CORRECTED-Big hedge funds fueled Apple's 4th-quarter share plunge

Thu Feb 14, 2013 2:29pm EST

(Corrects manager of Tiger Management LLC to Julian Robertson from Chase Coleman in 15th paragraph)

By Aaron Pressman

BOSTON Feb 14 (Reuters) - Some of the biggest hedge funds that helped make Apple Inc a stock market darling lost faith and dumped their stakes in the fourth quarter, fueling the massive drop in the iPhone maker's share price.

Noted stock pickers including Leon Cooperman and Thomas Steyer unloaded billions of dollars of Apple shares between Sept. 30 and Dec. 31, according to disclosure documents filed on Thursday.

Shares of Apple rose to an all-time high of $705.07 on Sept. 21 but ended 2012 down more than 24 percent from that peak, as concerns about increasing competition and declining profit margins weighed.

The fourth-quarter sellers avoided even deeper losses. Apple's shares have lost 12 percent so far this year. The shares gained $1.95, or 0.4 percent, to $468.96 on the Nasdaq on Thursday.

Cooperman's Omega Advisors fund dumped its entire stake of more than 266,000 shares during the fourth quarter, according to its required quarterly disclosure form filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Farallon Capital, the hedge fund founded by Steyer, sold 137,000 shares. Steyer, who once worked on the Goldman Sachs risk arbitrage desk, stepped down at the end of the year from the firm, which he founded in 1986.

Jana Partners, an activist fund run by Barry Rosenstein, also unloaded its entire Apple stake of more than 143,000 shares.

Despite Apple's stock price plunge, most of the managers likely exited their positions with substantial profits because they bought years earlier.

Rosenstein and Cooperman, for example, both started gathering their stakes in the middle 2010, at a time when Apple shares traded below $300.

At the time, the company's iPhone 4 was beset by alleged faulty reception, a problem that became known as "antennagate." Apple's then-chief executive, the late Steve Jobs, famously dismissed the issue, saying "we don't think we have a problem." But Apple offered customers a free bumper case that was supposed to minimize any issues.

Customers did not seem to care, snapping up millions of iPhones and sending Apple's share price up almost 50 percent over the next year.

Apple has come under further scrutiny, this time from prominent hedge fund manager David Einhorn, who said on Feb. 7 that he was suing the company to get it to deploy its $137 billion cash pile more effectively and halt a 35 percent drop in its share price from the record high in September. Einhorn's fund, Greenlight Capital, has a stake in the company worth about $600 million. Greenlight's regulatory filings are to be released later today. ]

SOME TRIMMED

Not all well-known hedge fund fans of Apple cut ties in the fourth quarter. Some only trimmed their holdings.

Philippe Laffont, who worked under famed hedge fund manager Julian Robertson before striking out on his own at Coatue Management, sold about 18 percent of his Apple shares. Coatue ended the year with a still sizable 643,000 shares.

Robertson's own Tiger Management LLC fund trimmed its Apple stake by 28 percent to about 42,000 shares.

Large hedge funds are required to disclose their U.S. stock holdings within 45 days after the end of each quarter.

But the filings may not give a complete picture of each fund's moves, since only U.S.-listed shares and options must be revealed. Bonds, foreign shares and derivatives are not included, and short positions, or bets that a stock will fall in price, are not listed. (Reporting by Aaron Pressman; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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