As a relatively new Tweeter (Twitterer?), I sometimes get questions from followers on a host of topics. In case you were also wondering, here are a few recent answers: Yes, there are almost always song lyrics hidden in my blogs. Actually, my hair is naturally large & no outside intervention is required. And yes, creating this much snark and sarcasm is exhausting.

Last week, I got the following question Tweeted in my general direction:

And while I can’t guarantee maximized profits, dear Tweeter, I can offer a few suggestions to enhance your first foray into alternative investments:

  1. Take The Red Pill – The press loves, loves, loves them some alternative investments. And by loves, loves, loves I mean loathes, loathes, loathes. You’ve probably seen articles talking about excessive fees, billion dollar salaries, poor performance, insider trading, Ponzi schemes and other shenanigans and, I’m here to tell you, just because someone scribbled it on newsprint or online, doesn’t make it true. 

Take hedge funds, for example - they aren’t all gypsies, tramps and thieves, whatever you may have read. Fees are closer to 1.5% and 18% than to 2% & 20%. The vast majority of hedge fund managers make nowhere near the $11.3 billion that the 25 largest funds rake in, and are much more sensitive to reductions in fee income than you may think (see also Insider trading happens, but is remarkably consistent at about 50 enforcement actions per year (across all miscreants, not just hedge funds). Ponzi schemes have happened but rarely at serious scale (and no, Madoff was not a hedge fund). Average performance of hedge funds has been lackluster but the top performers (who I’m pretty sure are the folks you want to invest with anyway) have generated some outstanding returns, even in the last few years. Don’t believe me? See the distribution of return graphics from Preqin’s latest study. 

Finally, there is no proof that hedge funds cause cancer, despite what the Hedge Clippers may say.

2.   Get a good data sample – One of the key mistakes I see from new investors in alternative investments, especially hedge funds, is the lack of a good data sample. The thing about hedge fund data is there is no requirement for any fund to report any information to any commercial hedge fund database. Period. As a result, the data is fragmented and incomplete. The only incentive for a fund to report to a database is to pursue assets. If a fund isn’t in asset raising mode, has a hearty network of prospective investors, or if the performance of fund is unlikely to attract assets, many funds simply won’t report. In addition, many funds report to only 1 or 2 databases, and if those don’t happen to be the ones to which you have access, well, that’s just tough cookies. The moral of the story? Invest in data. Buy data and gather information on your own by networking, going to conferences and talking to other investors about what and who they like. The only way to ensure you make the best investment decisions is to know what your options are in the first place.

3.   Think about what risk means to you – All too often, we try to boil risk down to a single data point. Whether it’s drawdown or standard deviation, we attempt to quantify risk because we feel like what we can quantify we can understand and control, right? Wrong. Risk means different things to different people and each investor will maximize different aspects of risks. For example, one investor may feel their biggest risk is not achieving a certain minimum acceptable return. Another may feel their biggest risk is losing a substantial amount of their investment. Yet another may feel headline risk is their biggest concern. And still another may worry about liquidity. The list is endless. The important thing for investors is to think about their personal (or organizational) definition of risk before making an investment, then identify the risks in any investment strategy as thoroughly as possible and finally determine if the potential upside is worth taking those risks. All investments involve risk. Period. Deciding whether the risk you’re taking is worth taking is up to you.

4.   Get your nose out of your DDQ – Get to know a manager and his or her team not just by grilling them with a long due diligence questionnaire, but by having a real conversation. If you know what’s important to a manager, what drives them, what keeps them up at night, how they got to where they are, what influences them, and how THEY perceive risk you have a much better chance of developing the rapport and trust that is necessary to any successful investment.

5.    Look ahead, not behind – If you’re chasing returns, you are already behind.

6.   Watch out for dry powder and Unicorpses – There is an awful lot of money flowing into private equity and venture capital and a finite number of reasonably priced deals, great management teams and fantastic business plans. Ensure any GP you plan to LP has the DL on deal flow.

7.   There is no I in TEAM – Actually, there is – it’s in the “A” holes. But I digress. My point is there is a lot of work associated with finding and doing due diligence and ongoing monitoring on alternative investments. If you don’t have a robust team, it’s ok to go to folks for help. Funds of funds, outsourced due diligence, OCIO, multi-family offices, operational due diligence firms, and other providers can be a lifesaver to a new or small investor in alternatives. It may not be cheap, but neither is recruiting, training and providing salary, bonus and benefits for an entire specialized team. Weigh what you can do in house against what you can easily outsource and spend the most effort on the voodoo that you do so well and money on the stuff that isn’t the best use of your time or expertise.

So there you have it: A small list of tips to help with first (or continued) forays into alternatives. Got a tip of your own? Put them in the comments section below.