One hour at a Las Vegas blackjack table with a group of hedge fund guys whispering in your ear will tell you just about all you need to know about the troubles facing the alternative investment space.
Before the boys joined my table, I was up 20%. My usual strategy -- tested over nearly 15 years -- mixes gut instincts and paying attention to, but not always following, the so-called book, which lays out the odds and strategies for a player's hand based on what the dealer is showing. I usually walk away with at least what I put in and often come away richer. Add in the occasional free drink, and it makes for a pleasant evening.
Have my returns been impressive? No, but I never lost money.
Thursday night was different. After two full days of panels at the SkyBridge Alternatives, or SALT, conference, I decided to mingle with other hotel attendees. Joining me at the $15 table was a woman from California treating herself to a Vegas weekend, and a bachelor party from Ireland. We were all up and felt comfortable chatting with the dealer about the best way to play certain hands.
Then the boys from a New York-based long/short equity fund arrived. They weren't all betting, but they were loud. It was tough to focus and apply my amateur card-counting skills. Even the dealer's voice was muted by their bravado.
Out of curiosity, I stayed. In an industry accused of making risky bets with other people's money, I wanted to see how industry players would perform at an actual betting table. Hedge funds reported returns of 3.03% in 2015, their lowest since reporting losses of 7.72% in 2011, according to data compiled by Preqin. Big hedge fund players such as Pershing Square's Bill Ackman and Greenlight Capital's David Einhorn recently reported massive losses, leading to speculation voiced at the SALT conference that something in the hedge fund model may be broken.On my first hand with my new buddies, I was showing 12 and had to assume the dealer had a similarly low hand. I went bust after taking, at their behest, one more hit than I normally would.
"That sucks, but it's what you have to do in this situation," one of the finance guys said as the dealer swiftly moved my chips off the table. I went against my gut instincts in a tricky situation and lost.
His advice wasn't totally without merit; he provided me with a laminated card he had made that showed all the odds for each type of hand. It was a lot like how fund managers present historical returns to prospective clients. Still, despite his intentions, my money was gone, and I wasn't confident in the decision I made to lose it.
It reminded me of something I heard earlier in the day. Too much attention is paid to personalities instead of analysis, short-seller Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates says. He was speaking of the public -- and the media's -- tendency to use the personality and portions of a famed investor's track record to justify certain investments, rather than people incorporating their analysis in their own due diligence and form their own conclusions. Similarly, at the blackjack table, I succumbed to personality and a presentation when putting my own money on the table instead of trusting my own analysis.
"The trick is to put as much money on the table when you feel you have an advantage over the dealer," one of my new companions said, urging me to double down on 10. Doubling down meant adding in roughly a third of my dwindling pot. Doubling down is something I rarely do, especially when I'm down, yet I did it.
Again, my money was quickly swept off the table.
My companions didn't appear to be coming out ahead either, given the frequency they threw crisp $100 bills on the table. However, as it goes when following the smart money, they often have more capital with which to absorb losses -- and make bigger bets. My limit is $100.
Going back to the start of the conference, Carlyle Group's David Rubinstein urged hedge fund and private equity pros not to be embarrassed by their work and to speak openly about it. Granted, my blackjack companions weren't talking their book, but in retrospect, I wouldn't have minded if they had stayed quiet. It was their advice, but it was my money.
As I left the table with only $13 remaining of my original $100 bill, the dealer marveled: "She wasn't always playing the book right, but she was winning before you guys got here."