On the surface, the fact that NYSE short interest was just reported today to have risen to 13.1 billion shares as of April 30 could be troubling for the bears, as this just happens to be the highest short interest number of 2012. Indeed, an increase in short interest into a centrally-planned market is always disturbing, as it opens up stocks to the kinds of baseless short covering melt ups that simply have some HFT algo going on a stop hunt as their source, that we have seen in the past several weeks. Naturally, it would be far easier to be short a market in which Ben Bernanke managed to eradicate all other bears, especially when considering that a year ago the Short Interest as of April 30 was virtually identical.
However, courtesy of some recent discoveries by Bloomberg, we now know that his very pedestrian way of looking at short exposure is simply naive, as it ignores all the synthetic means that hedge funds truly express their position these days, mostly in attempts to avoid observation, and to magnify their balance sheets in any way possible. In other words: epic abuse of leverage, but not simply on the books, but through repos, Total Return Swaps, and various other shadow "shadow" P&L enhancement techniques. To wit from Bloomberg:
Citadel Advisors LLC and Millennium Management LLC said their assets soared ninefold when tallied under a new rule that requires hedge funds to disclose investments financed through borrowings.
Citadel, run by Ken Griffin out of Chicago, reported $115.2 billion of regulatory assets in a March 30 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, compared with $12.6 billion of net assets. Millennium, founded by Israel Englander, disclosed comparable figures of $119 billion and $13.5 billion as of year-end.
In short sales, investors borrow assets to sell them in anticipation that they can be repurchased at a lower price later and they can pocket the difference. Hedging includes the purchase of offsetting positions to limit risk in a trade.
While some fund managers only gave information on their gross assets, 31 of the 50 largest also disclosed their net assets in a separate section known as the client brochure. For these advisers, gross assets of $949 billion were more than double their net assets of $422 billion.
That indicates hedge funds may be using as much leverage as they did prior to the 2008 financial crisis. On average, hedge funds held total assets that were double their net capital as recently as 2007, said Daniel Celeghin, a partner at Casey Quirk & Associates LLC, a Darien, Connecticut, adviser to asset managers.
Not all of the difference between net and gross assets may be explained by leverage, because the SEC’s gross number also includes proprietary stakes that money managers hold in their own funds as well as assets that don’t get charged a management fee. The SEC’s calculating method can lead to double counting of assets at funds, such as Citadel, that include multiple entities.
“If you are heavily levered, obviously that will result in you having a larger gross asset number,” said Gary Kaminsky, a principal in the business advisory services group at Rothstein Kass, a Roseland, New Jersey, accounting firm that audits hedge funds. That’s because, under the SEC approach, “all that matters is what’s on the asset side of the balance sheet,” Kaminsky said.
Hedge funds are relying less on margin loans from prime brokers, the securities firms that provide credit and facilitate trading, and more on repurchase agreements, leveraged exchange- traded funds, and derivatives such as total return swaps, according to Josh Galper, the managing principal at Finadium LLC, a Concord, Massachusetts, investment research and consulting firm.
“Leverage is down across the board from the perspective of borrowing from a prime broker,” Galper said in a telephone interview. “It’s tough to measure how much embedded leverage funds are using.”
In other words, while the chart above is useful generically, the reality is that a true picture of outright bullish or bearish appearance is now impossible to be gleaned courtesy of precisely the same synthetic instruments that nearly destroyed the financial system in the fall of 2008. Funds will do anything in their power to systematically boost their leverage at the gross level, while leaving their net leverage appear innocuous, and then spin how gross is not net, even as their Prime Brokers onboard all the risk: after all who bails them out if things go wrong? Why, you do.
And who benefits if they are right? Here's who, together with an AUM breakdown based on the old and new methodology: