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Hedge funds grow through the cracks

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KAI RYSSDAL: Didja hear that? It was the classic economist’s line of on the one hand, on the other hand. So he’s got his bases covered either way. When the Fed chief talked of slower growth ahead, some hedge fund managers were no doubt breathing a sigh of relief. Because they could actually make even more money if there’s another interest rate cut in their future. The Fed has lowered rates twice now, to keep the economy from tanking. But at the same time, wealthy individuals and big institutions with money in hedge funds are enjoying decent returns. The best in almost two years, in fact. Gains last month averaged around 3.5 percent, in some cases, as high as 10 percent. So who says things are tough all over? Here’s Marketplace’s Bob Moon.

BOB MOON: At a time many Americans are losing their homes, and the world’s leading bankers are losing their shirts, how can others keep right on making a fortune? A scene from the movie “Wall Street” comes to mind

WALL STREET CLIP: We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. I create nothing. I own.

Hedge fund managers have been cleaning up with lucrative wagers on the wild ups-and-downs of the stock market, and even making winning bets on the direction of interest rates. Ironically, every rate cut makes it cheaper to make even more wagers, and takes the sting out of any losing bets.

GEORGE LUCACI: I call it the Fed insurance policy.

George Lucaci is managing director at Channel Capital Group. He says when the economy turns bad, the scavengers of the hedge fund world get busy:

LUCACI: The whole world, if you look at it, it really one big repo market. And so they’re borrowing at a very cheap cost, and they’re going to always know that they’re going to have lower financing costs as disaster comes around.

He says that’s because the Fed always comes to the rescue. At Tempus Consulting, senior trader Greg Salvaggio says that also helps explain what’s been propping up the stock market:

SALVAGGIO: As equity markets go up, fund managers need to continually put money in equity markets, to match the historical return of the S&P 500 So it almost becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy on equity markets. Yes, the market thinks the Fed will cut rates again, so that will be good. But will it?”

Salvaggio compares it to a ponzi scheme. And he’s not alone. The French president was on Capitol Hill yesterday, warning lawmakers the U.S. needs to rein in what he labeled the “abuses and excesses” of speculation.

In Los Angeles, I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace.

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