The near collapse of a big US commodities hedge fund has seen it dump a 12% stake in the listed Australian beach minerals group, Iluka.

The sales were confirmed late yesterday in a belated change of substantial shareholding notice to the ASX for Iluka from Ospraie Management, which detailed six separate sales last month list of Iluka shares that culminated in a $99 million parcel of shares being dumped in one line on August 27. The notice should have been filed by last Monday.

This morning another big US fund manager, Franklin Resources, revealed that it had sold around four million of its Iluka shares. This does not appear to be related to the Ospraie sales.

Yesterday Merrill Lynch and some associated parties revealed transactions of over more than 4 million Iluka shares which seem to have been related to shorting. There were frequent references to “lending” and the “return” of shares in the shareholding notice which described Merrill Lynch and the associated parties as ”Ceasing to be a substantial shareholder.”

Iluka shares jumped 14 cents this morning to $4.50 on the news, despite the continuing gloomy news and outlook for commodity prices. Obviously the shorting pressure has been relieved as investors noted the changes in substantial shareholding notices.

It would seem the company’s shares may have been targeted for a shorting raid by hedge funds and other investors and Merrill Lynch was involved. Merrill Lynch’s trading details are here. The transactions seem exclusively stock lending-related.

The sales of Iluka and other shares and commodity investments by Ospraie contributed to the recent weakness in prices around the world.

Its losses would have been small compared to trading volumes, but the fact it was selling virtually at any prices (and would have been one of a few funds trying to get out of short positions in oil etc and to try and stabilise their positions) would have added to the downward pressure on prices.

Ospraie Management shut the doors yesterday on its commodities hedge fund after it lost three quarters of a billion dollars in value in August alone. That took the loss on the fund for the year to 38% and management decided to throw in the towel.

The fund was valued at $US2.8 billion at the start of August, but it seems to have been in a mad panic for most of the past five weeks as the slumping prices ate into profits and then investors funds.

Ospraie Management’s commodities fund was known as the Ospraie Fund. It lost 26.7% in August and 38.6% since the beginning of the year, and is now being wound down. Ospraie Management still runs three other investment funds worth $US4.0 billion, including a special-opportunities hedge fund.

Founder Dwight Anderson said in a letter to shareholders that the sell-off in the fund’s energy, mining and resource equity holdings were “some of the sharpest declines in these sectors in the past ten to twenty years.”

They certainly were.

Peter Fray

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