Is this the end of the hedge fund manager?

2nd March 2012

This Reuters piece, based on a Forbes survey showed that: "The top 40 highest-earning hedge fund managers took home a combined $13.2 billion… The top 10 hedge fund managers made more than $200 million each, while the lowest earning managers made $40 million each."

But the report coincides with a Times article (paywall) predicting the end of an era for hedge fund managers: "Last year was a disaster for the $2 trillion hedge-fund industry. Desperately hoping for a recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, hedge funds actually lost investors 5 per cent in 2011, with some slipping as much as 50 per cent. Investors pulled millions of pounds out and hundreds of smaller hedge funds have closed."

One analyst, who recently left a hedge fund, is quoted as saying: "The industry's gone through cataclysmic change. There's much more scrutiny. People are asked to work harder, in a more regulated environment, for less money. Everything's more serious – you can't send rude e-mails any more – it's death by a thousand cuts."

So how to explain these giant pay-packers? The Reuters article points to the fact that the more successful hedge funds are mopping up disillusioned investment bankers ahead of the imposition of the Volker rule, which seems to have benefited groups such as Europe's Brevin Howard.

There certainly is more interest in alternatives. The most recent Morningstar fund flows survey showed that as risk appetite has increased, so has interest in alternatives: "Other broad asset classes also reversed the negative momentum of 2011's second half. Funds in the allocation, alternatives, and commodities groups all enjoyed modest inflows in January." 

But this is benefiting some groups more than others. Man Group, the largest listed hedge fund managers has reversed a run of difficult performance: "Man said assets under management had risen to $59.5bn from $58.4bn at the end of December. Chief executive Peter Clarke told Reuters: If sentiment is maintained and performance continues, we'd expect it to translate into rising sales and net inflows. Man also held its dividend payment, which some analysts had suggested might be cut."

The big money has tended to be made in the larger macro hedge funds, which have been able to use the market volatility to their advantage. The trouble is that the environment has exposed those hedge funds that are not doing anything very different to long-only managers and charging a lot more for it.

This Zerohedge article goes some way to exposing the lack of imagination in some hedge funds. It points to Goldman research into hedge funds, which demonstrates, among other points, that; "hedge fund returns are highly dependent on the performance of a few key stocks. The typical hedge fund has an average of 64% of its long equity assets invested in its 10 largest positions compared with 34% for the typical large-cap mutual fund, 18% for a small-cap mutual fund, 20% for the S&P 500 and just 2% for the Russell 2000 index." Secondly, the Goldman research found: "Apple (AAPL) matters. One out of five long/short hedge funds has AAPL among its ten largest long positions and approximately 30% of  hedge funds own at least one share of AAPL. When it ranks among the top ten holdings, AAPL represents an average of 8% of single-stock long equity exposure. In aggregate, hedge funds own only 4% of AAPL equity cap. The average hedge fund AAPL position equals 1.6%, given 70% of funds own no AAPL."

As the Times piece points out, both markets and investors are getting smarter. The credit crisis exposed the limitations of the hedge fund industry and created a new scepticism about financial services generally: "In his book The Hedge Fund Mirage, industry insider Simon Lack calculated that between 1998 and 2010 hedge-fund managers earned an estimated $379 billion in fees, out of total investment gains of $449 billion. In other words, they took 84 per cent of the investment profits, leaving just 15 per cent for investors." This may work in bullish times, but not when investors are short of cash and have Madoff in the back of their minds.

Weakening returns have also exposed the high fixed costs of some hedge funds: "While some larger hedge funds are still profitable, many smaller ones cannot afford the high Mayfair rents they took for granted until recently" says the article.

In other words, the hedge fund industry is the same as any other, the strong are getting stronger and the weak are falling away. The credit crunch has ensured that the hedge fund industry is becoming as Darwinist as any other.


More from Mindful Money:

Hedge fund investors want a new information edge

A Brief History of Insider Trading

Are bankers to blame?

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