There’s a book party at Tao next week, but its guest list looks more like a Davos reunion. Among the yeses: ex-Chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan, Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz, Pershing Square boss Bill Ackman, and Financial Times editor Gillian Tett.
Assuming they show, that’s not a bad draw for a first-time author. Then again, The Alpha Masters, by 27-year-old Squawk Box producer Maneet Ahuja, isn’t just any book. Like the party, the book is an impressive feat of investor-wrangling, a collection of insider accounts from low-profile, high-powered hedge fund managers like John Paulson, Marc Lasry and David Tepper. It’s out on May 21 from Wiley.
During a midday break in a windowless office at Squawk Box network CNBC headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, NJ on Friday, The Observer asked Ms. Ahuja if her elusive subjects would be celebrating their portrayal in Alpha Masters. “I haven’t checked the R.S.V.P. list, um, in the last hour,” she said. “I was advised not to harass for updates.”
Harassment—or tenacity, some might say—is Ms. Ahuja’s calling card. The Alpha Masters, and a related rash of exclusive CNBC gets, including blue chip investors like Ray Dalio and Eddie Lampert, earned Ms. Ahuja a reputation as one of the best-connected young producers in television. Forbes’s “30 Under 30” and Elle’s “Genius” lists have identified her as a kind of Hedge Fund Manager Whisperer. And now, after four years behind the scenes, she’s diligently training to become an on-air reporter.
“I knew some of these guys from a prior lifetime,” Ms. Ahuja, wearing a yellow boucle jacket and close-up friendly long lashes, said casually.
Prior to joining CNBC in 2008, Ms. Ahuja parsed financial data for the Wall Street Journal and turned down a job with George Soros. When explaining her quick rise, Ms. Ahuja relies heavily—and graciously—on the notion of good luck. She was “fortunate” to land an internship on Wall Street at seventeen, and it was “just chance” that her supervisor never came back from maternity leave.
Once she’d assumed her old boss’s duties, it was auspicious that the deans at Columbia helped Ms. Ahuja arrange her class schedule to allow her to work three 12-hour days a week at Citigroup and, later, Merrill Lynch, where it was sheer providence that she was allowed to dabble in a small hedge fund called Endeavour Capital.
It may have been “the luck of the draw” that her first assignment at Squawk Box was to prepare for an appearance by David Einhorn (who was quickly becoming one of the world’s most famous hedge fund managers for his Lehman Brothers short), but after that it would be hard to argue that Ms. Ahuja didn’t arrive under her own steam.
Impressed by her facility with a balance sheet, Mr. Einhorn became a point of entry to the world of messianic money managers. Still, it took two to three years of “bordering-on-stalkerlike activities” to get access to the book’s other characters.
“Maneet is a force of nature,” said Jonathan Wald, a former CNBC exec now at CNN. “Anybody who has dealt with her or who has been on the receiving end of her assault knows that’s true.”
She chased down money managers at industry events, interviewed their investors and friends, cajoled their lawyers.
“You say, ‘No, no, thank you,’ and Maneet just keeps calling back, incredibly polite and incredibly persistent,” said Sallie Krawcheck, the former Bank of America head of wealth management. “So when you are ready to say something, she’s at the top of your mind.”
Ms. Ahuja modestly chalked it up to her press credentials.
“I felt very fortunate to be calling from CNBC, a platform that people trust and recognize,” she said, noting that Squawk Box is “watched in the White House.”
Last month CNBC shrugged off a Daily News report suggesting that execs were “freaking out” over Squawk Box’s declining ratings. The network had always been more interested in a small but influential audience, they said, one that Nielsen’s not great at keeping tabs on.
Sure, CNBC has a reliable audience among bankers who wake up to check the Asian markets and like to ogle Becky Quick, but with cable news viewership down more broadly, it’s the big-name interviews that have the ability to generate buzz.
“The thing that I wish I could bottle and sell is that somehow she has these people in the palm of her hand,” said Squawk Box co-anchor and New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, who stressed the importance of booking to the program’s success.
For example, he said he was astonished to see the turn-out for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conference this week.
“He’s not giving them a new a fact or some great revelation,” he said, “40,000 people show up just to listen to a man talk about the way he thinks.” (Business Insider even live-blogged Ms. Quick’s pre-conference interview with Mr. Buffett.) Plus, some of Ms. Ahuja’s hedge fund sources became major draws at CNBC’s annual, $5,000-a-head Delivering Alpha conference.
“There aren’t a lot of 23-year-olds who wake up every morning wanting to book the biggest names in finance,” said Mr. Wald, who hired Ms. Ahuja. “ When one comes in over the transom you snap them up.”
AT CNBC, Ms. Ahuja’s mornings often start at 5:30 a.m., after a 15-minute ride from her Upper West Side apartment, and disappear in a flurry of news meetings, pre-interviewing and source-hunting.
“Last night I was here until past midnight again,” she said, “but that’s self-inflicted.”
At some point she found time to write a 500-page book.
“My friend Bethany McLean was like, ‘Publishing a book is like having a baby,’ and it’s so true,” Ms. Ahuja said. There’s a delivery date, a lot of anxiety, and some unexpected costs. “Everyone in this building has heard me use that analogy.”
On her desk (one down from Mr. Sorkin’s), there was a stack of business cards with the book cover—birth announcements—stacked neatly beside several economics textbooks, an equations cheat sheet, and the kind of calculator that induces high-school anxiety dreams. Underneath was an assortment of colorful platform pumps.
The daughter of a corporate banker and an accountant, Ms. Ahuja said she has always been obsessed with finance, and has been watching CNBC since she was a child.
“My parents are immigrants from India,” she said, “so it was either doctor, lawyer, or something in finance.”
She says she “fell into” journalism intending to go back to Wall Street, and an intern’s reverence and fascination still pervades her book.
“The minute I got into Citigroup, suddenly I was surrounded by impressive bankers in the financial institutions group, working on billion dollar deals,” she said. “I was of course at the very, very, very bottom, but I just wanted to learn as much as I could.”
Inspired by Jack Schwager’s 1988 Market Wizards, Ms. Ahuja aspired to reveal the human thought processes behind the financial transactions, which she says are poorly reflected in publicly available SEC filings.
“Until I started working on the book, I didn’t realize how active [the subjects] were in assisting institutions during the financial crisis and the huge deals they made off it,” she said.
While some top hedge fund managers still don’t take her calls, many did. She chose to only profile those who were willing to participate. She said she was “humbled and impressed by the level of insight and access” those hedge funders gave her.
“Who doesn’t want to talk about making fifteen billion, eight billion off of their strategies?” Ms. Ahuja said.
Only the most pious capitalists will be riveted by the revelation that, for example, “cultivating a calm mind and demeanor hasn’t dampened [Bridgewater founder Ray] Dalio’s love of independent thinking,” but the book is complicated by what happened after the hedge funders agreed to participate. One of the book’s most impressive gets, John Paulson, experienced a 52 percent drop in 2011 and, to some, recent market volatility has dimmed the aura of genius that once surrounded hedge funds. Ms. Ahuja is quick to point out that hedge fund managers are patient and resilient. It took Mr. Ackman almost a decade and investigations by the S.E.C. and Eliot Spitzer before his short of MBIA cashed out, she noted.
In the meantime, one could say Ms. Ahuja is hedging, ever so slightly, on hedge funders. Asked to name a favorite recent story, Ms. Ahuja pointed to the “Disruptors Summit” she put together two weeks ago, bringing in not money managers but tech founders and venture capitalists like Viddy’s Brett O’Brien, Scribd’s Trip Adler, Marc Andreessen and the Winklevoss Twins, who are “re-wiring” the financial industry from within. She said she wanted to be more proactive, and cover start-ups before the big deals get reported.
“It got a lot of pick-up,” she said of the event. “Jack Welch even called in to the show to say how great it was.”
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