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Thursday, Jun 13, 2024

The Two Lives Of Bill Hwang, Man Behind The Archegos Fiasco

The Two Lives Of Bill Hwang, Man Behind The Archegos Fiasco

Interviews with people from inside Hwang's circle, Wall Street players close to him and documents associated with his multimillion-dollar charitable foundation fill in missing puzzle pieces -- ones that haven't been reported previously.

With the sun rising outside their conference room in Midtown Manhattan, the visitors to a secretive investment empire bent their heads in prayerful meditation.

It was another Friday morning, 7 o'clock, and a familiar scene was unfolding again inside Archegos Capital Management, an obscure family office that would go on to shake the financial world.

In the days before the pandemic, 20 or 30 people would squeeze together around the long table and, over coffee and Danishes, listen to recordings of the Bible, according to people who were there.

First might come the Old Testament, perhaps Isaiah or Lamentations. Then came the New, the Gospels, which called out to the listeners drawn from a path known more for its earthly greed than its godly faith: Wall Street.

Hitting the play button and then receding into the background was the host, Bill Hwang, the mysterious billionaire trader now at the center of one of the biggest Wall Street fiascos of all time.

The story thus far -- of a mind-boggling fortune made in stealth and then wiped out very publicly in a blink -- has sent shock waves through some of the world's mightiest banks. Estimates of the potential size of his position before it imploded have spiraled toward $100 billion. The Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into the disaster, which has set teeth on edge in trading rooms across the globe.

But those accounts tell only part of the story. Interviews with people from inside Hwang's circle, Wall Street players close to him and documents associated with his multimillion-dollar charitable foundation fill in missing puzzle pieces -- ones that haven't been reported previously.

The picture that emerges is unlike anything Wall Street might suspect.

There are, in a sense, not one but two Bill Hwangs.

Christian Capitalist

One of them walks for hours through New York's Central Park listening to recordings of the Bible and embraces a new, 21st-century vision of an age-old ideal: that of a modern Christian capitalist, a financial speculator for Christ, who seeks to make money in God's name and then use it to further the faith. A generous benefactor to a range of unglamorous, mostly conservative Christian causes, this Hwang eschews the trappings of extravagant wealth, rides the bus, flies commercial and lives in what is, by billionaire standards, humble surroundings in suburban New Jersey.

Then there's the other Bill Hwang: a former acolyte of hedge fund legend Julian Robertson with a thirst for risk and a stomach for volatile markets -- a daring trader who once lost a fortune betting against German automaker Volkswagen AG while running a hedge fund that was supposedly focused on Asian stocks.

This is also the Bill Hwang who then went on to quietly become one of the most successful alumni of Robertson's vaunted Tiger Management. This one masks his dangerous leveraged bets from public view via financial derivatives, was once accused of insider trading and pleaded guilty in 2012 to wire fraud on behalf of his hedge fund, Tiger Asia Management.

That same Bill Hwang, it turns out, is also a backer of one of Wall Street's hottest hands of late, Cathie Wood of Ark Investments. Like Hwang, Wood is known to hold Bible study meetings and figures into what some refer to as the "faith in finance" movement.

And here, at last, is where the Bill Hwangs collide. The fortune he amassed under the noses of major banks and financial regulators was far bigger and riskier than almost anyone might have thought possible -- and these riches were pulled together with head-snapping speed. In fact, it was perhaps one of the greatest accumulations of private wealth in the history of modern finance.

And Hwang lost it all even faster.

Archegos -- a Greek word often translated as "author" or "captain," and often considered a reference to Jesus -- was believed by many traders doing business with the firm to be sitting atop $10 billion of assets. That figure, representing Hwang's personal fortune, was actually closer to $20 billion, according to people who did business with Archegos.

To put that figure in context: Bill Hwang, a name few even on Wall Street had heard until now, was worth more than well-known industry figures like Ray Dalio, Steve Cohen and David Tepper.

Even more remarkable is the breakneck speed at which Hwang's fortune grew. Archegos started out in 2013 with an estimated $200 million. That's a sizable fortune but nowhere near big money in the hedge fund game.

Yet within a decade, Hwang's fortune swelled 100 times over, traders and bankers now estimate. Much of those riches accrued in the past 12 to 24 months alone, as Hwang began to employ more and more leverage to goose his returns, and as banks, eager for his lucrative trading business, eagerly obliged by extending him credit.

Hwang's success enabled him to endow his own charity, the Grace & Mercy Foundation, which had almost $500 million of assets as of 2018, according to its most recent tax filing.

One institution close to Hwang, and a beneficiary of his foundation, is The King's College, a small Christian school in the heart of New York's Financial District.

In a statement to Bloomberg, the college said it was grateful for his generosity and that "our prayers are with Mr. Hwang and his staff."

McDonald's Job

The story of both Bill Hwangs begins in South Korea, where he was born Sung Kook Hwang in 1964. The tale he has told friends and associates is a familiar one of immigrant striving -- followed by financial success that few even on Wall Street can fathom.

Hwang grew up in a religious household (like roughly a third of Koreans, his parents were Christian). When he was a teenager, the family moved to Las Vegas, where his father got a job as a pastor at a local church. Hwang has told friends that he arrived in the U.S. unable to speak or write in English and only picked up the language while working nights at McDonald's. Soon after, his father died and his mother moved the family to Los Angeles. Hwang went on to study economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and then picked up an MBA at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Finance beckoned -- and Hwang, it turned out, was very good at it. While a lowly salesman at Hyundai Securities, part of the sprawling Korean chaebol the Hyundai Group, he caught Julian Robertson's eye. Hwang, not yet 33, was then handed a golden ticket to Wall Street: an offer to join Robertson's Tiger Management, then at the top of its game.

Hwang quickly distinguished himself by introducing Robertson to the Korean markets -- at the time headed into the teeth of the Asian financial crisis -- and masterminding what turned into a lucrative stake in SK Telecom Co.

Hamptons Lunch

Tiger colleagues say Hwang was one of Robertson's most successful proteges -- a quiet, methodical analyst with intense focus. Even today, he keeps his desk free of all clutter, the better to focus his mind. Robertson, these people recall, dubbed him "the Michael Jordan of Asian investing."

Robertson, now 88, still considers Hwang a friend, and the two lunched together in the Hamptons a few months ago.

"He's not one to be tiny, that's one thing for sure," Robertson told Bloomberg after news of the Archegos losses broke.

Hwang would eventually strike out on his own as a so-called Tiger cub. Initially, Hwang shot the lights out, returning an annualized 40% through 2007, when he managed $8 billion.

The hot streak didn't last. In late 2008, his Tiger Asia incurred stinging losses on a big bet against Volkswagen. Many other hedge funds were shorting the German automaker, too, and when Porsche Automobil Holding SE abruptly announced that it would raise its stake, all hell broke loose. VW soared 348% within 48 hours, crushing shorts like Hwang.

Tiger Asia ended the year down 23%. Many investors pulled their money, angry that a hedge fund that was supposed to be focusing on Asia somehow got caught up in the massive squeeze.

GameStop Frenzy

It was a painful and instructive lesson for Hwang, people who know him say. In the future, he'd hunt out stocks that many traders were shorting and go long instead. Millions of amateur investors took up that approach this year during the social media-fueled frenzy over GameStop and other stocks.

But before the next success, Tiger Asia ran into more trouble -- this time, trouble big enough to bring Hwang's days as a hedge fund manager to an end.

When Tiger Asia pleaded guilty to wire fraud in 2012, the SEC said the firm used inside information to trade in shares of two Chinese banks. Hwang and his firm ended up paying $60 million to settle the criminal and civil charges. The SEC banned him from managing outside money and Hong Kong authorities prohibited him from trading there for four years (the ban ended in 2018).

Shut out of hedge funds, Hwang opened Archegos, a family office. The firm, which recently employed some 50 people, initially occupied space in the Renzo Piano-designed headquarters of the New York Times. Today it's based further uptown, by Columbus Circle, sharing its address with the Grace & Mercy Foundation.

"My journey really began when I was having a lot of problems in our business about five or six years ago," Hwang said in a 2017 video. "And I knew one thing, that this was a situation where money and connections couldn't really help. But somehow I was reminded I had to go to the words of the God."

That belief helped Hwang rebuild his financial empire at dizzying speed as banks loaned him billions of dollars to ratchet up his bets that unraveled spectacularly as the financial firms panicked. What ensued was one of the greatest margin calls of all time, pushing his giant portfolio into liquidation. Some of the banks may end up with combined losses of as much as $10 billion, according to analysts at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

As a bruised Wall Street points its collective finger at Hwang, his Christian associates have rallied around him.

Doug Birdsall, honorary co-chairman of the Lausanne Movement, a global group that seeks to mobilize evangelical leaders, said Hwang always likes to think big. When he met with him to discuss a new 30-story building in New York for the American Bible Society, Hwang said, "Why build 30 stories? Build it 66 stories high. There are 66 books in the bible."

Before so much went so wrong so fast, Archegos appeared to be ramping up. A year ago, Hwang petitioned the SEC to let him work or run a broker-dealer; the SEC agreed.

It's impossible to say where Bill Hwang, the hard-charging financial speculator, ends, and Bill Hwang, the Christian evangelist and philanthropist, begins. People who know him say the one is inseparable from the other. Despite brushes with regulators, staggering trading losses and the question swirling around his market dealings, they say Hwang often speaks of bridging God and mammon, of bringing Christian teaching to the money-centric world of Wall Street.

"If you know how Bill lives, you will never think this man is worth the kind of money he was," said John Bai, a finance executive who's known Hwang for 30 years. "Maybe for some it's an epic disappearance of wealth, but he's got God on his side. I am not worried about Bill. He's not about the money."


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