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E-mails Give Glimpse of How Magnetar Worked

E-mails with business partners suggest Magnetar's clout: The firm was involved at the start of deals and pushed for riskier bonds to be included in CDOs. One deal fell apart partly because of Ischus Capital Management's unease with pressure from Magnetar.

On Sept. 29, 2006, Magnetar's CDO specialist Jim Prusko wrote to bankers at Societe Generale and Ischus executives that he thought the CDO's portfolio had a 'strangely low spread target.'By the fall of 2006, housing prices had already peaked and Magnetar's assembly line started producing, helping to create CDOs it would bet against. The hedge fund's appetite seemed insatiable. The deals were the talk of CDO desks across Wall Street.

Between the end of September and the middle of December 2006, Magnetar had a hand in spawning at least 15 CDOs, worth an estimated $23 billion. Among the banks involved with those deals were Citigroup, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch.

E-mails obtained by ProPublica from that time suggest Magnetar's clout. The firm was involved at the start of deals and pushed for riskier bonds to be included.

After Magnetar expressed interest in buying the equity, the French bank Société Générale began to build the CDO, and selected a New York-based manager, Ischus Capital Management, which would choose the exact bonds to go into the CDO.

Magnetar wanted to name the CDO after a small constellation in the southern sky called Hydrus, which means "male water snake." But by late September, Magnetar and Ischus began sparring over the composition of the deal.

Magnetar pressed Ischus to buy lower-quality assets for the deal, according to three people familiar with Hydrus. In an e-mail to bankers at Société Générale and Ischus executives, Magnetar's CDO specialist, Jim Prusko, wrote on Sept. 29, 2006, "The original portfolio target spreadsheet that I have... had a strangely low spread target. That of course would not at all be beneficial to us. I have attached the target portfolio that I would like for this deal with target spreads."

The portfolio Magnetar outlined didn't list specific bonds, but executives at the CDO manager Ischus felt that they understood what Prusko wanted. A request for higher-spreading assets means more risk in the deal.

Andrew Shook, an Ischus executive, answered forcefully on Oct. 3, "We will not assemble a portfolio we are not proud of and feel strongly about in the name of a spread target."

Prusko dialed down the pressure, responding within an hour. "Of course, the actual security selection is totally your purview," he wrote. "I just wanted to make sure the overall portfolio characteristics worked for our strategy."

Shook declined to comment on the e-mail exchange. Magnetar says that the deal as originally conceived wouldn't have been profitable and that it was merely trying to get a higher return -- a higher "spread" -- to balance out the risk it was taking in owning the bottom-rated slice of the CDO.

The two sides subsequently drifted apart, partly over Ischus's unease with Magnetar's pressure, and the deal was never completed.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Wall Street Money Machine

The Wall Street Money Machine

Enticed by profits and bonuses, Wall Street took advantage of complicated mortgage-based instruments to reap billions, only to exacerbate the eventual crash.

The Story So Far

As the housing market started to fade, bankers and hedge funds scrambled for ways to maintain the lavish bonuses and profits they had become so accustomed to, repackaging mortgages in complex securities called collateralized debt obligations. The booming CDO market masked how weak the housing market was, and exacerbated its collapse.

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