The charge of the hedge fund brigade

Morgan Stanley welcomes a distinguished old guard to its Hong Kong capital introductions conference.

Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die
Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.
The Charge of the Light Brigade
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

683 British cavalrymen rode to disaster into the north valley of Balaclava against Russian forces on 25 October 1864, in the famous 'charge of the light brigade'. There are roughly the same number of hedge funds with Asian strategies that remain mounted.

Traditionally, we have characterised the annual Morgan Stanley capital introductions conference as the Debutantes Ball. However, this year, seasoned veterans were the eye-catchers. It was not so much a case of debutante ball gowns as junkers' moustaches and, as Morgan Stanley put it, "battle scars".

In evidence this year were some of the known warriors of Asian hedge funds: Ophelia Tong, Huy Hoang, Paul Sheehan and Eddie Tam, whose CAI Global Fund is riding high this year, up over 50%.

Forty-four hedge fund managers were at the event, to meet with 150 investors. The latter were split roughly a third each from Asia, Europe and North America. That represents a skew towards Asian investors, as Morgan Stanley estimates that 85-90% of investment in Asian hedge fund strategies derives from non-Asia-based investors.

Glamour was deliberately downplayed at this year's conference, the fifth of its kind, which was held in Hong Kong. There seemed to be a latent hope that the next iteration would move back to Shanghai if circumstances and budgets permit. Masterminding this event was Morgan Stanley's local prime services co-head, and a grand poobah of Asian prime broking, Richard Webb.

Members of the media were not blessed with an invitation to this year's gala dinner at Nobu in the Intercontinental Hotel, where Stephen Roach mused on his outlook for China. A local manager said that he thought the overall arrangements and line-up was great, and he would consider making Morgan Stanley his prime broker were it not for the fact that the firm already is.

However, journalists were given a walking tour of the Morgan Stanley cafeteria, where delegates were stuffing themselves between the group presentations. "It was like high school," said another hedge fund manager.  "I was looking for the table with all the cool kids on it."

He found all the investors present either reluctantly -- or massively -- bullish, and while hedge fund managers might be calling the markets in a variety of ways, it looks like they too have swung bullish. According to Morgan Stanley, net exposures of hedge funds are at 70% and gross exposures at almost 130%; that's back to the historical averages.

Morgan Stanley looks well nourished and double-chinned again. It is building its capital introductions and sales presence across its regional centres and a number of hires are yet to be announced, including one star re-hire that will stun us all.

Morgan Stanley graciously tipped its hat to Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse, who they acknowledge got in front of managers during the crisis period. Doing so, they are perhaps re-characterising the prime broking fight as a select group of 18 stone brawlers, with whom the game, but pint-sized competitors will have to grapple.

As France's General Bosquet said: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."

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