It’s not a subprime meltdown, it’s a badly managed hedge fund

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Calculated Risk, a really smart financial blog that because I’m a navel-gazing MSMer I only read for the first time last week, had a post over the weekend (link via Barry Ritholtz) mocking the New York Times for explaining away Bear Stearns’ hedge fund problems as “fallout from loose lending practices that showered money on people with weak, or subprime, credit, leaving many of them struggling to stay in their homes.” (My friend Julie Creswell was one of the offending story’s authors, so let’s just assume right here that some meddling editor added that line and Julie had nothing to do with it.)

The problem with this explanation is that if it’s the loose lending practices that were at fault, why aren’t a bunch of other hedge funds at the brink of failure? It’s not as if the Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Fund and its High-Grade Structured Credit Enhanced Leveraged Fund were the only funds out there buying mortgage debt, after all.

In a post last week I wondered if this was because other money-losing funds just haven’t come out of the woodwork yet. Calculated Risk contributor Tanta, “a former bank officer and mortgage lending specialist who is currently on extended medical leave,” argues (in backward fashion) that the issue is really that Bear Stearns was running its funds–in particular the Enhanced Leverage fund, which bought its mortgage debt with lots of borrowed money–in wildly irresponsible fashion:

Let’s leave, for the moment, the question of the incredibly complex and opaque layers of leverage, synthetic structures, derivatives swaps, and mark-to-model valuations that transformed mere commonplace mortgage loan write-downs into 23% losses of $600MM invested equity in approximately 9 months on a fund created because its precursor fund, which had dawdled along for two years or so generating a mere 1.0-1.5% a month return, we are informed, just wasn’t good enough for the high rollers who didn’t damn well put their money in hedge funds to earn 12-18% a year. This is really all about a bunch of subprime loans.

In other words, it’s not all about a bunch of subprime loans. It’s about Bear Stearns, and the investors in its hedge fund. But is it really just Bear Stearns? Somehow I doubt it.