Hang On: Hedge Funds Aren't Done Selling

Editor's note: This was originally published on RealMoney. It is being republished as a bonus for TheStreet.com readers.

The newspapers blame the weakening economy and somber earnings forecasts for the sharp selloffs we've been experiencing. Declining earnings and recession fears play into the declines, to be sure, but the real story -- which does not get the headlines it truly deserves -- is the mass liquidation that is occurring within the highly leveraged hedge fund community.

The mind-boggling size of the redemptions -- resulting in the need to sell at any price, especially if leverage is involved -- renders obsolete even the most seasoned professional's playbook. Gaming investor sentiment and using valuation as a guide have proved to be folly in the face of the avalanche of forced selling.

The good news is that valuations will matter eventually, and the incredible amount of cash that is currently on the sidelines will be put to work. For now, though, it is imperative that investors realize that the selling we are seeing now is not the work of rational human beings. Rather, it is the result of the largest deleveraging in financial history.

Half a Trillion?

The numbers are staggering. Although estimates vary, the total size of the hedge fund industry was about $1.8 trillion at the end of the third quarter, with about a third of that controlled by funds of funds, which are notorious for their itchy trigger fingers. Redemptions in August and September were substantial, at about $60 billion according to Eurekahedge, with most of the money coming out of long/short equity funds.

The high level of redemptions, together with the negative performance, has resulted in hedge fund assets falling precipitously in the third quarter. The total decline in hedge fund assets was on the order of $160 billion. That was the third quarter. Unfortunately, the damage has been much, much worse so far in the month of October.

Although data are sketchy at this point, many believe that hedge funds are facing redemptions on the order of half a trillion dollars. This is certainly not a surprising number given the amount of money that funds of funds control, and given the fact that many absolute return strategies are losing money -- a lot of money -- institutions and individuals alike have been losing at least a little faith in the entire asset class.