The Problems of “Absolute Returns”

“How often misused words generate misleading thoughts.”   Herbert Spencer (British social Philosopher, 1820-1903)

When it comes to discussing hedge funds, the quote above rings true. Mis-sold and mis-understood, investors have been left disillusioned. Marketed as being able to generate “absolute returns” in all environments, and tarred allwith the same brush in a “one size fits all” sell, appropriateness was often overlooked. All the catchy phrases and vague promises have mis-managed investor expectation and clients spoke with their feet. As we look to the future, with the next generation of “more highly regulated funds”, we must be wary to not fall foul of over-promising and under-delivering…

Common Misconceptions:

1. “Shorts” as a means of risk-reduction to balance “long” exposure vs. ability of funds to be hurt on both the long and short side together due to e.g. unexpected deal surprises. For example, in late October 2008 hedge funds lost £18bn in two days of trading due to a costly short call. Managers had bet on VW shares falling because of the global economic downturn but once Porsche revealed they had been secretly building their stake to a controlling share, they scrambled to cover their positions.

2. If so-and-so are investing, then sufficient due diligence must have been carried out”. Just take the Madoff ponzi scheme – half of UBP’s 22 fund of funds invested, HSBC provided finance to clients who invested, many successful individuals invested large amounts…. It comes back to the basic tenet – “Never invest in a business you cannot understand “ (Buffett)

3.  If I get nervous, I can always take my money out. Following on from point 2, without investigating a fund – the liquidity of its underlying investments, the commitment of major shareholders etc., many were shocked when fund of funds, in particular, implemented side-pockets and gates to limit the amount a client could redeem.

4.  “Larger funds are always safer” In actual fact it was many of the larger funds that found it hard to meet redemptions – needing to liquidate a larger amount in the market and slower to implement changes in strategy as markets sold off back in 08. Instead it was the smaller, more nimble players that were able to adapt quicker to navigate the markets better, and able to meet redemption requests more easily and avoid having to implement side-pockets or gates.

5. “Paying an extra layer of fees is worth the diversification benefits of a fund of funds investment – although still true in some instances, many fund of funds are merely “best of breed” funds with less emphasis on portfolio construction and therefore less of an uncorrelated nature. In addition, those that paid less attention to the liquidity of their underlying funds were squeezed when these funds gated whilst they were receiving redemption calls.

What can we do with this information?

1. More accurately assess the risk profile of a hedge fund investment, size and position allocations accordingly

2. Ensure a full due diligence process has been carried out

3. Assess the liquidity of the assets the fund is investing in and interview large fund shareholders – a managed account is not always necessary, the emphasis should be on appropriateness – daily liquidity is suitable for a large-cap global equity fund but a more private equity-type fund could suffer from too much focus on managing flows than managing the money itself.

4. Look for the sweet spot that exists at the point when a fund’s running costs are comfortably covered and there are low operational concerns, whilst the manager still has the hunger to perform before becoming complacent and managing more than he is best at handling.

5. Watch the correlation of the fund to other parts of your portfolio and to the managers within the same asset class to ensure sufficient diversification benefits – mitigating some of the volatility for steadier returns.

MANAGE CLIENT EXPECTATIONS

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