As the biggest hedge fund insider trading case comes to a close, we are reminded of the risks of investing in the asset class. Ever since generating losses in 2008, the reputation of these 'absolute return' vehicles has been damaged. The Madoff scandal which topped off the year did not help. Nevertheless, whilst clarity in the markets remains illusive and with a wider range of tools to exploit opportunities, are they a form of investment to be feared or favored?
A Tainted Asset Class
Disappointed and disillusioned, many investors are reluctant to revisit the asset class run by managers once hailed as the new "masters of the universe". Sold on the promise of generating positive performance in any market environment or at the very least preserving capital in times of stress, losses generated in 2008 came as a shock. With the Madoff scandal came the realization that even funds that did consistently generate steady returns were not immune to trouble. There is even an aptly named "Hedge Fund Implode-o-Meter" website tracking the number of major funds which have "imploded" since late 2006 (out of interest the number at last look stands at 117, although this includes all funds suffering any form of "permanent adverse change", not just total shutdown).
But Not All Are Created Equal
Not all hedge funds should be tarred with the same brush and although grouped within the same category, they can differ tremendously. From the investment vehicles in which they invest to the stringency of their risk management, not all are created equal. The Hedge Fund Association summed the situation up succinctly with the assertion that "investment returns, volatility, and risk vary enormously among the different hedge fund strategies. Some strategies which are not correlated to equity markets are able to deliver consistent returns with extremely low risk of loss, while others may be as or more volatile than mutual funds."
Losses Were Often Greater Elsewhere
Putting aside the often misleading 'absolute return' banner, the average hedge fund was better able to preserve capital through the market downturn than a regular 'long-only' mutual fund. Whilst the MSCI World Index fell 42% in 2008, the Credit/Suisse Tremont Hedge Fund Index fell 19%, More impressive still were the 21% of funds which posted positive returns for the year (the majority of which were up double digits). Crucially, over a more appropriate investment horizon of 3 years, according to figures by EDHEC Business School, "The majority of hedge funds delivered better returns than the S&P 500 index". Hedge Funds have shown themselves able of generating highly attractive returns.
The Tide Has Changed
Investors have demanded more. In 2008 they 'spoke with their feet' and the hedge fund industry suffered $782bn of redemptions. The Hedge Funds had to listen. What was requested, according to a report by Scorpio Partnership, was "transparency, simplicity and liquidity". Likewise, the Hedge Fund Scandals were a wake up call to investors and much more focus is being placed on operational due diligence, to avoid investing in any future hedge fund failures.
Investment Conclusion: Well-Positioned to Exploit Opportunities
With the risk of future macro shocks clouding the horizon (read: Japan, Middle East, EU Sovereign Debt), the direction of the markets is somewhat hard to predict. Therefore investing with flexible managers able to react to the quickly changing environment and nimble enough to exploit opportunities when they present themselves seems an attractive move. Not all investments are created equal, but some are more equal than others.