By David Randall
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Several big-name hedge fund investors soured on U.S. stocks in the second quarter and moved to gold and other bearish bets, failing to anticipate the stock market rally in the current quarter.
Noting the recent run-up in the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index to fresh record highs while economic growth remains weak and corporate earnings are stagnant - George Soros, Jeffrey Gundlach, Carl Icahn and David Tepper were among billionaire hedge fund investors and money managers who slashed their long equity positions in the second quarter, according to regulatory filings.
All three major U.S. stock indexes ended at all-time highs on Monday, extending their record-setting climb of the past few weeks. The trailing price to earnings ratio of the S&P 500 is now at 20, a level at the high end of its historical range.
Gundlach, who oversees more than $100 billion at DoubleLine Capital, told Reuters last month, "The artist Christopher Wool has a word painting, 'Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids.' That's exactly how I feel – sell everything. Nothing here looks good."
Gundlach has been selectively shorting stocks and has kept his overweight exposure in gold and gold miners.
Spot gold prices <XAU=> rose around 7 percent in the second quarter of 2016 to $1,358.20 an ounce, a two-year high and extension from the 16 percent rise in the first quarter - the strongest quarter in nearly three decades - as expectations for a U.S. interest rate hike faded.
Soros, who rose to fame and fortune by betting against the sterling in 1992, has become even more bearish among the "Billionaire Bears" club, slashing his share stake in Mondelez International Inc <MDLZ.O>, PayPal Holdings Inc <PYPL.O>, Lions Gate Entertainment Corp <LGF.N> as well as his entire stake in Apple Inc <AAPL.O>.
Soros nearly doubled down on his bearish bet against the equities market, with his Soros Fund Management holding "put" options on 4 million shares in an exchange-traded fund that tracks the S&P 500 at the end of the second quarter, according to Soros Fund Management's latest 13-F filing. That’s up from “puts” on 2.1 million shares as of March 31.
Put options, generally considered bearish bets, give the holder the right to sell shares at a specific price by a certain date.
Portfolio disclosures of long positions by hedge fund managers, which come 45 days after a quarter ends, are closely watched for their insight into the bets of managers in the roughly $3 trillion hedge fund industry and as a source of investment ideas.
But those bearish positions could hurt hedge fund managers at a time when many in the industry are struggling to keep their investors happy and justify their fees.
Hedge fund managers, on average, were up 2.9 percent for the year through July, according to research firm HFR, a performance nearly 4 percentage points less than the 6.3 percent gain in the S&P 500 over the time same time.
Tepper, who did not exercise call options held in the prior quarter that would have allowed him to buy shares in the S&P 500 and PowerShares QQQ Trust, is cautious about the stock market, according to people familiar with his positioning on Monday.
Billionaire hedge fund activist investor Carl Icahn, meanwhile, had a net short position of 149 percent in the second quarter that was little changed from the first quarter, according to comments from company management on a conference call earlier this month.
The move to defensive stocks comes as utilities, telecoms and consumer staples stocks continue to outperform sectors considered more risky, said Todd Rosenbluth, director of fund research at S&P Capital IQ.
Daniel Loeb's Third Point LLC and Barry Rosenstein's Jana Partners both added new stakes in consumer staples company Coca-Cola European Partners PLC <CCE.N>, while John Lykouretzos's Hoplite Capital Management doubled its stake in health insurer UnitedHealth Group Inc <UNH.N>.
(Reporting by David Randall; Editing by Jennifer Ablan, Bernard Orr)