One of my favorite comedic routines of all time comes from fellow Alabama native Roy Wood Jr. Now a regular on The Daily Show, Wood originally did stand-up at various and sundry venues, and made his television debut on Letterman in 2008.

Known for prank calls and “you ain’t going to Mars”, Wood’s best work (in my humble opinion) was a bit he did about career day.

Unlike many of us invited to talk at Career Day, Wood eschewed the normal “if you work hard and study, dream big and believe in yourself, you can achieve anything” mantra. No, Mr. Wood instead chose the path of honesty.

“Remember career day, when a bunch of people would come lie to you?” said Wood. “I went to career day and told them the truth. Look, two or three of y’all aren’t going to make it. That’s the truth. Everybody’s not going to be rich and famous. Somebody has to make the Whoppers, and that’s what people need to understand at an early age. We need failures – they provide chicken nuggets and lap dances, and I like both of them. They are important services...But apparently that’s the wrong thing to thing to say to a room full of first graders.”

 

As I received news of yet another rash of hedge fund closures, Mr. Wood’s words came to mind. Not because I expect these former fund managers to start making “parts is parts” processed chicken or working in a Magic Mike tribute show, but because, at least the way the industry is evolving right now, “two or three of y’all aren’t going to make it.” 

I’ve seen managers that have struggled for years with low AUMs or extended (or even endless) pre-launch woes and many of the folks I talk to are wondering, “When is enough, enough?”

It’s hard to know when to throw in the towel in this industry. We’re always one trade, one IPO, one deal away from fame and fortune. One Thai Baht, one housing crisis, or one Facebook could make or break a professional investor. It’s a giddy proposition, and one that anyone with a Google machine knows can and does happen. 

But unfortunately, waiting for the lightning to strike, and figuring out how to capitalize on it if you’re not already a household name, can be excruciating. 

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. If you’re a hedge fund manager with $100 million under management and a 1-and-20 fee structure who made 10% for investors last year, your firm generated a whopping $560,000 after expenses last year. If you gave any of your investors a fee break for founders’ shares, or if a fair amount of that capital is personal or friends and family, and fees dip closer to 1-and-15, you made 60 grand.

That’s right, I said 60-freakin’-grand. 

And that’s for making roughly 10 times what the S&P 500 generated. 

And since 50% of the industry manages less than $100 million, those firms did even worse, even if they, too, outperformed, which may make those chicken nuggets look a bit more attractive. 

So what’s an intrepid, alternative investment professional to do in a world where 90% of capital is directed to the billion-dollar club and expenses are at an all-time high? Maybe it’s time for a little soul searching.

What’s your overall financial situation? Assume perhaps 10%-20% in AUM growth going forward, along with realistic return expectations. What does the overall firm income look like? Many fund managers launch funds with healthy war chests created at other firms or from other roles, but that is seldom an endless pool of capital. What is the realistic proposition for wealth creation and preservation assuming costs continue to increase and asset growth is sluggish at best? It can be difficult to part with one’s magnum opus, and as humans we do tend to ascribe more value to things in which we have sunk costs. But take a step back and attempt to look rationally and unemotionally at your current situation and the likely scenarios for the next three years. Enlist an impartial third party to validate your assumptions and try to determine if you’re still on the right path.

Can you reinvent your business in any way to improve your AUM base or reduce expenses? There are a growing number of private equity firms dedicated to purchasing strategic stakes in asset managers, have you considered selling a part of the business? Have you investigated all of your service provider relationships to ensure you have all your bases covered, and covered most effectively? Are you being penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to bringing on additional resources, like marketing or operational assistance? Can you team up with a group of other managers to create a cost-sharing consortium for certain functions? Have you shopped your strategy to larger shops that may be looking to diversify their offerings? It is always critical to remember that it running an investment firm ain’t all about (managing) the money, money, money – running an investment shop requires business acumen, strategic planning and smart investments in the firm. Maybe you don’t end up being stud duck of your own Blackstone-esque entity, but you do get to keep doing what you love. 

Can you see yourself doing anything else? I know several investors who say that if you don’t want to manage money at $100 million, you don’t deserve to manage money at $1 billion, and there’s something to be said for that - at least in a perfect world. If you can think of other career avenues you might enjoy, however, it may be time to explore those options. Money managers have done that throughout the last several years, leaving to spend time with family, get involved in charity, and at least three even leaving to start food trucks (The Dark Side of the Moo, and the PIMCO croque-monsieur truck) and The Real Good Juice Company. Hell, even I contemplate buying a farm and raising organic eggs at least once a month. But at the end of the day, I still love what I do. Most days. If you get up every day excited to face the markets, win or lose. If you think your strategy still has the “it” factor. If you think doing any other job would be like enduring the “long dark tea time of the soul”, stick with it. You may never be Dan Loeb, but you’ll always be engaged and happy. 

Here’s to better luck in 2016 for everyone. Let’s hope that the industry changes in ways that make it easier for emerging managers to keep their heads above water and that my little soul searching exercise turns out to be a worst case scenario and not the status quo. If not, you can always think of a break from the investment industry like a stop loss. It's a fail safe to give you time to re-evaluate, re-adjust and come back stronger. Just look at the PIMCO food truck guy - after three years of sandwiches, he's back in the game. And he brought snacks. 

Links to sources: 

Roy Wood Jr. Career Day - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mApfABF-c8

Hedge Fund Fees - The Truth and Math - http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/6/29/hedge-fund-truth-series-hedge-fund-fees

Hedge Fund Food Truck - http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/10/from-finance-to-food-trucks-lessons-learned.html

PIMCO Food Truck - http://blogs.wsj.com/moneybeat/2014/10/29/the-pimco-food-truck-lives-on/

Hedge Fund Juicer - http://money.cnn.com/2014/10/06/investing/quit-wall-street-open-food-business/

“long dark tea time of the soul” is from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Posted
AuthorMeredith Jones

As y’all recover from the excesses of fried turkeys, stuffed stockings, too much ‘nog and an overdose of family time, it seems like a good time to catch up on some light reading. So, in case you missed them, here are my 2015 blogs arranged by topic so you can sneak in some snark before you ring in the New Year.

Happy reading and best wishes for a joyous, profitable, and humorous 2016.

Happy Holidays from MJ Alts!

Happy Holidays from MJ Alts!

HEDGE FUND TRUTH ANIMATED SERIES

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/6/29/hedge-fund-truth-series-hedge-fund-fees

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/6/1/the-most-hated-profession-on-earth

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/3/2/the-hedge-fund-truth-launching-and-running-a-small-fund

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/1/19/savetheemergingmanager

WOMEN AND INVESTING

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/12/13/dear-santa

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/11/16/not-so-fast-times-at-hedge-fund-high

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/9/25/doing-well-doing-good-improving-investment-diversity

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/7/26/the-evolution-of-a-female-fund-manager

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/6/10/advice-to-the-future-women-of-finance

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/4/27/diversification-and-alpha-by-the-book

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/4/20/excusa-paloosa-the-sad-excuses-we-give-to-avoid-small-funds-gender-diversity

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/3/8/whats-in-a-name-what-manager-names-tell-us-about-diversity

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/1/26/dont-listen-to-greg-weinstein

EVERYONE HATES ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS (ESPECIALLY HEDGE FUNDS)

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/12/7/keen-delight-in-the-misfortune-of-hedge-fundsand-me

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/2/2/mfp1glk0exk0vlnqtpx6lby2ba9z8n

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/11/23/babelfish-for-hedge-funds-1

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/11/8/hedge-funds-bad-reputation

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/10/5/dear-hedgie

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/9/9/investment-professional-fact-fiction-the-business-trip

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/5/17/hedge-funding-kindergarten-teachers

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/4/14/are-hedge-clippers-trimming-up-the-wrong-tree

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/3/28/hedge-fund-high-entertainment-an-open-letter-to-showtime-about-billions

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/3/13/venn-dication-what-simple-relationships-do-dont-tell-us-about-alternative-investments

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/2/16/rampallions-scullions-hedge-funds-oh-my

FUND RAISING & INVESTOR RELATIONS

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/6/22/swingers-and-the-art-of-investor-communication

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/4/5/7-secrets-to-a-successful-fund-elevator-pitch

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/2/9/what-how-i-met-your-mother-can-teach-us-about-hiring-fund-raising-staff

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/10/26/founding-funders

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/8/28/crisis-communication-for-investment-managers

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/7/20/trust-me-im-a-portfolio-manager

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/5/4/the-declaration-of-fin-dependence

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/1/11/new-years-resolutions-for-investors-and-managers-part-deux

EMERGING MANAGERS

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/8/17/people-call-me-a-skeptic-but-i-dont-believe-them

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/10/19/are-you-the-next-blackstone-dont-count-on-it

DUE DILIGENCE

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/11/1/the-evolution-of-due-diligence

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/8/6/a-little-perspective-on-the-due-diligence-process

GENERAL INVESTING INSIGHTS

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/9/19/misusing-these-popular-alternative-investment-terms-inconceivable

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/10/11/investment-wisdom-increases-with-age-dance-skills-dont

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/8/24/the-love-of-the-returns-chase

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/8/2/slamming-the-wrong-barn-door

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/6/8/the-confidence-hubris-conundrum

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/5/10/the-crystal-ball-in-the-rearview-mirror

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/3/19/fun-with-dots-visualizing-bifucation-in-the-hedge-fund-industry

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/2/23/pattern-recognition-may-make-you-poorer

http://www.aboutmjones.com/mjblog/2015/1/5/new-years-resolutions-for-investors-managers-part-one

What do you want to read about in 2016? List topics you enjoy or would like to see more of in the comments section below.

In the meantime, gird your loins for the blog that always parties like it’s 1999, even when it’s 2016.

And please follow me on Twitter (@MJ_Meredith_J) for daily doses of research, salt and snark. 

I couldn’t face the same old Thanksgiving this year. Another tryptophan-laced orgy of food combined with marathon cleaning sessions before and after the big event, someone arriving with undisclosed food allergies, red wine on the carpet, cats eating the centerpiece and leftovers I have to look at with the dull eyes of the long married for weeks after the main event. No thank you!

So I did what any sane person would do: I went to Hawaii instead.

There, Thanksgiving was a Pina Colada-fueled homage to my ever present "SPF Burqa", sandy beaches and folks that unironically say “Brah.” I even tried surfing for the first time. And despite my deep-seated pleasure at a) not dying, b) not wiping out a la Greg Brady and the cursed tiki necklace, and c) standing up on at least one North Shore wave, I quickly learned after posting this picture that people did not necessarily share my enthusiasm or revel in my surfing accomplishments.

No, the most popular picture I posted was instead this gem, where a legion of people could see me wiping out like a boss. 

I can’t claim to be particularly unique in this regard. In fact, it seems like the whole world likes nothing better than a deep dose of what the Germans would call schadenfreude, or “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” My full-on, Pacific Ocean-surfing-netti-pot photo was an exhibition of this lovely phenomenon writ small, reserved for those brave enough to call me “friend” on Facebook.

For a larger scale demonstration of schadenfreude, we had only to look as far as the hedge fund headlines in the last ten days or so.  Some of my personal faves include:

“Hedge Funds Lick Wounds After Tough Year”

“Another Humbling Year For Hedge Funds”

“Hedge Funds Brace for Redemptions”

“Hedge Fund Giant Laments Profitability, Will Return $8 billion”

“Surprise! Hedge Funds Aren’t That Bad At Picking Stocks”

“The Incredible Shrinking Firms of Hedge Fund Billionaires”

Yeah, yeah, yeah…let’s all agree 2009 to present hasn’t been the easiest time to be a fan of alternative investments.

But let’s take a moment to put our keen delight in the misfortune of hedge funds into perspective.

Hedge funds aren’t exactly wiping out Greg Brady-style, either.

1)   Yes, there have been closures & return of capital from some hedge funds, including a few large enough to be household names. BlueCrest opted to return outside investor capital, transitioning to a private investment partnership due to redemptions, fee pressure and its impact on recruiting. Avenue shuttered its hedge fund in favor of longer duration investments. Blackrock closed a macro fund that was down single digits for the year. Seminole returned $400 million of investor capital to better align the trading strategy with the markets and protect profitability, after returning 16% on average for the last 20 years. None of these are the spectacular, cry-during-an-MTV-performance, Justin Beiber-style meltdown, but rather strategic decisions we expect business owners to make daily.

2)   Yes, hedge funds haven’t exactly set the world on fire with 2015 performance. Or 2014 performance. Or 2013 performance…well, you get the picture. However, we have to remember, yet again, that the comparisons we’re making are average performance. If you look at return dispersion (here from Credit Suisse) even within single strategies of hedge funds, it is easier to remember that there are funds performing much better than the “average.”

(c) Credit Suisse Asset Management

(c) Credit Suisse Asset Management

3)   Yes, hedge fund managers are losing money, but perhaps so are you. Given the explosion of institutional assets in hedge funds, celebrating the losses of a hedge fund could be tantamount to celebrating the losses of your favorite school teacher, fireman, police officer or other “main street” investor. And if that don’t take the wind out of your sails, I don’t know what will. 

However, even with these clarifications, I am perhaps a little overdue in providing some hedge fund “tough love.” So here goes:

Hedge fund managers: Fee pressure is a pain. Expenses are up, regulation is increasing, the markets are more difficult to navigate and profitability is down. It’s unlikely that many of you will be able to weather a protracted double-digit or high single digit drawdown given the economic realities of managing a fund today and you’re less likely to be given the benefit of any doubt now than at perhaps any other time in hedge fund history.

But what protects fee structures and prevents increased regulation? Generating returns for your investors and doing the right things (disclosures, filings, investor relations, any and all regulatory filings) and doing it in a way that lets you sleep at night. This could be a watershed moment for hedged asset management. I wish I had a magic wand that would make it all easier but instead I can only say, for the love of all that’s holy, get ‘er done.

Posted
AuthorMeredith Jones
Shakespearean Insult.png

Last week, MarketWatch ran an OpEd on hedge funds that managed to insult nearly every participant in the financial marketplace. Hedge funds were described as “dethroned kings” ruling over an “empire of fools.” Hedge funds are a “cautionary tale” filled with insider trading, poor performance and investor backlash. Why, it is so bad that investors are no longer “dazzled” and hedge funds may be as bad as (gasp!) mutual funds.

I read that article with its virtually Shakespearean array of insults and actually wondered where the author keeps his money. Some folks have wagered it’s either under the bed or in Bitcoin, although I suppose there’s a slight chance it could be in a sock in the freezer. (Friendly note: that’s one of the first places that a thief will check.)

For those of you that are regular readers of my blog, you know that I’ve dealt with a number of the assertions in this article before. Let’s start with performance. There are few places where the phrase “Your Mileage May Vary” is as applicable as it is in the world of hedge funds. While there is no doubt that the average hedge fund return was anemic in comparison to the (insert sarcasm here) infallible S&P 500, an average provides merely that – the arithmetic mean of the top and bottom performers (and everything in between).

Assuming that all hedge funds generated lackluster returns because the average hedge fund did is just, well, silly. You can look at articles such as this CNBC piece or this ZeroHedge article to see hedge funds that didn’t just outperform their industry average, but kicked the pants off of the S&P 500 as well. There were funds that were up 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent 60 percent or more, to which I simply say “Thank you, sir, may I please have another?”  (And for those of you that are wondering, that's from Animal House, not Fifty Shades of Grey.)

For more information on The Truth About Hedge Fund Performance, check out my video blog from last quarter.

I’m also not going to get too deeply into the fee equation as I’ve touched on that a time or two as well. I think the last time was a mere two weeks ago in a blog post about duct tape.

But I have to say, what really buttered my toast this time around was the assertion that, in addition to being greedy underperformers, hedge funds have the corner on the insider trading market as well. The hedge fund inclination to insider trading came up twice in MarketWatch’s short post.

So before we start to tar hedge funds with that particular brush, let’s look at SEC data on enforcement actions, shall we?

The chart below shows all SEC enforcement actions across type and year. Note that insider trading is a relatively small category of enforcement actions. Year over year, insider trading accounts for an average of less than 8 percent of the actions of the SEC, with an average of about 50 insider trading enforcement actions per year.

Source: www.sec.gov

Source: www.sec.gov

Now, even if ALL of the insider trading was committed by hedge funds, it would still represent a very small proportion of the hedge fund world. Take the ever-present 10,000 fund estimate that the industry favors: If all 50 of those annual insider trading schemes occurred in a hedge fund, then 0.05 percent of hedge funds would in fact be knaves and rapscallions.

But we know that insider trading is not solely committed by hedge funds. How do we know? We can again check out www.sec.gov and get a sense of who does commit this crime. Some of my particular favorites? Accounting firm partners, amateur golfers, vitamin company former board member, drug trial doctors, former BP employee, two husbands, Green Mountain Coffee employee, and the list goes on. And it’s true that some of these folks made millions in ill-gotten gains, although one guy got only $35,000 and a jet-ski dock. That dude must LOVE to jet ski.

Look, I’m not saying that some hedge fund managers haven’t done bad things. There certainly are hedge funds represented on the insider-trading list, and just today there was an article on a manager that faked his death to avoid paying back investors. But shenanigans aren’t limited to hedge funds and finance. For example, cell phone companies generate about 38,420 complaints per year, in comparison.

At the end of the day, I just wonder how good it is for the finance industry or for investors to totally defame the entire investment industry and slam hedge funds in particular. I am a fan of exploring all my investment options. Attempting to remove those options through “fund shaming” is ultimately bad for me and other investors. To the extent this kind of misinformation impacts inflows, encourages closures and causes qualified investors to dismiss hedge funds out of hand, it can only result in fewer investment options, lower returns and higher correlations and volatility. 

Recent asset flow patterns and fund closures reveal that small (and new) hedge funds may be on the endangered species list. Recent data shows that funds need at least $250 million to break even, and even that may not be enough to successfully run a business. But if small hedge funds go the way of the dinosaur, what happens to structural alpha? Will niche investments, club deals and micro-caps be permanently overlooked? Where will investors look for outsized returns and differentiated portfolios?

Last week I directed everyone’s post-holiday attention to making New Year’s Resolutions for investors. Now that everyone has had a week to digest those mantras, get over the soreness you inevitably felt after hitting the gym (for the first time in 12 months) diligently, and have balanced your ketones after a week of low-carb, New Year dieting, I thought it best to turn attention to resolutions for money managers.  If you missed last week’s post, you can find it HERE. For those of you still looking to make a few investing resolutions for 2015, read on.

Money Manager Resolutions:

I resolve to create a business plan around capital raising – Raising and maintaining assets under management has perhaps become as critical as performance. Don’t believe me? Look at recent fund closures. Paul Tudor Jones just announced the shuttering of his longest standing fund, which at $300 million was absorbing a disproportionate amount of firm resources. Merchants Gate, which peaked at $2.3 billion in AUM, decided to close as assets shrank to $1.1 billion, despite above average performance. Woodbine Capital closed after assets dipped to $400 million. Indeed, during the first half of 2014, Hedge Fund Research (HFR) reported that 461 funds closed, which was on pace to equal or exceed the worst year on record for hedge fund liquidations: 2009.

While many people believe that hedge funds “fail” in a blaze of glory a la Amaranth or Galleon, most hedge funds die a death of 1,000 cuts, either never gaining enough performance traction or amassing enough assets to create a sustainable business. According to a 2012 Citi Prime Services report, hedge funds now need between $250 million and $375 million just to break even, and the relatively large closures listed above make me believe the number may be closer to the higher end of that spectrum.

So, with ten hedge fund firms accounting for 57 percent of asset flows in 2014, what’s a fund to do? At the very least, make a plan. If I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Your capital raising efforts should be executed like Sherman marching through Georgia in 2015.

We all talk about the “business and operational risk” in hedge funds, and I, for one, would include an effective capital raising (and retention) strategy as one of those risks. Without an effective asset raising campaign, a hedge fund manager may have to:

1)   Spend more time on capital raising, potentially taking time away from generating strong performance;

2)   Worry more about redemptions. Any redemption payouts will likely have to be liquidated from the active portfolio, potentially compromising returns;

3)   Lower the investment minimum so investors will invest (and not be too large of a percentage of the fund). Sure, more investors is great, but client communications will also take more time;

4)   Constantly assuage investor (their own and their employees) fears about the long-term sustainability of the fund.

In 2015, make a plan for capital raising. Pick three to four conferences with a high concentration of potential investors and really work them. Get on the speaking faculty. Get the attendee list in advance and set up meetings before you arrive. Have great materials available. Practice your elevator pitch. After the event, have a plan for follow up. Write great investor letters. Polish your performance template. Host a webinar on your strategy. Hire a writer/capital raiser/graphic designer or whatever you need to fill in the gaps. People are already predicting 2015 will be a worse year for hedge fund closures – Let’s prove folks wrong. 

(NOTE: This does not mean I don't think there is still a place for small, niche funds. If a manager is content and profitable and generating returns smaller, that's fantastic, and needed in the industry). 

I resolve to find my own niche, but not tell everyone I’m the only one there – If I read the words “Our competitive advantage is our fundamental, bottoms-up [sic] stock picking” one more time, I will put out my own eye with a pencil. It’s very hard for a traditional stock picker to demonstrate alpha right now, so you must find, demonstrate and articulate an edge.

The fact is, many of the investors to whom I speak have vanilla investing covered. Whether it’s equities, private equity or credit, if it ain’t something they can’t do themselves, they aren’t likely to invest. If you do something really unique or spectacularly well, make sure you highlight that in every conversation and in all of your marketing efforts. For example, I’ve seen managers with great equity strategies market themselves as simple long/short funds, when in fact there is much more meat in their burger. Don't hide your light under an anemically worded bushel.

With that being said, I think if I hear “I am the only one who is long ________ now” one more time, I will poke out my eardrums with a number two pencil. Hubris is never attractive, and it can result in some spectacular losses. Just ask Long Term Capital Management.

At the end of the day, you often need other folks to figure out the equation (although preferably after you do) in order for your ideas to generate returns. If no one else ever unearths your undiscovered company, or piles into energy, or gets on your disruptive bandwagon, you’ll end up holding a nice position at par for a really long time. Not as attractive, eh? Explain why you're early in, but also why others will eventually get the memo for the best results.

I resolve to stick to my guns – This one may be tough. With the amount of pressure on money managers to outperform, avoid all losses, lower fees and generally walk on water, it can be hard to stay with a strategy that hasn’t been shooting the lights out, hold the line on fees to protect a fund’s long-term viability or not branch into strategies where expertise may be lacking. It’s also a fine line between maintaining conviction and riding an idea or stock to the bottom. For the most part, trust what you know. Explain when you have to. But always at least listen to what others and your intuition are telling you. 

Wishing all of us a safe, happy and prosperous year!

 

As we enter 2015 refreshed from vacations, overstuffed with tasty victuals and perhaps even slightly hung-over, it’s time for that oh-so-hopeful tradition of New Year’s resolutions. Many of you probably resolved to spend more time with your family, eat better, exercise more, floss daily, or to give more to charity. Despite what the research says, some of those resolutions may even stick. So before the holiday afterglow completely fades, I would like to turn attention to some investing resolutions, designed to bring more (mental) health, wealth and happiness in 2015. Without further ado, here are my top three New Year’s resolutions for investors. (Due to the length of this post, I’ll cover money manager New Year’s resolutions in next week’s blog.)

Investor Resolutions for 2015

I resolve to not confuse absolute and relative returns – When you profess to want “absolute returns” you do not get to invoke the S&P 500 in the same breath. In 2014,  “absolute return” came to mean “I expect my investments to absolutely beat the S&P 500” or “My investments absolutely cannot lose money (or I will redeem them at my first opportunity).”  

Absolute returns actually means you make an investment in an asset class or strategy and then you judge whether you are happy with those returns based on absolute standards. Did the strategy perform as expected, based on returns, volatility, drawdown, and/or diversification? Do I still believe in this strategy or asset class going forward? If there was a loss, do I believe this is a substantial, long-term problem or is this a buying opportunity? Trying to turn absolute investments into relative investments after the allocation fact causes a lot of knee-jerk investment decisions, leads to return chasing and, ultimately, underperformance.

I resolve to not get tied up in my investing underpants – This probably needs some explanation because I do not want any of my blog readers to Google “tied up in underpants”  - the answers you get will absolutely not be suitable for work.

Instead this (quaint?) colloquial saying basically means that you shouldn’t get so wrapped up in perfecting the small things (underpants) that you can’t get to the big stuff (getting dressed and leaving the house).  For example: “That meeting was worthless. We spent all morning tied up in our underpants about where to get lunch and we didn’t address the sales quotas.” For non-Tennesseans, the less colorful turn of phrase would involve forests, trees and all that.

When it comes to investing, there are any number of “underpants issues” with which to deal. Fees are a great example. Every time someone wants to argue with me on Twitter about alternative investments, they inevitably start with “You don’t have to pay 2%/20% to [get diversification, manage volatility, achieve those returns, etc.]."

It’s always interesting to chat with these folks about what they think an appropriate fee structure would be. Most people say they are willing to “pay for performance.” And in fact, perhaps with the exception of investments into a small number (less than 500) of “billion dollar club” funds, you are.

Since more than half of all funds have less than $100 million in AUM, it’s pretty difficult for the bulk of funds to get rich from a management fee alone. Management fees tend to be, on average, around 1.6%. In comparison, mutual funds charge between 0.2% (index funds) and 2% in management fees, with the average equity mutual fund charging, according to an October 6, 2012 New York Times article, around 1.44%. Not that different, eh? As for the incentive fee, that only gets paid if the manager makes money. It’s designed to align interests (“I make more if you make more”), not steal from the “poor” and give to the rich. Perhaps a hurdle makes sense, but why dis-incent a manager entirely?

At the end of the day, this laser focus on fees hampers good investment decision-making. We run the risk of focusing too much on what we don’t want others to have than on what we might get in return (diversification, a truly unique or niche strategy, reduced volatility, expertise, returns). We run the risk of negative selection bias (with managers and with strategies) if we choose only low fee funds. We also risk dis-incentivizing smaller, niche-y and more labor-intensive start-up funds, which could completely homogenize the investment universe.

Is there room for fee negotiation? Of course. I am a big proponent of sliding scales based on allocation size or overall AUM. However, making fees your sole decision point is, I believe, penny wise and pound foolish over time and will leave you, well, tied up in your underpants.

I resolve to take a holistic approach to my portfolio – Say this with me three times “I will not chase returns in 2015. I will not chase returns in 2015. I will not chase returns in 2015.”

Why should auld performance be forgot? Let’s look at managed futures/commodity trading advisors. It hasn’t been an easy ride for macro/futures funds. In 2012, they were the worst performing strategy according to HFR. In 2013, they were edged out of last place in HFRs report by the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, but still under performed all other hedged strategies. The last two years saw heavy redemptions, with eVestment reporting outflows from Managed Futures funds for 26 of the last 27 months.

And in 2014? Managed Futures killed it.

Early estimates from Newedge show that Managed Futures funds returned an average of 15.2% in 2014. January 2015 predictions are that Managed Futures will either win or place amongst top strategies for 2014.

It’s always tempting to dress for yesterday’s weather, but savvy investors look not just at what’s performed well, but where there are future opportunities and potential pitfalls. Even an up-trending market, maybe especially in an up-trending market, it’s important to look to out-of-favor and diversifying strategies, niche players and contrarians to create a truly “all weather” portfolio.

Stay tuned for money manager resolutions next week, and in the meantime, best wishes for a Happy Investing New Year.

Posted
AuthorMeredith Jones

In case you missed any of my snappy, snarky blogs in 2014, here is a quick reference guide (by topic) so you can catch up while you gear up for 2015. My blog will return with new content next Tuesday – starting with my "New Year’s Resolutions for Managers and Investors."

“How To” Marketing Blogs

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/12/8/anatomy-of-a-tear-sheet

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/11/12/emerging-manager-2015-travel-planner

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/10/21/conference-savvy-for-investment-managers

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/9/11/ten-commandments-for-pitch-book-salvation

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/7/18/emerging-managers-the-pitch-is-back

Risk

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/11/10/look-both-ways

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/11/3/the-honey-badger

General Alternative Investing

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/10/25/earworms-and-investing

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/10/7/alternative-investment-good-newsbad-news

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/9/17/pay-what

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/7/21/investing-and-the-law-of-unintended-consequences

 “The Truth About” Animated Blogs – Debunking Hedge Fund Myths

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/10/13/the-truth-about-hedge-fund-correlations

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/9/6/the-truth-about-hedge-fund-performance

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/8/8/the-truth-behind-hedge-fund-failures

Diversity Investing

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/12/8/getting-an-edge-in-private-equity-and-venture-capital

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/11/21/the-simple-case-for-emerging-managers

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/9/29/mi-alpha-pi-a-look-at-the-sources-of-alpha

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/7/21/affirmative-investing-putting-diverse-into-diversification

Private Equity and Venture Capital

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/12/8/getting-an-edge-in-private-equity-and-venture-capital

Emerging Managers

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/11/21/the-simple-case-for-emerging-managers

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/11/12/emerging-manager-2015-travel-planner

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/9/29/mi-alpha-pi-a-look-at-the-sources-of-alpha

http://www.aboutmjones.com/blog/2014/8/25/submerging-managers

Throughout my childhood I owned and rode a bike. In the 70s and 80s, no one gave two figs whether I did so wearing a helmet or not. Seriously, we drank out of the garden hose and trick or treated at houses where we didn’t know people, too. Those were wild and crazy years.

In the 1990’s, however, someone decreed that biking was entirely too dangerous to be attempted without a helmet. I promptly stopped biking. For those of you that have met me, or who have even seen my picture, you probably recall one critical fact about my appearance: I have Big Hair Syndrome.’ And it ain’t fitting under a bike helmet.

Flash forward 20 years and we’re discovering some interesting facts about the bicycle helmet craze. In places where bicycle helmets were required by law, bike trips decreased by 30-40% across all demographic groups and by 80% across secondary school aged girls.

Unfortunately, when people gave up their bikes, they also gave up the health benefits of riding. One study by the Brits suggested that the health benefits (in terms of increased longevity) of riding outweighed the risk of injury by 20:1. A study done in Barcelona put this figure at 77:1. In Australia, they found 16,000 premature deaths caused by lack of physical activity dwarfed the roughly 40 cycling fatalities that occurred each year.

And that’s the curious thing about risk. You can focus on a single risk (in the case of biking, that a head-on collision will occur at 12.5 mph) to the exclusion of all else and actually increase your risk of other types of injury.

This is especially true in investments, where there is no single definition of risk. There are a multitude of risks against which to guard, and most of them have corresponding risks they introduce. For example, if you maximize the risk of illiquidity (the risk that you can’t get to your money when you need it) you may compromise returns. Private equity has been the best performing strategy over the last 10 years, but locks up capital for 5-10 years depending on the fund. Likewise, venture capital, which has been on fire for the last few years, has a 10 plus year lock up.  Requiring high liquidity restricts the types of investments you can make, which can impede diversification. More liquid investment structures can have lower returns than less liquid investments because they allow for people to trade at exactly the wrong times. Don’t you know someone who sold his or her mutual funds or index funds at the exact bottom of the market? In addition, there can also be a lower premium on more liquid instruments.

Or consider headline risk. Remember the Chicago Art Institute and Integral Capital? When Integral blew up and the Art Institute was a large, and the only, institutional investor in the fund, the headlines abounded. Since that time, there’s been an acknowledged risk of being in the headlines for losing money. For this reason, many investors stick to the same small group of funds so that they’re not alone should the ‘fit hit the shan.’ Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of smaller, less-well-known managers in the cold, and can compromise returns as well.  It also increases concentration in a small number of managers, funds and strategies.

And what about fee risks? Being ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ can block access to some of the most successful (read: non-negotiable) managers and funds. It can also cause investors to eschew entire asset classes (private equity, hedge funds) increasing correlations and concentrations and reducing diversification. Or what about the risk of not beating a benchmark like the S&P 500? Chasing returns is not very productive in the long run, and it can cause investors to take unnecessary risks in order to beat a rising benchmark. It’s also difficult to outperform on both the up- and down-side, so targeting outsize bull market returns can lead to bear market catastrophes.

In short, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Protect yourself single-mindedly from one risk, and you just increase your odds of obtaining a different type of injury.

 

 

Posted
AuthorMeredith Jones

Good News

According to HFR, emerging managers performed best during last 12 months, gaining 11.3% through 1H2014.

 

Diversity funds (women and minoirites have outperformed the HF universe at large during the last 12 months, gaining 11.1% through 1H2014

 

Marco/CTA funds led performance in August 2014. The beginning of a comeback?

 

Pattern recognition helps PE and VC firms recognize successful investments?

 

Seven high quality hedge fund start ups launching in London

 

CALPERS sticking with Private Equity despite "complexity and fees."

 

Companies founded by women yeild 12% more for their VCs and use 1/3 less capital

 

IFK will welcome two women to the stage in 2014, Nehal Chopra and Nancy Prial.

 

Hedge fund liquidations declined in 2Q2014 according to HFR.

Skill is back? Fed says "moderately active" outperforms passive investments.

NY Common's equity hedge managers exhibit "above averages stock selection skill.

Bad News

The largest, most established U.S. based hedge funds control more assets than ever before, with $1.8 trillion as of July 2014.

 

Many women and minority led hedge funds continue to struggle with AUM, and therefore face the same fund flow problems as other emerging funds.

 

156 trend following CTAs liquidated, the first decline in the number of CTAs since 2005.

 

But keeps VCs from hiring women & minority staff and investing in diverse founders?

 

Not a single female manager listed among them.

 

CALPERS decision to exit hedge funds used as a club in the fee war.

 

Women run companies received just $1.5b out of a possible $50.8 billion from VC firms

 

In the previous five years, only one woman, Meredity Whitney, had been included.

 

Trailing 12 month liquidiations was still the highest it has been since 2009.

Blackrock research shows "alpha trades" don't work.

Articles on HFs still act as if beating the S&P 500 is relevant.

In Nashville, we have a weekly paper called “The Contributor” that is sold exclusively by badged homeless individuals on various street corners around town. The paper costs $2, and I make it a point to stop and buy one once a week or so. Now before the bleeding heart liberal accusations start flying, let me explain. “The Contributor” contains some of the world’s best advice couched in its “Hoboscope,” written by one Mr. Mysterio. It’s worth the price of admission every time.

In a recent Hoboscope, Mr. Mysterio provided the following nugget: “Assuming the worst will happen might make you cautious, but it never really makes you safe.” In investing, at least, truer words may never have been spoken.

We all know investors are motivated by fear and greed. I would postulate that our fear wins every time. Maybe it’s the fear of losing money. Perhaps it’s the fear of not keeping up with investing peers. It could be the fear of headline risk, or of paying “too much” for an investment. But our fears feed our investment decision-making, creating cautious investors who somehow remain far from safe.

Take me, for example. For the last several months I have been sniffing disaster on the markets like a dog with his nose out the car window. Having lived through LTCM, the tech wreck and 2008 as a professional investor, my thoughts often fly to all the bad things that can happen to my little nest egg. At the moment, and for much of recent history, I’m primarily in cash. In the meantime, however, I’ve missed significant market gains, which compromises both my current and future earnings. I’m certainly cautious, and I’ve avoided my worst-case scenario, but I haven’t made my financial situation significantly safer due to that particular trade.

Look at the institutional investor community. One of their greatest fears is that of headline risk a la the Art Institute of Chicago and Integral Investments. As a result, many choose to pile their assets into a very small number of large and established managers (the 500 or so that contain 90% plus of the hedge fund AUM).  Studies, including my own from 2006-2011, Preqin and eVestment, have shown that smaller funds tend to outperform their largest counterparts cumulatively and across more time periods, and that new funds have outperformed cumulatively and across all time periods.  However, just like no one ever got fired for buying IBM, it’s unlikely you’ll be fired for investing in Bridgewater or Paulson. But does sub-optimizing returns in a world of growing liabilities truly protect us, or does it just spare us the humiliation and/or hard work of investing in or potentially being wrong about a smaller or newer fund?

And finally, think about the investors that remain all too focused on fees. Overpaying for an investment is a capital crime for a host of investors. They hope to simultaneously optimize returns by saving a few basis points and avoid the headline describing how much they paid their portfolio managers last year. Unfortunately, their fear can result in negative selection bias (only investing with lower cost funds or funds who will cut fees), going direct in an investment arena where they may not have sufficient expertise, or eschewing certain investments altogether. The illusion of safety is created, where their caution may in fact be creating its own set of risks.

Regrettably, I can’t tell you how to solve this conundrum. Let’s face it: I’m no Mr. Mysterio. I can only advise that when we think through our worst case investment scenario, we focus on all of the factors that need to be in place to make us truly “safe.” Not just on the one or two problems that keep us up at night.