Monday, December 21, 2009
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Thursday, December 03, 2009
The bursting of the housing bubble cost the American economy trillions of dollars and brought Wall Street to its knees. But a few savvy investors, most notably hedge fund manager John Paulson, made fortunes betting against housing and related securities.
In The Greatest Trade Ever, Wall Street Journal columnist Gregory Zuckerman details how Paulson pocketed $6 billion as his firm made $20 billion betting against the boom from mid-2006 through early 2009. These returns included $4 billion for Paulson personally in 2007, which Zuckerman describes as the single-most lucrative payout in history.
While few, if any, will ever approach Paulson's staggering accumulation of wealth, Zuckerman says there are some timeless lessons for the rest of us, including:
Have the courage of your convictions: Paulson stuck by his thesis even as the trades didn't initially pay off in 2006, myriad housing "experts" told him he was on the road to ruin, and seemingly all of Wall Street's machinery was working against him. And when the bets starting paying off in 2007, Paulson didn't book profits and run as many advised -- and some clients begged. After shorting subprime in 2007, Paulson effectively doubled down in 2008, shifting some of his firepower to bets against Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Wall Street firms knee-deep in the MBS market.
See the forest for the trees: As an outsider to the mortgage world, Paulson was able to see the carnage coming that those on the inside missed. The ability to think independently and see beyond what the "experts" are saying is critical for individual investors because more financial bubbles are likely, Zuckerman says.Hindsight being 20-20, it's clear the housing market was a bubble and Paulson's strategy of buying cheap insurance against subprime mortgages - in the form of credit default swaps - seems like a no-brainer.
But as Zuckerman details in the book, getting the trade right wasn't easy; others tried but failed to match Paulson's stellar returns because they were either too early, had the wrong trading strategy or didn't see the bet through to its ultimate conclusion.
Furthermore, Paulson struggled in early 2006 to raise money for a fund dedicated to betting against housing securities, Zuckerman reports; Paulson was viewed as an "outsider" in the mortgage market at the time and didn't reached legendary status until after the mega-profits had been booked.