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April 20, 2020, 3:23 p.m. EDT

This ‘long-short’ investor cashes in as airline, hotel and casino stocks crumble

Mitch Rubin’s RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity Fund is up about 15% this year, while benchmark indexes are in the red

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By Philip van Doorn, MarketWatch

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‘Long’ investments

Rubin described what he calls a “dual mandate to compound our money at reasonable rates of return, but also to protect capital in down markets.”

For long positions, Rubin and his staff don’t try to time the market, but focus on “high-growth companies that generally have a lot of cash,” and typically have wide margins and low or no debt.

Slow-growth companies tend to have a lot of debt, he said, and the leaders of such companies “are generally trying to use financial engineering to make the business better. We are always trying to short low-growth companies for precisely this reason.”

Large long positions of the RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity Fund as of March 31 included Amazon.com /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -0.76% , Microsoft /zigman2/quotes/207732364/composite MSFT -0.04% , Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL -1.96% , Facebook  and Google holding company Alphabet /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG -1.23% /zigman2/quotes/202490156/lastsale GOOGL -1.02% .

“If you can run a high compounder that also has high cash flow, you are taking a bad outcome off the table,” Rubin said. “Any stock can drop 20%, but down 50% to 70% happens when you have debt or risk to the enterprise.”

‘Short’ investments

Rubin explained that the fund will short companies with high debt in all market conditions: “You learn as a ‘long’ investor that if you own a company with debt, the clock is ticking. If something bad happens, it puts bankruptcy on the table.“

He went further to bring home how dangerous debt can be: “If somebody owns a bond and on the day the bond is due you cannot pay them, they go to the front of the line and it crushes the equity. Every time there is a bull market, everyone forgets and companies load up with debt.”

“Our goal is to short them early,” he added. One example of a pre-crisis “secular” short was U.S. motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson /zigman2/quotes/207565294/composite HOG +0.93% , which Rubin thought was weak because “the generation that bought heavy touring motorcycles were no longer buying them.”

Another short of this type is Iron Mountain /zigman2/quotes/208929343/composite IRM +0.28% , which provides record storage services, but according to Rubin, is still mostly storing paper. “That business will be much smaller two years from now. They [have been] super slow to pivot,” as the world moves to electronic record-keeping, he said.

He also said he had been shorting energy companies for about a year and a half coming into the crisis. When asked why he hadn’t shorted them for a longer period, Rubin said: “Because we were long before that and we were wrong.”

His theory had been that the most efficient U.S. shale oil producers would grow their cash flow significantly. “We were wrong because when you own something and do not control the price of the product, you do not control your destiny.” (He has covered all his short energy positions.)

Read: These U.S. oil companies are most at risk in the danger zone

Rubin will try to look ahead when there is a sign of trouble. While acknowledging he didn’t have a crystal ball in January when reports surfaced about a coronavirus outbreak in China, he decided to short airlines, hotel and casino operators Wynn Resorts /zigman2/quotes/208845907/composite WYNN -0.57%  and MGM Resorts International /zigman2/quotes/209932643/composite MGM -0.42% , as well as the three major cruise operators, Carnival Corp. /zigman2/quotes/202325446/composite CCL 0.00% , Royal Caribbean Cruises /zigman2/quotes/208854639/composite RCL +0.57%  and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings /zigman2/quotes/204183397/composite NCLH +0.67% .

“Airlines have even more leverage than you think, with labor unions, pension obligations and airplane leases,” Rubin said, adding that it is “insane” to run an airline with a highly leveraged balance sheet because of the industry’s low profit margins, “massive” capital expenditures, fuel-expense risk and a long history of bankruptcies.

Rubin has covered his short airline and cruise-industry positions. He is still short Wynn, MGM and two smaller U.S. casino operators, Boyd Gaming /zigman2/quotes/206215159/composite BYD +0.89%  and Penn National Gaming /zigman2/quotes/209264611/composite PENN -1.93% , which he said “have a lot of debt.”

Hedge fund in a mutual fund ‘wrapper’

Traditional hedge funds (that is, those that aren’t regulated under the Investment Company Act of 1940) often limit redemptions to certain times of the year or place restrictions under special circumstances. They may also have very high fees, such as the “2/20” fee structure, which meant annual fees of 2% of assets under management plus 20% of any gains over the course of a calendar year.

That type of fee structure is not only expensive, it can lead to the practice of a fund “locking in gains,” several months before the end of a year by going to cash. Jim Cramer described this in “Confessions of a Street Addict.”

The RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity Fund’s retail shares have total annual expenses of 2% of assets under management, while the institutional shares have total expenses of 1.8%. There are no performance fees.

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Philip van Doorn covers various investment and industry topics. He has previously worked as a senior analyst at TheStreet.com. He also has experience in community banking and as a credit analyst at the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York.

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