This content is from: Corner Office
She’s the Real-Life Wendy Rhodes. She Still Hates “Billions.”
Moore Capital Management president Elaine Crocker opens up about blazing a trail in a male-dominated industry, her resemblance to a certain TV character — and enduring the most sexist manager pitch of all time.
Hedge fund moguls watch the Showtime hit “Billions” with an insider’s zeal, looking for plot lines and dialogue clues to tip them off to the real people behind the characters — as outrageously as they may be drawn. Viewers regularly debate which manager Bobby Axelrod represents — is he really Steve Cohen? But there may be only one person in the hedge fund world who closely resembles the character of Wendy Rhodes, the psychiatrist at fictional hedge fund Axe Capital whose calm demeanor and keen insight hold the place together through thick and thin.
That would be Elaine Crocker, the president of Moore Capital Management.
Just ask Louis Bacon, the Moore founder and CEO who hired Crocker 23 years ago.
“You remind me of Wendy a little bit,” Bacon emailed Crocker the day after watching a “Billions” episode that features Wendy Rhodes dealing with thorny compensation issues at Axe Capital and acting as the negotiator between a star portfolio manager and the boss.
Crocker, who doesn’t care for the show, takes the comparison in stride. Dressed in a black leather jacket with polka-dot cutouts, a short black skirt, and black stockings, she certainly looks the part of the show’s hip, fashion-forward female lead, despite being a few decades older. (She’s 72.)
“I don’t watch it because it’s so over the top that it annoys me,” Crocker says, displaying cobalt blue–painted fingernails and an Apple watch during an interview in her penthouse office overlooking the Hudson River at 11 Times Square, one of the city’s newest glass and steel towers.
If there are no other Wendy Rhodes characters at real-life hedge funds, it is no doubt because so few women have risen to the top in this macho, swaggering world populated by huge male egos measuring themselves by the size of their fortunes. Long before #MeToo became a rallying cry for women fighting sexism in virtually every industry, Crocker, though not the founder of Moore Capital, ran the place behind the scenes — or as one former Moore portfolio manager puts it, brought “order to chaos.”
Former employees say that order was critical both in the past and during Moore’s recent struggles. The hedge fund remains one of the 20 most profitable hedge funds ever, according to investment firm LCH Investments’ annual ranking. But like those of most of its peers, Moore’s assets have shrunk, to $10.23 billion today from a peak of $15 billion. Moore’s main macro fund, though boasting an annualized return of 15.80 percent since inception, isn’t cranking out the heady returns of the early years. In the past four years, it has posted low-single-digit returns, gaining only 1.04 percent in 2017. This year it’s up 1.59 percent through May.
Current and former employees credit Crocker with a steady hand through the tough times. She has what her colleagues call a high EQ, or emotional intelligence. Some attribute this to many decades of dealing with the foibles and flaws of hedge fund traders — almost of them men — beginning in 1970 at Commodities Corp., the Princeton, New Jersey, trading firm where Crocker helped launch the careers of many hedge fund titans, like Paul Tudor Jones, Bruce Kovner, and, of course, Louis Bacon.
“She understands traders,” says Kim White, a former Moore partner who retired at the end of 2017. “Elaine tries to be the wind behind their sails. People need that in this business.”
Crocker came of age during a time when such nurturing behavior was expected of a woman in the workplace. As she likes to recount, her first job at Commodities Corp. was moistening the sponges in the cigar box.
Sheer smarts and what colleagues call a “steel will” helped Crocker rise through the ranks without getting immersed in the power struggles that have taken down so many others. Over the years she has garnered many industry accolades, and this year she is receiving Institutional Investor’s hedge fund manager lifetime achievement award.
“Louis used to say she was the only adult in the room,” says White. “Elaine could always put things in perspective and try to guide the situation to a good, viable resolution.”
White, who was at Moore Capital when Crocker joined, adds, “There wasn’t any jealousy, there wasn’t any competition. She was the mother figure, the person we all looked up to — including Louis — to sort things out.”
Crocker thinks being a woman helped, but there’s something else that’s critical: “They don’t think I’m trying to trade their book. Nobody wants that.”
A JERSEY GIRL, Elaine Crocker grew up in Asbury Park and other shore towns during the 1950s and ’60s — “Bruce Springsteen territory,” she notes. Her parents both worked; her mother was a government worker at Fort Monmouth, then an Army post, and her father was a building contractor — a business with its own ups and downs.
The uncertainty of her father’s work, she says, likely helped prepare her for the volatility of hedge fund land. “Some days were great, some days were less great. You didn’t really know, and I kind of said, I’ll just deal with it.”
With her parents busy, Crocker also learned the virtues of self-reliance early on. “Your parents didn’t sit there and make you do your homework; you just did what was expected,” she explains. “A gift they gave to me, God knows how, is self-confidence. Maybe that was by not getting too involved.”
Crocker wasn’t planning on a career in finance; she didn’t follow the stock market or play poker. (She read a lot.) Like most women of her generation, she wasn’t even thinking too much about gainful employment.
“What I thought was I would be married forever, I would have a family, and I would either teach or write,” she says.
In 1964, at the age of 19, she married William Schantzenbach, a CPA with Ernst & Young. His job took the newlyweds to Tokyo, where Crocker finished her university studies at a Jesuit university, Sophia University International College in Tokyo. She studied international business and economics — not because she had a particular interest in business, but because that was what was on offer. When they returned to the States, the couple settled in Princeton and Crocker went to work at a small publishing company, writing bibliographies of books for university libraries.
“I thought, Wow, I’m on my way,” she recalls.
Soon, though, the company went bankrupt. Crocker heard that another Princeton company, Commodities Corp., was hiring and quickly applied. “We had bills. I needed a job,” she says.
There are few hedge fund careers that began so serendipitously. Crocker landed the job and soon was “doing everything no one else would do” — including taking care of the humidor. She was 24, and the company’s fifth employee.
Although Commodities Corp. is now legendary for the hedge fund talent it spawned, the place initially struck Crocker as an odd academic endeavor.
“There was a three-legged dog named Cocoa,” she remembers, a peculiarity best explained by the fact that one of the Ph.D.s who started the company was Helmut Weymar, a former economist with Nabisco Corp. whose MIT dissertation was about the cocoa market. Weymar had landed $2.5 million of funding — a huge sum in those days — to perform econometric analysis of commodities. The academics soon began trading, just as the wild world of exchange-traded commodities and currency futures took off in the inflationary 1970s.
In a book about his career at Commodities Corp., CFO Irwin Rosenblum wrote that Crocker (then Elaine Schantzenbach) “adopted an outwardly adversarial relationship with Helmut, which allowed her to constantly criticize him in a good-natured way, while still showing him proper respect.”
Crocker says Weymar taught her the value of entertaining diverse opinions. “I’ve always been a manager where I get a group of people in the room,” she explains. “In the end you have to make a decision and everybody has to get on the train, but to have diverse opinions coming together rather than having people just pay lip service to you and agree — that is something that I learned in my early 20s.”
As the company grew, so did her role, until Crocker became the managing director responsible for planning, selection, and development of the firm’s trading, research, risk control, and legal and compliance activities. She was in charge of hiring traders and seeding young hedge fund managers, some of whom came to be among the best-known macro traders in the world. (Even James Simons of Renaissance Technologies came to Commodities Corp. looking for money when he was starting out.)
To find the talent, she says, “we did everything. We did psychological testing. We looked at chess masters. We actually developed a test” with help from a psychologist on staff. “We did it [based on] our successful traders to try to create a model for looking for traders with similar traits.”
Crocker absorbed the world around her. “It was like a Ph.D. in human reasoning, in understanding trading without being a trader, in having all the support in the world,” she recalls. “I worked hard, very hard, but I had a ton of support and with wonderful people. I remember as I was promoted along, one illustrious guy said to me, ‘You know, Elaine, if they can’t explain what they’re doing, then they don’t know what they’re doing.’”
That bit of advice came in handy more than once, as being a woman with such authority naturally came with its challenges.
“I was interviewing a guy for some kind of strategy. I asked him to explain his methodology, and he says, ‘You know what? The closest thing I can explain to you is it’s like giving you an orgasm,’” Crocker says.
It was one of the #MeToo moments in her career, but she kept her cool. “I said, ‘Well, thank you very much. Let me walk you out. We aren’t interested in your approach.’ He was so shocked.” Crocker figures he didn’t realize she was the decision maker, expecting her to be only the first among many who would be interviewing him.
She also was given the thankless job of firing people. Crocker remembers one incident vividly: As she was on her way to tell a man he was being let go, “a very senior person, a portfolio manager, told me, ‘Be careful when you go up there, because I think he has a gun.’”
CROCKER’S INITIAL ENCOUNTER with Bacon came in 1981, when he applied for a job as a research assistant for Commodities Corp.’s portfolio managers, who at the time included big names like Kovner.
During a grueling day of interviews, Bacon arrived, carrying a motorcycle helmet.
“He was dashing. He was extraordinarily good-looking, and he was rushing,” Crocker recalls. Bacon had come uptown to Columbia University, where the interviews were being held, from the New York Cotton Exchange, where he was a runner on the floor. But Crocker didn’t hire him.
“I just didn’t think he would fit as someone’s research assistant or trading assistant,” the role she was trying to fill. “It wasn’t, Oh, gee, he wasn’t smart enough, good enough, whatever. But here was a young guy who would have been a handful.”
If anything, it seems, Bacon was too talented and too independent-minded. “She advised me to go get some experience, form a network, and develop some computer skills before coming back,” he recalls in an email exchange with Institutional Investor. “I guess that took 14 years.”
The two kept in contact, and Commodities Corp. ended up funding Moore Capital when Bacon launched it in 1989.
By 1995, Crocker had been working at Commodities Corp. for 25 years. The owners were readying it for a sale (Goldman Sachs bought it in 1997), and she was ready to move on. Then it was Bacon’s turn to offer her a job.
The previous year had been difficult for Moore, as it was the first in which the star manager had a loss, thanks to turbulence created by a surprise Fed interest rate hike and the devaluation of the Mexican peso, which roiled the markets.
George Haywood, who was at Moore Capital at the time, recalls how chaotic Moore was before Crocker joined. A dispute between Bacon and Moore’s president led the latter man to leave abruptly — and everything stopped, quite literally, Haywood says.
“This was the guy who ran the back office, and the back office is very important,” he explains. That is where trades are cleared and the books are kept. “If that’s not done right, you can’t function. Moore Capital had to stop doing business for some period of time; it may have been a month. We couldn’t trade.” (The problem was confined to corporate bonds, which he traded.) Haywood says he doesn’t know what Crocker did to remedy the situation, “but I know it functioned well under her. She was a breath of fresh air.”
The role of an administrator like Crocker is often underestimated at hedge funds and certainly doesn’t get a lot of attention — except from those on the inside who realize how important it is. As Haywood explains, “Louis Bacon is a legendary hedge fund guy, a brilliant trader. Most people who are really brilliant traders and out there in that way are not the most people-oriented people.”
On any trading floor “there are some volatile temperaments and childish activity . . . mostly boys around piles of money trying to get it for themselves,” Haywood continues. “It’s good to have somebody who doesn’t seem to have those characteristics in a position of oversight of people who do have those characteristics.”
Former Moore partners say Crocker also has a knack for helping traders perform when they struggle. “Even portfolio managers who were at the top all of a sudden for six months stopped making money and then were paralyzed with fear,” recalls White. “She could help them through it.”
Crocker attributes this trait to her Commodities Corp. training. “I worked with really bright people. I think if you were intuitive, you got to see how not to press buttons. You also got to see when somebody is down, you don’t try to make them feel worse. That can sometimes be a skill because often when someone is down, I can find a way to talk to them. I do have a bit of a sense about that.”
This sensitivity is part of what her colleagues at Moore refer to as her EQ.
Henry Bedford, who worked at Caxton before joining Moore in 1996, where he worked on and off until retiring in 2017, says Crocker’s skill in dealing with portfolio managers is “understanding where their head was, being patient with them, giving them room — but also narrowing the scope for error as time goes on and ultimately telling them they’ve got to do something differently.” He commends her willingness to give people a “chance to get back on track.”
Bedford considers Crocker a mentor — as do many others. Says White, “I know people have had difficulties who had to leave, who couldn’t find other jobs. . . . Elaine has above and beyond helped those people.” She says Crocker would even offer them financial assistance if necessary.
Still, Crocker would not have made it this far if she were a pushover. “I think I can be — tough isn’t the right word, but I think I can be firm when I need to be firm,” she says.
Says Bacon in an email, “Elaine is a consummate interlocutor in representing both the firms’ interests and that of the portfolio manager in negotiations. Sometimes I wonder whose side she is on, but in reality she is always working toward a win-win.”
He tells a story that he says offers a “clue to her character.”
“At a particularly prosperous time for Moore, two of our largest and most profitable but restive portfolio managers approached her and announced they wanted a significant increase in performance pay or they would both quit,” Bacon recalls. “Even though we were paying at the top of the pay scale, they knew the joint resignation would be a large stumbling block for the firm. Checking with me, her advice was to tell them to unwind their positions in an orderly fashion over the course of time and pick up their paychecks on the way out — she knew we would be better off in the long run. Neither PM took up the offer, and both work with me today.”
MACRO FUNDS, including Moore, have faced tough times in the post–financial crisis world of massive central bank intervention and low volatility. Moreover, as the hedge fund industry has matured, investors and regulators have demanded more transparency, which has its own consequences.
“It makes it more difficult for people to take risk,” says Crocker. “And if it’s more difficult to take risk, the less risk you are going to take. And the less risk people are going to take, the less money they’re going to make.”
When it’s harder to make money, Crocker says Bacon has told her, “you really have to take a whole lot less risk because it’s harder to make the losses back if in fact you’re wrong.” That has led Moore to be a “responsible” manager, she says. “It would be nicer if our performance were better over the last couple of years, but we have a plan. We will always have a plan.”
Of course, Crocker has seen it all — which is a distinct advantage. “For someone like her to have not just survived but thrived over such an extended period of time in a dynamic, challenging industry — the only way to survive is her ability to adapt,” says Moshen Fahmi, a managing director at PIMCO who worked at Moore for 11 years as a portfolio manager and chief operating officer. He calls her management style a balance of “rule-based” and “gut feel.”
Moore currently has 349 employees, a decline of 20 percent from last year. But the firm has laid off only 30 people. As one might expect given Crocker’s management style, the rest were “leaving to start their own business or return to a platform more suitable to their trading,” according to a Moore spokesman.
Still relatively large for a hedge fund, Moore maintains a flat organization structure and a family atmosphere. “Louis runs the whole thing,” says Haywood, “but Elaine is right beside him, his underboss, his consigliere.”
“There are a lot of times that we don't necessarily agree,” says Crocker of her relationship with Bacon. “But I think in the end we find a middle road. He knows where my expertise is, and I know where his is.”
Bacon is busy putting capital on the line, and has left Crocker to do something equally as important: build the firm’s culture. “I think that’s really what I do,” she acknowledges. “And along the way I empower very bright people.”
Adds Bacon via email, “Her impact on the culture of the firm is paramount.” He cites “a mix of maternal discipline and benign intervention that fosters our firm’s noted individualism and independence, without fear of harsh reprisals or precipitous terminations.”
At this point in her career, Crocker is reflecting on the hedge fund world she has inhabited for so long. “We’re not curing cancer. Maybe we can give some money to help. But to be able to work in an industry where people think they’re growing and learning, it’s positive. The bad side of it is, unlike my dad who built things, it’s all gone the next day, more or less.”
Crocker isn’t ready to retire. Nor has she even taken a summer off, as she threatened to do a few years ago. She says she still has a few things she wants to do at Moore — such as figure out how to give the employees “a little more autonomy, entrepreneurialness, and that kind of thing.”
The Moore president is also the vice chair of the board of 100 Women in Finance (previously 100 Women in Hedge Funds), where she is a powerful role model, says Amanda Pullinger, the organization’s CEO.
“She’s resilient,” says Pullinger, adding that Crocker once told her that people keep asking her why there are so few women in hedge funds and how was she able to succeed. “I struggled,” she admitted to Pullinger.
By the time her daughter, Kirsten, was five, Crocker was divorced— not that she ever mentioned her child at the office. (She is now married to Ralph Crocker, an investment manager.)
“One of the guys — he was married with children — said, ‘I can’t have our staff meetings on Tuesdays anymore because I have to take my son to school.’ I thought to myself, Wow, I am so happy we have gotten here because I couldn’t even say I had a kid,” she recalls.
The 1970s was a different era for working mothers. “There weren’t nannies. It was hard. I had friends who would take her after school.”
As she always has, Elaine Crocker just dealt with it.