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Hedge funds attracted more money last year than ever before, and the loosely regulated investment pools now manage about $750 billion.

The remarkable growth of the industry, which numbers about 6,800 funds in the U.S. alone, was never more apparent than in the $72.2 billion of new investments it attracted in 2003, according to data released by Tass Research, a unit of

Tremont Capital Management

, a Rye, N.Y., investment firm.

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The popularity of these private partnerships, which usually require a minimum investment of $1 million, escalated as the year progressed, with $26.8 billion in new money recorded in the last three months of last year.

"Last year, numerous factors converged to create this environment," said Robert Schulman, Tremont's co-chief executive. "First, there was a desire by investors who had been on the sidelines to return to equity-based strategies, and secondly, there was a continued growing involvement by institutional investors around the globe. In addition, many new funds launched and attracted sizable interest and capital."

Some industry estimates now suggest there are as many as 9,000 hedge funds worldwide. The 6,800 U.S. fund figure comes from estimates by Hedge Fund Research, a Chicago company.

For the second consecutive quarter, long-short hedge funds attracted the most money, bringing in $6.2 billion. Event-driven funds, which include funds that invest in mergers, pulled in $5.9 billion. Global macro funds, which invest in equities, bonds, currencies and other instruments across a range of markets, attracted $3.3 billion in the final quarter of last year.