Before he lost it all—all $20 billion—Bill Hwang was the greatest trader you’d never heard of.
Starting in 2013, he parlayed more than $200 million left over from his shuttered hedge fund into a mind-boggling fortune by betting on stocks. Had he folded his hand in early March and cashed in, Hwang, 57, would have stood out among the world’s billionaires. There are richer men and women, of course, but their money is mostly tied up in businesses, real estate, complex investments, sports teams, and artwork. Hwang’s $20 billion net worth was almost as liquid as a government stimulus check. And then, in two short days, it was gone.
Modest on the outside, Hwang had all the swagger he needed inside the Wall Street prime-brokerage departments that finance big investors. He was a “Tiger cub,” an alumnus of Tiger Management, the hedge fund powerhouse that Julian Robertson founded. In the 2000s, Hwang ran his own fund, Tiger Asia Management, which peaked at about $10 billion in assets.
It didn’t matter that he’d been accused of insider trading by U.S. securities regulators or that he pleaded guilty to wire fraud on behalf of Tiger Asia in 2012. Archegos, the family office he founded to manage his personal wealth, was a lucrative client for the banks, and they were eager to lend Hwang enormous sums.
On March 25, when Hwang’s financiers were finally able to compare notes, it became clear that his trading strategy was strikingly simple. Archegos appears to have plowed most of the money it borrowed into a handful of stocks—ViacomCBS, GSX Techedu, and Shopify among them.
At least once, Hwang stepped over the line between aggressive and illegal. In 2012, after years of investigations, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused Tiger Asia of insider trading and manipulation in two Chinese bank stocks. The agency said Hwang “crossed the wall,” receiving confidential information about pending share offerings from the underwriting banks and then using it to reap illicit profits.
Hwang settled that case without admitting or denying wrongdoing, and Tiger Asia pleaded guilty to a U.S. Department of Justice charge of wire fraud.
U.S. rules prevent individual investors from buying securities with more than 50% of the money borrowed on margin. No such limits apply to hedge funds and family offices. People familiar with Archegos say the firm steadily ramped up its leverage. Initially that meant about “2x,” or $1 million borrowed for every $1 million of capital. By late March the leverage was 5x or more.
Hwang also kept his banks in the dark by trading via swap agreements. In a typical swap, a bank gives its client exposure to an underlying asset, such as a stock. While the client gains—or loses—from any changes in price, the bank shows up in filings as the registered holder of the shares.
That’s how Hwang was able to amass huge positions so quietly. And because lenders had details only of their own dealings with him, they, too, couldn’t know he was piling on leverage in the same stocks via swaps with other banks. ViacomCBS Inc. is one example. By late March, Archegos had exposure to tens of millions of shares of the media conglomerate through Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Credit Suisse, and Wells Fargo & Co. The largest holder of record, indexing giant Vanguard Group Inc., had 59 million shares.
At some point in the past few years, Hwang’s investments shifted from mainly tech companies to a more eclectic mix. Media conglomerates ViacomCBS and Discovery Inc. became huge holdings. So did at least four Chinese stocks: GSX Techedu, Baidu, Iqiyi, and Vipshop.
Although it’s impossible to know exactly when Archegos did those swap trades, there are clues in the regulatory filings by his banks. Starting in the second quarter of 2020, all Hwang’s banks became big holders of stocks he bet on. Morgan Stanley went from 5.22 million shares of Vipshop Holdings Ltd. as of June 30, to 44.6 million by Dec. 31.
Leverage was playing a growing role, and Hwang was looking for more. Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley had been doing business with Archegos for years, unperturbed by Hwang’s brush with regulators. Goldman, however, had blacklisted him. Compliance officials who frowned on his checkered past blocked repeated efforts internally to open an account for Archegos, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
The fourth quarter of 2020 was a fruitful one for Hwang. While the S&P 500 rose almost 12%, seven of the 10 stocks Archegos was known to hold gained more than 30%, with Baidu, Vipshop, and Farfetch jumping at least 70%.
All that activity made Archegos one of Wall Street’s most coveted clients. People familiar with the situation say it was paying prime brokers tens of millions of dollars a year in fees, possibly more than $100 million in total. As his swap accounts churned out cash, Hwang kept accumulating extra capital to invest—and to lever up. Goldman finally relented and signed on Archegos as a client in late 2020. Weeks later it all would end in a flash.
The first in a cascade of events during the week of March 22 came shortly after the 4 p.m. close of trading that Monday in New York. ViacomCBS, struggling to keep up with Apple TV, Disney+, Home Box Office, and Netflix, announced a $3 billion sale of stock and convertible debt. The company’s shares, propelled by Hwang’s buying, had tripled in four months. Raising money to invest in streaming made sense. Or so it seemed in the ViacomCBS C-suite.
Instead, the stock tanked 9% on Tuesday and 23% on Wednesday. Hwang’s bets suddenly went haywire, jeopardizing his swap agreements. A few bankers pleaded with him to sell shares; he would take losses and survive, they reasoned, avoiding a default. Hwang refused, according to people with knowledge of those discussions, the long-ago lesson from Robertson evidently forgotten.
That Thursday his prime brokers held a series of emergency meetings. Hwang, say people with swaps experience, likely had borrowed roughly $85 million for every $20 million, investing $100 and setting aside $5 to post margin as needed. But the massive portfolio had cratered so quickly that its losses blew through that small buffer as well as his capital.
The dilemma for Hwang’s lenders was obvious. If the stocks in his swap accounts rebounded, everyone would be fine. But if even one bank flinched and started selling, they’d all be exposed to plummeting prices. Credit Suisse wanted to wait.
Late that afternoon, without a word to its fellow lenders, Morgan Stanley made a preemptive move. The firm quietly unloaded $5 billion of its Archegos holdings at a discount, mainly to a group of hedge funds. On Friday morning, well before the 9:30 a.m. New York open, Goldman started liquidating $6.6 billion in blocks of Baidu, Tencent Music Entertainment Group, and Vipshop. It soon followed with $3.9 billion of ViacomCBS, Discovery, Farfetch, Iqiyi, and GSX Techedu.
When the smoke finally cleared, Goldman, Deutsche Bank AG, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo had escaped the Archegos fire sale unscathed. There’s no question they moved faster to sell. It’s also possible they had extended less leverage or demanded more margin. As of now, Credit Suisse and Nomura appear to have sustained the greatest damage. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., another prime broker, has disclosed $300 million in likely losses.
It’s all eerily reminiscent of the subprime-mortgage crisis 14 years ago. Then, as now, the trouble was a series of increasingly irresponsible loans. As long as housing prices kept rising, lenders ignored the growing risks. Only when homeowners stopped paying did reality bite: The banks all had financed so much borrowing that the fallout couldn’t be contained.
The best thing anyone can say about the Archegos collapse is that it didn’t spark a market meltdown. The worst thing is that it was an entirely preventable disaster made possible by Hwang’s lenders. Had they limited his leverage or insisted on more visibility into the business he did across Wall Street, Archegos would have been playing with fire instead of dynamite. It might not have defaulted. Regulators are to blame, too. As Congress was told at hearings following the GameStop Corp. debacle in January, there’s not enough transparency in the stock market. European rules require the party bearing the economic risk of an investment to disclose its interest. In the U.S., whales such as Hwang can stay invisible.