Mysterious hedge-fund manager unmasked, unmysterious

HFM's book. ()
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Comic book fans would have been unimpressed with last night’s reading sponsored by the literary magazine n + 1. It was one of the first public appearances in the city of the anonymous Hedge Fund Manager whose much-read conversations with n + 1 editor Keith Gessen about the economic collapse were compiled into the just-published book Diary of a Very Bad Year, and we had been promised a Hedge Fund Manager wearing a disguise. Anonymity, after all, must be protected at all costs.

Looking around Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene a few minutes before the reading began, though, there were few promising candidates. Most of the people browsing were hipsters, and/or women. (That would have been an excellent disguise, by the way, but these women seemed authentic.) Few were wearing sunglasses, no one’s hair was long enough to suggest a wig, and there was an absolute dearth of masks and capes. Was he hiding in the back? Would he appear at all?

Then Keith Gessen walked toward the little stage set up at the front of the store, accompanied by a guy of average height and average build wearing...an oxford shirt and slacks? And no mask? There wasn’t even a sporting attempt at Clark Kent glasses. Late-thirties-ish, hair slightly thinning, dress shoes: He looked like every finance guy in New York. Hedge Fund Manager’s brilliant disguise, in fact, may be his utter ordinariness.

Hedge Fund Manager, or HFM, and Gessen read from the book, chatted a bit, and answered questions. The dramatic reading of their own conversations had a Brechtian stiltedness, but when HFM spoke extemporaneously, he was “clarifying and funny,” as Gessen had promised. People asked about the new financial reforms, comparing them to the ones in the 1930s. “The likelihood of complications based on interactions is much higher than in the ’30s,” HFM said, but he likes the bank-regulating Volcker Rule, perhaps a little selfishly. (Without the rule, banks can compete with hedge funds.)

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We learned a few biographical details about HFM: As the end of the book reveals, stress led him to take a break from the hedge fund world. He sold his Brooklyn house (for a good price), and now lives in Austin, consulting for his old fund but without day-to-day pressures.

He gave a good audition for a second career, showing all the techniques of a practiced opinion writer: the deployment of technical terms to give listeners the thrill of having learned something (CDO, anyone?), and lots of fun metaphors (he compared Germany and Greece to a wine shop owner and wino), with a fundamentally down-home ethos (“Nothing is cash in the vault but cash in the vault”). You end up still a little foggy about the concepts, but it’s a satisfying fogginess, with a hint of enlightenment.

We caught HFM before he greeted his public and signed some books, and asked about the much-criticized economics of the industry into which he’s ventured most recently: publishing.

“It sucks,” he said plainly. “The more I interact with other models, actually, the more great I think the hedge model is.”