Has Arpad Busson lost his touch?

When rich people want to get even richer, they go to Uma Thurman's other half. But even his funds have not been immune to the market turmoil

Simon English
Saturday 02 June 2012 00:20
Fun guy: Arpad Busson with his movie star girlfriend Uma Thurman
Fun guy: Arpad Busson with his movie star girlfriend Uma Thurman

Arpad Busson, Arki to his friends, seems almost like a movie parody of a hedge-fund tycoon. If he didn't exist, a film director would invent him. Windswept and interesting, with a taste for adventure, his hair is nearly as fabulous as his bank balance.

As the James Bond of the investment world, Mr Busson sweeps across the globe, earning millions here, hosting charity auctions there, and generally looking like the man who is having the most fun in the entire world.

A list of his known girlfriends: Farrah Fawcett, Elle McPherson (mother of his two sons), and Uma Thurman (mother-to-be of his next child).

He's no playboy, he insists, he works too hard for that to be a fair description, but he would agree it's an enviable life. Which may explain his charity work for troubled children via the Ark (Absolute Return for Kids), which raises money from the hedge-fund world and from the rich and famous with whom he rubs shoulders.

Lately dark clouds have emerged in this almost absurdly happy picture.

His reputation as a skilled money-making machine, the go-to guy for the already seriously wealthy, is under threat as never before.

EIM, his fund of hedge funds, has seen its assets more than halve. From a $14bn peak in 2008, Mr Busson oversees a relatively paltry $6bn. His funds failed to avoid two of the most spectacular investment blow-ups in recent years – Bear Stearns hedge funds and Bernie Madoff's fraudulent enterprise.

Moreover, these now seem like more than temporary wobbles. He hasn't bounced back. At least not yet.

The word on the street – not always reliable – is that EIM is up for sale. That the midnight oil in the office above Green Park Tube station in London is being burnt like never before as Mr Busson hunts for salvation.

Among his Mayfair colleagues and rivals, this question is being asked: has Arki lost it? First some context. Mr Busson doesn't run the money directly, isn't one of those guys snarling at a trading screen day after day, selling the dollar, shorting the euro and buying the Swiss franc.

EIM is a fund of funds. Mr Busson's role, his expertise, is to put a portfolio of fund managers together, giving rich people access to the best of breed (so goes the sales pitch). There are thousands of hedge funds, even rich folk in finance don't know which ones to pick, but Mr Busson does, and is paid handsomely for his selections. In return, the clients get access to funds that are far from accessible to the man on the street. To investment opportunities of which they would otherwise have been oblivious.

Those clients are mainly large institutions, lately anyway. If you are merely a wealthy individual, you'll have to give him at least $1m before he thinks you are worth the trouble.

Is he for sale? Those close to him say not, but it's understood that he has had talks with other asset managers about some sort of merger, the idea being to cut costs. One of these deals might turn out to make sense, or not, say observers. If not, no problem, he shall continue as before. For any deal to go ahead he'd have to remain, if not entirely in charge, then at least one of the very main men in the new venture. He certainly won't be cashing out.

And of course his funds are down, say the sympathy crowd. "Have hedge funds performed well in the last four years? No. That's not Arki, that's industry wide," says one observer. "When a hedge fund really doesn't perform, it just goes out of business. And no new hedge funds are being launched. He's still here."

Another fan offers: "Less than 1 per cent of the assets were with Madoff. He's had up years when most people were down. And the bit you don't see about him is that he works bloody hard. Forget the celebrity stuff, he is passionate about what he does. No one can survive the best part of 30 years in the hedge fund game without being good at managing other people's money."

Critics would say that Mr Busson was moving too slowly when the crunch came. That he should have cut costs sooner, should have offered more specialised services to investors, and should have realised that his business model doesn't work when his clients are losing money.

That he is clinging on to a world where no one was down for long and credit for past victories would always be given.

The thing is, hedge funds are supposed to go up even when other investments don't. They hedge, as the name suggests. They go short as well as long, they play risk more cleverly than funds simply betting on rising markets, they always win. In theory.

If Mr Busson and his crowd are presently finding this game somewhere between very difficult and impossible, what must that mean for everyone else?

One Mayfair hedge fund manager, who admits he is having a rough time himself, is entirely sympathetic.

"Markets are preposterous," he says. "Everyone is risk-off. So there's not much to trade against in the first place. It's very low volume trading, which in turn makes things volatile. Markets are moving on things politicians say, not on rational investing. It's never been this hard to read."

If hedge fund traders feel low on the list of people for whom we should feel sorry, it is possible that their strife is at least indicative of ours. That economic newsflow is so turbulent that it is difficult to commit to anything remotely serious – buying a house, say – until we can be sure that the entirety of Europe isn't about to go kaput. The same Mayfair hedgie says: "Suppose someone gave you £1m to invest today. You can't just put it in the bank, because they could do that themselves. Where are you putting that money? I can't say I know, and it's my job."

Even the 49-year-old Mr Busson, a man who once said he turns off his BlackBerry only when ordered to do so by his sons or flight attendants, might admit that he needs a break. That he needs assistance from politicians before he can properly go back to making money for clients (and for himself).

In the meantime, just staying in the game might be regarded as success. A fund manager, hedgie or otherwise, who misses some of the investment weddings but most of the funerals might feel like he is doing as well as anyone could reasonably expect.

Mr Busson has never had it so tough. This may be the most crucial year of his career.

$14bn Funds under management in 2008

$6bn Funds under management now

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