Asness on Hedge Fund Returns and Buffet Bet Revisited

Earlier in the year I wrote a post about the Buffett Bet.

To recap, “The Bet” was with Protégé Partners, who picked five “funds of funds” hedge funds they expected would outperform the S&P 500 over the 10 year period ending December 2017.

The bet was made in December 2007, when the market was reasonably expensive and the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was just around the corner.

Needless to say, Buffet won.  The S&P 500 easily outperformed the Hedge Fund selection over the 10 year period.

I made three points earlier in the year:

  1. I’d never bet against Buffet!
  1. I would also not expect a Funds of Funds hedge Fund to consistently outperform the S&P 500, let alone a combination of five Funds of Fund.

This is not to say Hedged Funds should not form part of a “truly” diversified investment portfolio.  They should.  Nevertheless, I am unconvinced their role is to provide equity plus returns.

  1. Most, if not all, investor’s investment objective(s) is not to beat the S&P 500. Investment Objectives are personal and targeted e.g. Goal Based Investing to meet future retirement income or endowments

Finally, someone from the Hedge Fund Industry has come out a said it: Hedge Funds should not be compared to the performance of investing in equities.

Cliff Asness from AQR has, and not for the first time, recently written an article about why Hedge Fund returns should not be compared to equity market returns such as the S&P 500 Index, see The Hedgie in Winter.

The key point Asness makes is that Hedge Funds are not 100% invested in equities.  He estimates that they are in effect 50% invested in equities.  If we use beta terms, where a beta of 1.0 =  100% equities, Hedge Funds have a beta of 0.5.  (For those who are wondering what Beta is, Beta is a measure of how sensitivity an investment is to a market index e.g. S&P 500.  Put another way, how much of the returns from the market index can explain the returns of the investment.  Therefore, with a beta of 0.5 we would expect hedge funds to be less volatile than equities and equity markets performance would only explain some of the returns from hedge funds.)

Asness expresses it more succinctly:

“Comparing hedge funds to 100% equities is flat-out silly. Hedge funds have historically, rather consistently, delivered equity exposure (beta to my fellow geeks) just under 50%. In fact much of their point is, supposedly, to be different from equities. I mean that they are at least partly hedged investments. Put more bluntly, it is in the freaking name!”

That’s right, Hedge Funds look to reduce their equity market exposure, hedge it out.  Therefore they will not capture all of an equities market upside.  Similarly, when equity markets fall significantly, they are not capturing all of this downside as well! i.e. Hedge Funds tend to outperform equity markets in equity bear markets.

Certainly, hedge funds are not going to outperform equities in a strong bull market, as we have recently experienced, as they are not 100% invested in equities.  They are not equities.

Well, you probably would expect a hedge fund manager to say this.  Yip, but I would say he is right on the money.

Furthermore, it is not as if Asness lets Hedge Funds off the hook.  From further analysis in the paper Asness notes that Hedge Fund performance has been “petering out” since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).  This means they have not added or subtracted much value since the GFC.

I take this to mean they have struggled to meet their investment objectives and historical rate of returns, albeit they may well have delivered mildly positive returns.  Which is not as disastrous as often reported.

The “petering out” of Hedge Fund performance is highlighted by Asness as an area of concern.  The data he presents provides no proofs as to why.  He concludes that Hedge Funds may be less special than before.

That is certainly something to dwell upon.  Hedge Funds can play an important role in a robust portfolio and achieving true portfolio diversification.  The observation by Asness should be considered in the selection of Hedge Fund managers and strategies.

Lastly, there is change occurring across the Hedge Funds industry.  This expected change is captured in the recently published AIMA paper (Alternative Investment Management Association), Perspectives, Industry leaders on the future of the Hedge Fund IndustryAIMA paper (Alternative Investment Management Association), Perspectives, Industry leaders on the future of the Hedge Fund Industry. This includes more transparency and lower fee structures.

From the report: “Most people today look to hedge funds for diversification, i.e., an alternate return stream, with low beta and correlation to traditional investments. In the past, the driver of hedge fund interest was high expected returns and growth of capital.”

This is consistent with Hedge Funds playing a valuable role in a truly diversified portfolio.

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.


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