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Robert Reich: Why You Should Work for a Hedge Fund

April 7, 2009

Just because I lost a big chunk of my total retirement savings over the last year doesn’t mean I should be upset that 25 hedge-fund managers reaped a total of $11.6 billion during the same interval, according to Institutional Investor’s Alpha Magazine — including $2.5 billion for James Simons of Renaissance Technologies and $2 billion for John Paulson. (To be included on the list, you had to take home more than $75 million.)

I do admit to being irked that some of what these guys earn is taxed at a 15 percent rate because the earnings are treated as capital gains, while I’m just about to be walloped by the Internal Revenue Service come April 15.

But what causes me severe heartburn is that these are exactly the sort of investors Tim Geithner is trying to lure in to buy troubled assets from banks, with an extraordinary offer financed by you and me and other taxpayers: If it turns out the troubled assets are worth more than these guys pay for them, they could make a fortune. If if it turns out the assets are worth less, these guys won’t lose a thing because we taxpayers will bail them out. Plus, they get to pick only the highest-rated of the big banks’ bad assets and can review them carefully before buying.

What a deal. Why can’t you and I get in on this bonanza? Because we’re too small. The government will designate only about five big investor funds — run or owned by the richest of the rich — as potential buyers. Hedge funds fit the bill perfectly.

There’s a beautiful symmetry here. The hedge fund managers who raked in billions last year wouldn’t have done nearly as well had taxpayers not bailed out Wall Street to begin with. According to John Taylor, a hedge fund manager who tied for ninth on Alpha’s list, many funds would have gone belly-up had the government not acted. “Thank god for the government, because if they hadn’t intervened, we wouldn’t have had anybody to trade with,” he told the Times.

So you and I and other taxpayers have kept these hedge-fund honchos flush enough to be able to reap the bonanza that Geithner now wants to bestow on them for cleaning up the mess they and others on Wall Street made — a bonanza to be financed by you and me and other taxpayers, who are taking on all the risk.

I read [yesterday] morning that Larry Summers earned nearly $5.2 million in the last two years working one day a week for D.E. Shaw, one of the largest hedge funds of all. I can’t help admire Larry for sacrificing all the money he could be making now had he not chosen to work for the government.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism, which is now out in paperback). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2009 Robert B. Reich

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