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Star dims for Goldman's youngest partner

January 17, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

Eric Mindich had investors clamoring when he launched his hedge fund Eton Park in 2004. Now they want their money back, and they're finding it hard to get out.

By Michelle Celarier, contributor

Eric Mindich

Eric Mindich

FORTUNE -- After a year of losses, the exodus of investors from hedge funds hasn't been as great as many expected. In the case of Eric Mindich's $12 billion Eton Park Capital Management -- which fell about 11% last year -- that's because try as they might, investors still have a hard time taking their money out.

Hedge funds loosened their terms after the carnage of 2008 alerted investors to the fact that funds weren't required to return the investors' cash just because they wanted it back. But Eton Park's terms remain among the most onerous in the hedge fund world. And since its investors have hardly made a dime over the past three years, some are starting to bail. Net redemptions last year reached about 5% of fund assets, or around $700 million.

Mindich's claim to fame is being the youngest person, at age 27, to make partner at Goldman Sachs (GS) in 1994. When he left to launch a hedge fund in 2004, the fever to invest with the wunderkind was so great that Mindich raised a record $3.5 billion despite insisting on one of the most stringent lockups on record.

Investors in a certain share class had to agree to keep the money in Eton Park for a minimum of 27 months, and it would take them another two years to get out, as they could only redeem one-third in any given year -- what's called a rolling three-year lockup. If the investor missed the window of opportunity after the initial 27 months, he couldn't try again for another 27. He also had to let Eton Park know 65 days ahead of time of his desire to exit the fund, and then would only receive his cash 30 days after the redemption date. The only way to get around these terms would be to pay a 6% early-exit penalty to the fund. And that wasn't all: Eton Park also reserved the right to place up to 30% of the fund in side pockets; that money would be stuck there as long as the firm wanted.

The terms were egregious, but Mindich could demand them, and so he did. Such was the golden era for would-be hedge fund titans.

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These days, Eton Park's lockup provisions look extreme, says Leon Mirochnik, research analyst with Trim Tabs, who thinks last year's hedge fund redemptions weren't as high as expected, in part, because lockups still exist at many of the more prestigious funds. One is hard-pressed to find one with terms as tough as Eton Park's, especially given that the fund is largely invested in easily-marketable securities, not illiquid or private equity investments.

Mindich declined to comment. His spokesperson said fund's terms are consistent with its long-term investment program.

Goldman glow dims

As a result, Mindich's Goldman patina is wearing thin, as is the patience of his investors. As of last July, Eton Park was the 20th largest U.S. hedge fund and managed $14 billion, according to the AR Billion Dollar Club. Much of the decline since then is due to poor performance. But Eton Park has also been raising money, which has kept the net outflows to about $700 million as of the end of December, according to an individual familiar with the firm.

"We are redeeming as much as we can and as fast as we can," says one investor who invested in Eton Park in 2008. To those who signed on that year, Eton Park looked like a winner. In 2007 Mindich had his best year ever, gaining an estimated 35% to 40% based on the subprime shorts that drove returns for folks like John Paulson and Kyle Bass. Then in 2008, the year of the market's freefall, Mindich impressed investors by losing a lot less than others: between 10% and 11%, depending on the share class.

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Eton Park raised about $2 billion in 2008, but all those investors have just about broken even, after paying fees. The end of 2011 marks the end of a three-stretch of lousy performance and bad market timing by Eton Park. Not only did it lose 11% last year -- far more than the average 5% among hedge funds and way below the S&P 500's break-even performance -- the loss followed two dismal years. Mindich was bearish for much of 2009, so he missed the great rally, ending the year with a gain of an estimated 5%. He chalked up about 9% in 2010, but last year his bullishness led him to load up on financial stocks, which tanked.

Notably, he did worse than many of the funds whose founders also hailed from Goldman's risk-arbitrage desk. Dan Och's master fund was down .58%, Richard Perry's Perry Capital International declined 7.57%, and Frank Brosen's Taconic Capital event-driven fund fell 2.7%. Since inception in 2004, Eton Park has gained a little more than 7%, net of performance fees.

In 2010, Mindich tried to entertain investors by channeling his inner star with a mock interview between himself and Charlie Rose at the annual investor meeting. More noteworthy to investors, however, was his decision to trim the lockup period to 13 months, with the three-year rolling lock -- but only for brand new investors. The firm also introduced what it calls a "look back" period, which allows investors to change their mind and decide to take their money out 60 days after the required notice period. There's a catch: Instead of taking out a third of the capital at that time, they can only take out a sixth.

Like many of the funds run by ex-Goldman partners, Eton Park is renowned for its solid infrastructure, designed to attract institutional money. That's the kind of sticky money all hedge funds have been courting since 2008. It seems to be working. Last year, the industry ended November with $60.3 billion more in its coffers, despite the average 5% performance loss for the year, according to Trim Tabs. The net increase came entirely from direct investments, largely from pension funds, which plowed $69.7 billion into hedge funds through November. Such investors are notoriously slow to change investment allocations, and that might just be Eric Mindich's salvation.

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