John Paulson’s Very Bad Year

John Paulson, the founder of Paulson & Co., one of the world’s largest hedge funds, has close-cut black hair, dark eyes, and a soft voice. There’s a fuss when he arrives, befitting a man who made one of the biggest fortunes in Wall Street history, as his general counsel and PR consultant jostle for seats next to him. Paulson’s decision to buy credit-default insurance against billions of dollars of subprime mortgages before the market collapsed in 2007 earned him almost $4 billion personally and transformed him from an obscure money manager into a financial legend. Then came the kind of disastrous run that can unmake a career. In 2011 he lost billions.

“We clearly stumbled last year,” Paulson says. “We became overconfident as to the direction of the economy and took a lot of risk.”

On this June afternoon, Paulson, 56, sits in his midtown Manhattan offices, surrounded by his dozen or so Alexander Calder watercolors, which serve as a kind of millionaires’ wallpaper in primary colors. The space is not the high-tech cockpit one imagines for a financial wizard at the levers of the world’s money flow. Rather than wall-to-wall monitors and global heat maps, it’s all cream carpeting and beige walls and looks like it could belong to any boutique real estate firm or law office, albeit one with a compulsive neat freak at the helm. Relatively speaking, it’s a soothing place to confront questions about the incredible power and wealth one can amass on Wall Street, even as the rest of the economy struggles; the controversial means sometimes used to achieve it; and how it’s possible to lose so much money so quickly.

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