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How to handle hedge fund investing

Whilst at GAIM, the world’s largest alternative investment & hedge fund conference, it was hard to ignore both the issues the hedge fund industry face and the opportunities from which they can profit. So how can you, as an investor, handle hedge fund investing? Be strategic, be sensible and speak up….

Fees – How can you challenge them?

Bigger isn’t always better. Instead it was the larger funds that had trouble liquidating large positions to meet redemptions in 2008 and this was amplified in Fund of Funds structures. The resulting side pockets and gates, which locked up investor capital, burned bridges. Therefore, funds merely offering access to large ‘star’ fund managers with limited attention to downside and liquidity risks no longer appear to be as wise an investment as once perceived.

A due diligence downfall.  Some funds of hedge funds had exposure to Madoff and other hedge fund failures. Therefore, ‘outsourcing’ hedge fund investment to a dedicated fund manager did not always reduce risk.

Strategy choice – Does it matter?

A ‘typical’ hedge fund does not exist. A hedge fund index is an artificial averaging of a wide range of performance data. In fact, over the past 2 years, the best performing hedge fund strategy has generated 160% more return than the worst. Yes, 160%! Even year to year the rankings change. By investing in completely different assets, implementing vastly different investment processes, hedge funds can perform in entirely different directions in a variety of market conditions.

Source: http://www.advisoranalyst.com. Hedge fund strategies ranked by performance each year, showing the variability in strategy leadership.

Value – How can hedge fund investments benefit your portfolio?

Well-equipped. With doubts over the sustainability of the ‘recovery’ in the developed world shaking equity markets; turmoil in the middle east creating volatility in commodities and the sovereign debt crisis rocking the bond markets, having a wider range of tools to exploit the uncertainty is valuable

A diversifier.  Widespread fear and the increase of speculators in certain markets has resulted in heightened correlation between asset classes, for example, equities and commodities have been moving inline…. An active manager who can provide uncorrelated returns to diversify a portfolio and steady the return profile again is attractive

Differentiating. In contrast, correlations between investments within each asset class are falling. The FT recently reported that the correlation between stocks in the S&P 500 index has fallen to levels not seen since June 2007. This means there is a widening divergence between returns.  Therefore, the ability to differentiate between opportunities within a subset is a strength of active over passive investing.

So what can you do?

Be strategic: strategy choice matters so utilize your views on the macroeconomic environment to help determine which strategies in which to invest

Be sensible: ensure funds deserve the fees they are charging, e.g. are focused on portfolio construction, generating returns from niche strategies, and structured appropriately with the redemption frequency matching the liquidity of the underlying investments.

Speak up: it is as important for BOTH sides to manage expectations to avoid redemptions from investors, and side pockets from funds.

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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