Regulators have demanded that banks stop engaging in so much risky behavior - chiefly, distressed debt investing. And the banks have begun to curtail this type of investing.
But this has led to an unprecedented - though not unpredictable - situation: It seems the hedge funds are picking up the slack.
The distressed debt that banks are leaving behind is getting bought up, in a big way, by credit hedge funds. Fully $108 billion worth of distressed debt investments is being picked up by these groups.
Hedge funds are not as big as the large banks, with assets running "only" into the mid-hundreds of billions. But the more moves they make, the bigger they become.
Hedge funds, money-market funds and REITs - engines of shadow-banking - have exploded recently, in terms of capital and headcount. And top talent - for top dollar - has been leaving companies like Deutsche Bank AG (NYSE: DB) and Barclays Plc (NYSE: BCS) for the greener, riskier pastures of BlueCrest Capital Management and Pine River Capital Management.
Hedge funds are less regulated than banks, because they cater to a savvier investor with different goals than someone who has a run-of-the-mill checking, savings or retirement account. Grandma is not opening up a Christmas Club account for you with the likes of Carl Icahn - yet.
This freer atmosphere makes hedge funds the natural place to turn once you begin to rule out banks. They've become "shadow banks," and they've been getting into some pretty interesting areas.
Their investment in bankruptcy claims and distressed debt is of particular note.
Why Hedge Funds Are a Lousy Investment
The one thing you can guarantee when investing in hedge funds is, the managers are going to get rich...even if the investors don't.
Don't get suckered into believing you will be taking your investing strategy to the next level. The difference between reality and perception is stark and the only people sure to win are the managers themselves.
The annual report on the 25 highest paid hedge fund managers came out last week and the results were no less outrageous than they have been for years: $14.1 billion in pay and paper profits on their own investments in 2012, slightly down from 2011's $14.4 billion, according to Institutional Investor Alpha's Rich List.
You can do the math - the average top 25 hedge fund manager took home $564 million in 2012, down from $576 million in 2011.
The big question is, what did these managers do for their investors to earn these kinds of sums?
After all Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, took home a measly $21 million.
In 2011, the average hedge fund lost money, even before the $14+ billion creamed off by the top 25 managers. In 2012 the average hedge fund made a weak 6.4% for its investors, according to Hedge Fund Research.
That means it trailed a passive portfolio of 40% bonds and 60% stocks by almost 5 percentage points. This is one of the big reasons I have disliked hedge funds for so long. They seem built more for managers amassing wealth than doing so for their investors.
Why Top Hedge Funds Can't Outperform the Market
Hedge funds are known as the "smart money" on Wall Street, and in the past, that distinction was justified.
For years, hedge funds successfully managed risk and made well-placed bets, leaving their investors with a return they were happy to pay for.
But recently, hedge funds have underperformed the market, earning a return of just 7.32% in 2012, according to research firm eVestment, compared with last year's S&P 500 return of 13.41%.
Was 2012 just an outlier, or are hedge funds really inferior to a market-based index?
One investing legend thinks it's the latter and has even gambled $1 million on it.
Top Stock Picks of Billionaire Hedge Funds May Surprise You
Tracking the habits of rich and successful investors like Warren Buffett is typically a good idea because they clearly know how to make a lot of money in the markets.
But Buffett isn't the only successful billionaire investor. Dozens of billion-dollar hedge fund managers and other extremely wealthy investors also know how to pick winning stocks.
Fortunately for the retail investor, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires that such heavy hitters file a report on their long positions every quarter.
While the reports (called a Form 13F) lag the actual holdings of the billionaire investors and hedge funds, they serve as a useful window into the thinking of the country's most highly rewarded investors.
Several Websites track the Form 13F filings and look for patterns that retail investors can use.
One such site, Insider Monkey, tracks the 13F filings from 400 top hedge funds and billionaire investors.
In addition to Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A, BRK.B), Insider Monkey tracks such well-known hedge fund managers as Carl Icahn (Icahn Capital Lp), David Einhorn (Greenlight Capital), John Paulson (Paulson & Co.), and George Soros (Soros Fund Management).
Although hedge funds have had a difficult year overall, the stocks they buy and hold have generally outperformed the market, the site notes.
Earlier this year Insider Monkey filtered out the 30 most popular stocks among these high-octane investors, to create what it calls the Billionaire Hedge Fund Index. That index is up 25.3% for the year, besting the 18% gain of the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.
Let's take a look at these winning top stock picks.
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JPM Losses Get Worse and Worse
JP Morgan Chase (NYSE: JPM) cannot escape its enormous loss on a credit derivatives bet gone bad.
The London Whale trade, as it is informally known, was originally reported as a $2 billion loss. But now The New York Times has reported the loss will total $9 billion -- and maybe more.
But Money Morning subscribers were well aware of the possibility JP Morgan's losses would exceed $4 billion or $5 billion. Money Morning Capital Wave Strategist Shah Gilani repeatedly said this "hedge" was really a bet, and was among the first to predict how large the losses would eventually turn out to be.
Gilani, who hosts the radio show "On the Money!" in addition to his Money Morning duties, had this to say about JP Morgan's ill-conceived bet:
"What it does is shine the light on what is actually happening. It's not the loss in terms of the money, it's the loss in terms of faith for [CEO] Jamie Dimon, that he has been pushing hard against the regulators... in particular to the Volcker Rule, saying there is no need for it and it and that banks have a good handle on their risk... and that we (JP Morgan) don't have a problem with it because we are just hedging."
Just hedging? Gilani certainly doesn't think so.
Gilani said that statement is a flat-out lie and that Dimon has basically lied to Congress in his testimonies over the past weeks.
In the testimony before the House Financial Services Committee last week, Dimon said the London unit had "embarked on a complex strategy" that exposed the bank to greater risk even though it had intended to minimize risk.
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The Greatest Episodes of Market Manipulation…Is Silver Next?
Market manipulation has a long and storied history.
From the Tulip Mania of the 1600s all the way to the recent housing bubble, market manipulators have employed a wide range of tactics to lighten the wallets of unsuspecting investors.
And even though market manipulation is prohibited in the U.S. under a section of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 - it's as American as apple pie.
Everyone from high-ranking government officials to investment bankers have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
The list includes scofflaws like Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, and Jack Abramoff.
Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC's "Mad Money," said he regularly manipulated the market when he ran his hedge fund, calling it "a fun...and lucrative game."
Not surprisingly, a recent study found that those closest to the information loop -corporate insiders, brokers, underwriters, large shareholders and market makers - are most likely to be the perpetrators.
To give you an idea of how things work, here are three notorious examples of market manipulation.
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How to Slash Risk and Avoid Losses With a "Stress Test" of Your Personal Investment Portfolio
Back when I was a portfolio manager, I was always looking at ways to "stress test" my portfolio. In other words, I was on the constant lookout for ways to hedge my holdings, guard against risk, and to anticipate anything the market could throw at the stocks, bonds, options and other investments contained in my portfolio.
Hedging involves much more than just anticipating the movements on individual stocks. The financial markets are so deeply interconnected that - to the distant observer - they might appear to be seamless.
To show you what I mean, let's look at oil: It's a great real-world example, ripped right from the daily headlines, and there's a strong emotional component to it, too, since the "black-gold" commodity touches the lives of investors and consumers alike. I'll demonstrate how even retail-level investors can apply this "portfolio-stress-test," risk-management technique to their own portfolios.
To find out how to 'stress test' your own portfolio to slash risk, please read on...
Congress May Double Taxes on Private Equity Firms in Search for New Revenues
Democrats in Congress, seeking new sources of revenue after passing President Barack Obama's $940 billion health-care reform measure, may double tax rates on executives at private-equity firms.
The U.S. Senate has taken up a House proposal to levy a new tax on executives who make long-term investments, including venture capitalists, managers of real- estate partnerships, hedge-fund and private-equity managers, Bloomberg News reported.
The proposal, expected to raise $24.6 billion over a decade, eliminates a tax provision which allows money managers at privately held partnerships to treat most of the revenue they bring in as capital gains.