In 1965, the Byrds released Turn! Turn! Turn! The song’s lyrics were taken almost directly from Ecclesiastes and promises: “to everything there is a season.” After reading that Macro funds made an overdue performance comeback in September 2014, I walked around my office singing that hippie ditty all day. While it was an annoying earworm in less than an hour, after nearly four years of market gains, maybe we could all use a little repetitive reminder that investment strategies fall in and out of favor.
If you look at Hedge Fund Research’s top performing strategies for the last 14 years, for example, you can easily see where investors might have some short-term memory loss when it comes to performance. After all, the S&P 500 has taken top performance honors for the last 3 out of 4 years. If you look at the last decade, however, you can see that Emerging Markets strategies have been at the top of the charts for three years as well. In fact, the S&P 500 and Emerging Markets hedge funds have been as equally likely to lead the pack as to end up in the bottom half of investment strategies over the past decade. And Macro/CTA funds, which have been both maligned and heavily redeemed from in past months, were the number two performing strategy in 2007 and 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. Many investors were extremely happy to have allocations to those strategies at that time, and flows into CTA/Macro surged in the 12 to 18 months that followed the market meltdown. Interestingly enough, however, Macro’s top-notch performance was preceded by, you guessed it, bottom half performance rankings in the years immediately prior to the crisis.
And hedge funds aren’t the only alternative investments to fall into cyclical patterns. While venture capital is positively on fire now, it has been a long road to recovery in the wake of the tech wreck. According to data from Cambridge Associates, US Venture Capital funds returned 26.1% over 15 years, but only 8.6% over the past 10 years and 7.5% over the past 5 years. Now venture capital is coming back with a vengeance, with a three-year return of 14.4%. There is even talk of a new VC bubble, which was probably pretty unimaginable just a few years ago.
Even private equity, which seems untouchable at this point, has its good and bad performance periods. With a 15-year return of 12.0%, according to Cambridge, a five-year return of 11.0% and a one-year return of a whopping 17.2%, private equity is clearly not immune to some degree of strategy cyclicality.
Why does this matter? We all have a tendency to chase winners and sell losers, whether they are strategies or managers, and even when we know that investment philosophy doesn’t often work. For example, a study by Commonfund Hedge Fund Strategies Group in August 2014 showed that chasing returns was not a long-term strategy for success. The study concluded that “there may be a natural tendency for hedge fund investors to gravitate toward managers that have captured a significant share of the market’s upside. However, since such equity upside capture is not common or persistent among hedge fund strategies, using it as a selection criterion may lead to adverse selection.”
Investing isn’t easy. It can be a fight against your instincts and ingrained behavior. So it’s healthy to take a moment every once and a while to remember that markets change and that strategies come in and out of favor. A relentless chase of returns is not only exhausting, but often suboptimal. And by definition, if you’re chasing returns, you’re already behind.