's employer Phibro, was liquidating and thus ending one of Hall's paychecks, Hall would continue managing his $3 billion hedge fund Astenbeck (of which Occidental owns 20%) where he worked in parallel.
Though maybe not for much longer. In fact after avoiding a devastating August courtesy of a last day epic short squeeze which many speculated was driven by Astenbeck's prime brokers who didn't want to be exposed to a potential liquidation of the hedge fund, and as a result "gifted" Hall with a massive spike in the price of oil on the last day of the month, there was no such luck in September for the "oil god", and as a result Hall lost 7% in September, according to investor documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, leaving it down 20% for 2015 as of Oct. 1 and on track for its worst year since its inception in 2008.
Hall's bullish outlook on oil is no secret: we have covered it extensively before with Hall repeatedly opining that shale production peaked long ago, and in more recent letters he has emphasized that low prices are spurring strong growth in oil demand. That said, his bullish catalysts are getting progressively more laughable: "he points to the jump in U.S. sales of sport-utility vehicles and a rise in the number of miles driven nationwide. The world could experience a “sizable” deficit of supply by the second half of 2016 that could drive prices higher, he said in a September letter to investors. He didn’t specify what price he believes oil will return to or when it would happen."
The good news for Astenbeck investors is that despite the rout this year, they are still up 21% cumulatively since the fund's inception in 2008, compared with a 64% decline in the S&P GSCI commodity index.
Then again considering the S&P has risen some 61% since then, and that Fortress Macro just liquidated after being down for the year by "only" 17%, one wonders how much longer Hall has?
For now he may be safe:
Many remaining investors are sticking with him. Blackstone Group LP and Spruce Private Investors are among those keeping money in Astenbeck. Maryland’s State Retirement and Pension System had a $122 million allocation to Astenbeck at the end of August. People close to those funds said they agree with Mr. Hall’s view of oil-market dynamics and anticipate a big payoff when the market turns.
Then again, that is probably what Mike Nowogratz was hearing too until the moment all his funding was yanked. And all it will take to change the collective minds of his LPs that the "market will turn" is for another major drop in oil, ending the second, and far more feeble attempt at a dead cat bounce. Certainly, now that producers have rolled their hedges, a move downward as a result of another burst in production and inventory accumulation (or even overflow) appears far more likely.
For those unfamiliar with Hall's trading strategy, "the way Hall reaped profits in the past, when oil prices were broadly rising, was to bet that long-term oil futures would rise faster than the price of near-term oil contracts. The bet continues to be a key part of Mr. Hall’s strategy, according to a person familiar with the fund’s positions. The trade tends to be profitable when supplies tighten, but there are few signs that is happening."
Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted that U.S. crude production would average about 8.9 million barrels a day in 2016, down from 9.2 million barrels a day in 2015. But the 12-member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries continues to pump at high rates. On Monday, OPEC said that the cartel was pumping 31.571 million barrels a day, the highest reported level since April 2012.
For now Hall is "cutting back"...
Astenbeck has cut back costs, moving from headquarters in Westport, Conn., that featured a catwalk above the trading floor to smaller digs in nearby Southport. Mr. Hall himself now often works out of a small office in Palm Beach, Fla., according to associates and a former employee.
... but is still hopefully he will be around in a year's time.
Even in private conversations, he hasn’t betrayed any doubts about his analysis or his strategy, according to people close to him. He makes no mention of retirement and doesn’t appear to be grooming anyone as a successor, these people said.
“He’s taking this the way he’s taken every other dislocation in the oil market,” said one investor close to Mr. Hall, referring to the string of losses. “He absolutely thinks he’s right.”
Just like every other hedge fund manager who simply took an underlying trend and applied lots of leverage to it, which generally works until it doesn't.
And when it fails again, the question is will Andy Hall be the only hedge fund manager with the distinction to have blown up not once but twice in one year, on the very same bet?
Keep an eye on oil liquidation selling in the coming weeks for the answer.