April 20, 2024

DealBook: Keeping an Eye on the Ball

Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesDavid Einhorn of Greenlight Capital attended the Mets vs. Phillies game at Citi Field on Saturday.

Lots of questions have been asked about David Einhorn’s purchase of a minority stake in the Mets: Will his investment shore up the Mets’ finances? (Maybe.) Does the deal allow him to take majority control of the Mets? (Yes.) And will he eventually take over the team? (Probably.)

But on Wall Street, a very different question is quietly being asked: Will Mr. Einhorn, one of the great value investors of his generation and an obsessive stock picker, take his eye off the ball? (Pun intended.) It is a question that invariably is raised whenever a wealthy financier seeks to live out his childhood fantasy by acquiring a professional sports team, a race horse or even a yacht.

“An obsessive focus on work is part of what makes hedge fund managers succeed,” said Sebastian Mallaby, the author of “More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite.”

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He noted that “David Swensen, the great hedge fund talent scout who runs the Yale endowment, says that he looks for this not-quite-normal single-mindedness when he decides where to commit Yale’s money. So it clearly is a red flag when a hedge fund manager starts to take too much pleasure in his hobbies.”

Wall Street players have long collected sports teams, some successfully, some less so. In 2002, Stephen Pagliuca, the managing partner of Bain Capital, helped lead a group of friends to buy the Celtics, who then went on to win the championship in 2008. Bain continued to thrive, but not to the same extent of rivals like the Blackstone Group and others.

Meanwhile, Thomas Hicks, a leveraged buyout baron who founded Hicks, Muse, Tate Furst, bought the Texas Rangers in 1998. His firm nearly went under after a series of bad telecom investments he made in 1999; he left the firm in 2004. And just three years ago, Stanley Druckenmiller, the famed hedge fund manager, sought to buy the Pittsburgh Steelers. He eventually withdrew his bid, but perhaps it was a signal that he had already shifted his interests away from the markets. Last year, he announced he would shut his firm.

In an apparent effort to pre-empt any red flags and to demonstrate his commitment to money management, Mr. Einhorn’s firm, Greenlight Capital, sent a private letter to its investors last week within minutes of the announcement that he was personally in negotiations for the Mets stake: “David will continue to have the vast majority of his net worth invested in Greenlight products: the hedge funds, Greenlight Masters and Greenlight Re. His role as president and portfolio manager of Greenlight Capital will not change in any way.”

So far, Mr. Einhorn’s investors, at least publicly, have only praise for him. Several privately questioned whether he could remain focused on his investment funds at the same time that he thrust himself into the public eye as the potential future owner of the Mets.

Some pointed out that Mr. Einhorn has proved he can multitask. He has written a best-selling book about one of his investments, competed in the World Series of Poker, finishing 18th, and is an active director of several charities.

And he’s never exactly shied away from the press. He took to the airwaves in spring 2008, presciently questioning the numbers at Lehman Brothers. Just last week, he called for the firing of Steven Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive.

None of that compares with being the owner of a sports team in New York City, the media capital of the world. On Saturday night, when Mr. Einhorn attended the Mets vs. Phillies game at Citi Field, the virtually unknown financier — to most sports fans, at least — was bombarded by cameras and questions. Pictures of him drinking a beer in a luxury box appeared on television and in newspapers. He was wearing a Mets cap — and, in perhaps a nod to his investors, a polo shirt embroidered with the Greenlight logo. (Hedge funds rarely get that kind of marketing exposure.)

He can expect more flash bulbs over the next two years. According to people involved in the negotiations, he will have the right to acquire a 60 percent stake in the Mets from the Wilpon family. The only way the Wilpons would be able to block him would be to repay the $200 million investment he made for 30 percent of the baseball team. Mr. Einhorn would get to keep his stake for free.

Much of the outcome hinges on whether the Wilpons have to turn over their fortune to the trustee of the Madoff Ponzi scheme. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that’s likely to be grist for the sports media — and business media — as speculation runs rampant about whether the Wilpons will lose their team to Mr. Einhorn. The danger, of course, is that it becomes a distraction.

So far this year, Mr. Einhorn’s $7.9 billion fund is underperforming the market. His fund was down 2.6 percent at the end of last month, while the S. P. 500 was up 8.43 percent during the same period.

Mr. Einhorn, however, is a long-term investor. He has long told investors, successfully, to disregard short-term performance, a mantra he has said should be applied to the Mets.

“If I were invested in Einhorn’s fund, I would not pull my money out,” Mr. Mallaby said. “But it is natural for investors to be asking questions.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=5cdf84f66d3db7f2e3edad0bcd8a74ec

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