I had yet another wedding to attend this weekend: My third in four weeks. I may never get all this rice out of my hair. Seriously.
But as I was driving to this happy event, a few questions rolled through my mind:
Was I dressed appropriately? (Not really.)
Was I going to make it before the bride actually walked down the aisle? (Just barely.)
Would there be a reprise of my “Footloose Dance” humiliation during the reception? (Thankfully, no.)
And then a strange thing happened. As I cruised onto the Ashland City Highway, a familiar tune pulsed from my speakers.
“An' I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation
The world's in trouble, there's no communication
An' everyone can say what they wanna say
It never gets better, anyway
So why should I care about a bad reputation anyway?
Oh no, not me, oh no, not me”
Yes – Saint Joan Jett had arrived to calm my nerves before I rushed into the small rural church, just in time for the wedding. To say I rocked those last five minutes of the drive would be an understatement.
When I awoke on Sunday morning, I was faced with a somewhat similar scenario. Hedge funds were skewered yet again; this time in an article by the New York Times referencing a study of eleven pension funds entitled “All That Glitters Is Not Gold.”
The study demonstrated that hedge funds had added little value to public pension funds (in many cases underperforming the fund as a whole) and cost an exorbitant amount, based on the authors’ arbitrary 1.8% and 18% fee structure.
The report concludes: “Although hedge fund managers have convinced many investors that they provide investment products so uniquely profitable that extraordinarily high fees are warranted, our research suggests that there is little evidence to back up these claims.”
Oh joy. Seems I’m not the only one that needs to be concerned with my reputation.
But, upon further study of the report, I noted a couple of interesting points that are, I think, at least worthy of consideration.
Time Periods Matter: Of the eleven pension funds reviewed for the study, nearly half included only the bull market period that started in 2009. There was no period longer than 13 fiscal years in the study (about the time the first pension funds dove into the hedge fund waters), and actually only one of those. For the pension plans that did include the 2008/09 fiscal year, in every case, based on visual interpretation of the line graphs, the hedge fund portfolios outperformed. So it would appear that, given the appropriate market environment, hedge funds can and do perform. So should we draw concrete performance conclusions on hedge funds’ performance during what has been a raging bull market? As we all know, if a fund is truly “hedged” it is nigh on impossible for that fund to outperform a market with its foot on the gas.
Manager Selection Matters: As investors, we make choices about our investments. Our choices are informed by the amount of money we have (or don’t have) to invest. They are informed by investment bylaws and state regulations. They are informed by the universe of investment options of which we are aware. They are informed by the amount of time we have to devote to our investment research. They are informed by our behavioral biases and those of other key decision makers. In other words, fund selection isn’t straightforward. Think about how hard it is to order a great entrée in a restaurant – and now picture that entrée costing thousands or millions of dollars. Get my drift?
No matter how you look at it, each investor has some responsibility for their fund selection. What’s interesting about this study is, again, based on eyeballing the line graphs, it looks like the plans reviewed generated hedge fund returns of about 8.3% in FY 2014. If you look at the NACUBO/Commonfund review of 832 endowments, in contrast, you see that they averaged a 9.9% return from “marketable alternative strategies.” Now, granted there could be a difference in terminology, or there could be something there. After all, I always say in investing, Your Mileage May Vary, and manager selection is a huge part of that. Even among the eleven managers in the "Glitters" study, there is a large variance in overall portfolio and hedge fund performance.
So maybe the problem isn’t the investment vehicle. Maybe there is something that public pensions and others that are disappointed with their hedge fund earnings could learn or adapt from public endowments' approach to hedge fund investing. After all, endowments entered the hedge fund fray a bit before their public pension brethren. And, now this is just a thought, but looking at the largest endowments in the NACUBO study, they’re kind of kicking ass when it comes to hedge funds. Their marketable alternatives strategies returned 11.4% in FY’14, well above hedge fund industry averages and well above what others may be experiencing. What’s the what here? Should we be looking to those investors to figure out what ingredient we may be missing from our own secret sauce? It's not that the pensions included didn't do an admirable job of building portfolios, as each beat the overage hedge fund average, but is there something that could be done (structurally, in manager selection or otherwise) to boost returns?
Fees, Fees, Fees: As I mentioned, the study uses an arbitrary 1.8% and 18% fee structure, even though we know that industry average is closer to 1.5% and 17%, but let’s even leave that aside for a moment. We really have no way of knowing what these pensions paid in fees unless it is publicly disclosed. If they went into a separate account, for example, they may have a totally different fee structure. If they negotiated a lower fee, that’s also difficult to know. In many cases, public pension “big dogs” are able to achieve fee concessions that us mere mortals cannot hope to get.
Does this mean I think there’s no wiggle room for hedge fund fees? Absolutely not. Those of you that are regular readers know that I generally support sliding scales for management fees in particular, based on the manager’s total AUM. But even then, it’s not a straightforward “Off with their fees!” equation. Some strategies are more labor intensive than others, which may require higher fees. Newer and smaller funds have very little room between profitability and problems in their fee structures. As in most things hedge fund related, there is not one-size-fits-all fee solution. Investors should advocate for themselves within reason, and managers should protect their ability to attract talent, execute strategy and generate returns for all their investors. It’s all about balance.
It’s perhaps wise, then, to take a step back and think about whether we have enough data to draw actionable conclusions and, perhaps more importantly, if there is a way to improve hedge funds relationship and return contribution to public pensions. Anything else would be discarding the baby with the bathwater, based on what looks like a bad reputation.