Most of my non-industry friends don’t know what I do. They all know that I do research in finance, but to most, my alternative investment research focus is as mysterious as if I was a pre-Snowden NSA operative. This is in part because many of them consider finance to be frightfully dull. However, the primary reason for their lack of knowledge is something called "accreditation."
The SEC restricts data on and investments in hedge and PE funds (as well as other private investments) to those folks that are “accredited investors.” For decades, being an accredited investor has meant either having a million dollar net worth (excluding your primary residence) or an income of $200k/$300k (single/married). These income and net worth standards are used as a proxy for financial savvy. If you have enough in the bank, then you must understand money, the SEC reasons, and therefore you are allowed to take more risks with your cash.
However, even as I type, the Securities and Exchange Commission Investor Advisory Committee is weighing changes to accreditation standards. Some of the considerations on the table include raising the income threshold to $500,000 and the net worth threshold to as much as $5 million. In addition, there has been mention of a financial literacy requirement, such as passing the Chartered Financial Analyst exam. The monetary requirements would wipe out a huge portion of the HNW investor community, while a CFA requirement would take out a significant portion of the rest. For example, increasing the net worth requirement from $1 million to just $2.5 million would reduce the accredited HNW investor base from 8.5 million to 3.4 million people according to some studies. (http://www.cnbc.com/id/101933881)
While I understand the urge to “protect” investors, I happen to think these changes are unwarranted and may potentially have a significantly negative impact on innovation and diversity, and ultimately returns, within the alternative investment industry. And frankly the proposed changes just raise a lot of questions for me.
Why this particular threat?
There are a number of financial arenas in which enhanced knowledge, wealth or sophistication could make a material difference in outcomes. For example, according to one study, 15% of all bankruptcies are caused by credit debt, including credit cards, large mortgages, and car payments (http://assets.clearbankruptcy.com/infographics/leading-causes-of-bankruptcy.jpg).
In 2010, there were nearly 1.6 million bankruptcies. So approximately 240,000 Americans potentially could have avoided bankruptcy if the government controlled how much credit one could obtain, how much creditors could extend, or how well people have to understand credit before taking on such burdens.
Likewise, look at day traders. In order to manage a pattern day trading account, one must maintain a mere $25,000 balance. Yet, one study showed that four out of five day traders lose money, while another determined only one out of every 100 day traders consistently make money. Let’s assume that roughly 10,000 people in the U.S. day trade as their primary job. Of those professional day traders, 100 consistently make money and the other 9,900 consistently lose. Why not regulate this more closely? Maybe require a CFA?
And don’t get me started about gambling or the lottery. According to a Gallup Poll on Gambling, 57% of American adults reported playing the lottery in the last 12 months, with 65% of those falling into the $45,000 to $75,000 income bracket (http://www.naspl.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=content&menuid=14&pageid=1020#LotteryOdds) Your chances of winning the lottery? Less than getting injured by your toilet this year, according to National Geographic. How many folks do you think really understand those odds?
Hell, the average investor can contribute to a Kickstarter campaign for potato salad (over $40,000 raised) or a Chipolte burrito ($1050) which are both completely stupid investments AND utterly unregulated. Or what about Bitcoins? Mt. Gox lost over $409 million for its clients.
In short, there is no end to the ways you can “invest” your money. And any way you slice it, there are plenty of ways that these investments can destroy your wealth. Why doesn’t the federal government care about the “sophistication” required to understand, withstand and mitigate other "investment" risks, particularly ones that have a lot lower chance of success?
Isn’t this a self-limiting problem?
If this is aimed specifically at hedge funds and private equity, the issue of high net worth investors putting all of their cash into “risky” investments is somewhat limited by the structure of the funds themselves. With high investment minimums (generally between $250,000 to $1 million), it is unlikely that a “lower level” high net worth investor will be able to make more than one investment, if that. For some who are early stage “friends and family” money, those investment minimums may be waived, but then the potential “damage” is mitigated as well. Most managers don’t want a fund filled with small investors (more work, less capital), so they tend to limit small investments. The market forces alone seem to be pretty efficient at limiting the hedge fund investments of your average millionaire in this case.
Won’t this submerge emerging managers?
One of the arguments to make these accreditation changes is that no one has really squawked about them yet. Of course, this doesn’t take into account that the funds that have the financial wherewithal to actually make a fuss probably won’t even notice. There are about 500 funds that have more than $1 billion or more under management. There are about 5,000 funds that manage less than $100 million. As you look across this size spectrum of funds, the importance of the high net worth investor decreases as the size of the fund increases. Generally speaking, larger funds tend to be better influencers and squeaky wheels. Its likely HNW investors just aren’t a very important part of a large fund's business model any more.
And for those that say HNW isn’t important to the entire industry, it is true that about 65% of the AUM in the hedge fund industry now comes from institutional investors. It’s also true, however, that virtually none of that is in the emerging fund (small, new, women or minority owned) manager category. The 35% of assets that are controlled by HNW and family offices remains vitally important to this group of fund managers. Without access to a significant pool of HNW capital, and specifically early stage “friends and family” capital, many emerging funds might never, well, emerge.
Why do we care? Smaller managers can produce higher returns. Smaller managers can provide liquidity to parts of the market that are ignored by larger funds. Smaller funds may innovate where larger funds may care-take. Limiting opportunities in the emerging manager space is a key step towards the homogenization of the industry.
Will there be any unintended consequences?
Angel investors who help small businesses launch, fund innovation and create jobs would be swept up in this as well.
Of course, I imagine the SEC cares about as much about my opinion on accreditation as my non-industry friends do. So after today's blog, I'm only talking about beer, boats and BBQ. At least until after Labor Day. Enjoy the long weekend, y'all!