(Adds details on performance, industry statistics)
By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON, March 23 (Reuters) - Thirteen years ago Eric Mindich set an industry record when he raised $3 billion for his new hedge fund Eton Park. Now the fund is being shut down, becoming the year's most prominent casualty in an increasingly tough trading and fund raising environment.
The decision to liquidate comes after a difficult 2016 when Eton Park lost 9 percent and its assets shrunk by $2 billion to the current $7 billion. It was not entirely clear what contributed to the losses; one of the fund's biggest U.S. stock positions was Microsoft, which gained 12 percent in 2016.
"We have made the very difficult decision to return your capital, from a position of relative strength," Mindich wrote to investors in a letter seen by Reuters.
Mindich said he expects to return 40 percent of all investor money by the end of April and promised to try and protect the portfolio's capital as the fund liquidates.
At its peak in 2011, Eton Park oversaw $14 billion. For hedge funds, 2016 was the worst year since the height of the financial crisis in 2008 with more than 1,000 shutting down as investors protested poor returns and high fees, data from Hedge Fund Research show. Just six months ago Richard Perry, another prominent manager, shut down Perry Capital.
Eton Park kicked off 2016 with a modest performance, neither losing nor making money for clients. But last year's losses, which Mindich called "disappointing," were one of several factors that laid the groundwork for the shutdown.
"Recently, a combination of industry headwinds, a difficult market environment and, importantly, our own disappointing 2016 results have challenged our ability to continue to maintain the scale and scope we believe necessary to pursue our investment program consistent with our founding principles," Mindich wrote.
"We have been unwilling to compromise on the business model and investment program in which you invested or the way in which we have pursued it," he added.
The decision marks a dramatic turn for Mindich, 49, once considered one of Wall Street's top investors. At age 27, he was named Goldman Sachs' youngest ever partner in 1994. He had no trouble raising money when he set out to launch his own fund, asking investors to commit at least $5 million each to secure a spot at Eton Park.
Mindich graduated from Harvard in the same class as Paul Hilal and William Ackman, two other prominent investors. He was a big donor to the Democratic Party and frequent guest at the World Economic Forum in Davos, rubbing shoulders with government officials and central bankers.
Eton Park's managers made bets on stocks, distressed debt and derivatives among other securities. It scored a 22 percent gain in 2013 and gained 6 percent in 2014 and in 2015, when most hedge funds lost money.
Last year's contraction in assets was not attributed to investors exiting. In fact the fund pulled in new cash even as its performance was in the red.
(Additional reporting by Lawrence Delevingne; Editing by Leslie Adler)