(Bloomberg News) Mark Spitznagel pushes the throttles on his new twin-engine Chris-Craft Corsair 28, slicing through Grand Traverse Bay in northern Michigan on a warm day in late July. As the speedboat reaches more than 50 miles per hour, Spitznagel's blond hair flying in the wind, he churns up a big wake.
Turbulence is where Spitznagel, the founder of hedge fund Universa Investments LP, thrives. On Aug. 4, while Spitznagel is still at his lake house, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index begins to plunge as weak economic data prompt predictions of a double- dip recession. By noon, Spitznagel, a so-called black swan investor, has spoken with his Santa Monica, California-based firm 15 times by phone to capitalize on its positions to make money while other investors lose it, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its November issue.
At Universa's office, between conversations with Spitznagel, two traders frantically buy and sell derivatives, including options on the S&P 500. The index's 4.8 percent dive on that day is producing a windfall for Universa, says Brandon Yarckin, a Universa associate who handles investor relations. He points to a Japanese print on the wall -- one of Spitznagel's favorites -- depicting a giant wave about to crash onto a group of hapless fishermen.
"Days like today are what we are here for," he says.
Investors are pouring into doomsday black swan funds, spurred by the spreading European debt debacle and Standard & Poor's downgrade of U.S. creditworthiness. The funds entice investors with the possibility of a huge payoff if a crisis hits; Universa returned about 115 percent to investors in 2008, according to a person familiar with the matter.
This year, as markets retreated, Spitznagel's team collected gains of 20 to 25 percent through August for its 11 sovereign-wealth-fund and institutional clients, whose investments are run in separate partnerships and managed accounts.
"I couldn't be more bearish on the stock market right now," Spitznagel, 40, says. "The stock market has gotten stupidly expensive again. Fortunately, with our position, I don't have to time the next sell-off."
The downside of black swan investing can be steady pain -- year after year of losses if a market catastrophe doesn't occur. In both 2009 and 2010, Universa's clients lost about 4 percent, according to the person. The hedge-fund industry had a 9.2 percent gain in 2009 and an 8.2 percent return in 2010, according to the Bloomberg aggregate hedge-fund index.
Some managers dismiss black swan funds as a costly investment fad. Philippe Jorion, a managing director in the risk management group at Pacific Alternative Asset Management Co., a fund of hedge funds, compares this form of hedging with homeowners' insurance: The premiums paid by the homeowner usually exceed the benefit over time.
On top of the ongoing losses, black swan hedge funds typically charge a 1.5 percent management fee and take 20 percent of any profit.