Sitting Down With ‘Wall Street Maneet,’ CNBC’s Hedge Fund Specialist in the Crosshairs

Maneet Ahuja. Photo: CNBC/2012 CNBC Media, LLC.

Peering out from under a set of false eyelashes at a pink-encased BlackBerry, Maneet Ahuja, a 27-year-old CNBC producer and hedge fund specialist, looked every bit the harried Manhattan media underling as she sat down at Ground Support in Soho last week.

Ahuja was smiling but deflated. She had just learned that despite a monthlong media push and a star-studded book party whose guest list included such Wall Street notables as David Tepper, Leon Cooperman, and John Paulson, her new book, The Alpha Masters: Unlocking the Genius of the World’s Top Hedge Funds, had missed the week’s New York Times best-seller list.

The Alpha Masters is an examination of the world’s leading hedge fund managers, as well as a book-length shrine to their investing prowess. Ahuja, whose nickname and Twitter handle is “Wall Street Maneet,” spent three years sketching nine mini-biographies of the industry’s biggest, most reticent names. The resulting book, which features a flattering foreword from PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian and an afterword from Nobel laureate Myron Scholes, has raised Ahuja’s profile, but has also drawn accusations that she is a cheerleader for the .01 percent.

Boaz Weinstein, the Saba Capital trader who harpooned the London Whale, is described as a man of “intelligence, discipline, pluck, enthusiasm for his work, and a distinct ability to stay calm even under the most trying of circumstances.” Ahuja christens Appaloosa Management boss David Tepper a “fearless first mover,” praises activist investor William Ackman’s “charming and benevolent” personality, and notes that Third Point founder Daniel Loeb has an “active physical lifestyle that would put many men half his age to shame.”

I’d asked Ahuja to coffee after hearing a steady trickle of unflattering gossip about The Alpha Masters. It was a “love letter to her sources,” one hedge fund worker told me. A “complete puff piece,” a PR executive said. Among financial journalists, rumors flew that Ahuja had given her book’s subjects the chance to sign off on, or even ghostwrite, their own chapters.

Ahuja denied having had writing help, although she said that her hedge fund honchos (and their lawyers) were allowed to review their chapters before they went to press.

“There was no book if that wasn’t going to happen,” she said.

Some of the grumbling from fellow journalists can be chalked up to professional jealousy. At 27, Ahuja is further along in her career than many of her peers. She started her career at 17 as a Citigroup intern, then moved to The Wall Street Journal, where she was a graphics reporting assistant, before landing at CNBC in February 2008.

Since then, say people who know her, Ahuja has amassed a golden Rolodex, in part by being protective of her hedge fund sources and dogged in her quest to corral them into guest chairs on Squawk Box, the network’s flagship morning show. Her ability to massage the egos of the ultrawealthy surely doesn’t hurt.

“I was just kind of in awe,” she said of her decision to write the book. “I was grateful that I was getting to experience and shape these news stories that were out there in a real way.”

Ahuja defended her enthusiasm — “you can’t deny there are some trades in the hedge fund industry that have been pure genius” — and dismissed allegations that she took it easy on her sources.

“I had no need to create a puff piece,” she told me. “Believe me, I have reported tough stories, and I will continue to do so. I have managers who have threatened to kill me!” (At this, her publicist recoils, and suggests she not go into details.)

Among the revelations Ahuja included in the book against her subjects’ wishes, she said, were their hedge funds’ performance numbers, and a mildly controversial, decades-old anecdote from David Tepper, who told her that Goldman Sachs, his former employer, once asked him to make legally questionable trades. But Ahuja admits that she paid more attention to her subjects’ victories — letting Kynikos Associates’ James Chanos recount how he discovered Enron’s accounting fraud, for example, or giving space to a retelling of John Paulson’s famous housing short, which made him billions of dollars during the financial crisis. (Some ink is also given to Paulson’s 2011 annus horribilis, when he lost some 52 percent in his Advantage Plus fund.)

The book comes at a time when hedge fund managers are very much in the news, and positive PR is hard to find. Politicians have made their capital gains tax rates a campaign issue, while industry observers have been zeroing in on whether they actually make money. Last weekend, the New York Times wrote about the South Carolina pension fund’s disappointing rendezvous with the go-go world of hedge funds and private equity firms. The Wall Street Journal carried a story, based on a Citigroup survey, that said that the amount of money managed by hedge funds could triple to $5 trillion in the next five years, even as the industry’s returns generally lag behind other kinds of investments.

All of this is fertile ground for a hedge fund reporter who, like Ahuja, has the ear of the Paulsons and Dalios of the world. What chafes her critics is that Ahuja has used her access to sing her subjects’ praises instead of probing the industry’s dark corners.

Over the course of our coffee, Ahuja grew frustrated with her critics’ suggestion that having access to the upper echelons of the hedge fund world has hampered her ability to be critical of her subjects. The reason she has become CNBC’s go-to hedge fund wrangler, she said, is because she has “no axe to grind,” and because she can get important people to pick up the phone when news breaks.

“They come to me because I can get the fastest response,” she said.

It’s certainly true that C-suite access is a kind of fiat currency, and having relationships with the titans of the hedge fund world can make or break a journalist’s career. The Alpha Masters epitomizes the kind of business reporting where success is dependent on proximity, and the default mode is collaboration rather than interrogation.

And while that kind of journalism may not make for gritty reading, it has given Wall Street Maneet all the eyes she needs.

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