"What Are Hedge Funds"
What Is a Hedge Fund?
Hedge funds are alternative investments using pooled funds that employ different strategies to earn active return, or alpha, for their investors. Hedge funds may be aggressively managed or make use of derivatives and leverage in both domestic and international markets with the goal of generating high returns (either in an absolute sense or over a specified market benchmark). It is important to note that hedge funds are generally only accessible to accredited investors as they require less SEC regulations than other funds. One aspect that has set the hedge fund industry apart is the fact that hedge funds face less regulation than mutual funds and other investment vehicles.
Understanding Hedge Funds
Each hedge fund is constructed to take advantage of certain identifiable market opportunities. Hedge funds use different investment strategies and thus are often classified according to investment style. There is substantial diversity in risk attributes and investments among styles.
Legally, hedge funds are most often set up as private investment limited partnerships that are open to a limited number of accredited investors and require a large initial minimum investment. Investments in hedge funds are illiquid as they often require investors to keep their money in the fund for at least one year, a time known as the lock-up period. Withdrawals may also only happen at certain intervals such as quarterly or bi-annually.
Hedge Fund Key Characteristics
- They're only open to "accredited" or qualified investors: Hedge funds are only allowed to take money from "qualified" investors—individuals with an annual income that exceeds $200,000 for the past two years or a net worth exceeding $1 million, excluding their primary residence. As such, the Securities and Exchange Commission deems qualified investors suitable enough to handle the potential risks that come from a wider investment mandate.
- They offer wider investment latitude than other funds: A hedge fund's investment universe is only limited by its mandate. A hedge fund can basically invest in anything—land, real estate, stocks, derivatives, and currencies. Mutual funds, by contrast, have to basically stick to stocks or bonds and are usually long-only.
- They often employ leverage: Hedge funds will often use borrowed money to amplify their returns. As we saw during the financial crisis of 2008, leverage can also wipe out hedge funds.
- Fee structure: Instead of charging an expense ratio only, hedge funds charge both an expense ratio and a performance fee. This fee structure is known as "Two and Twenty"—a 2% asset management fee and then a 20% cut of any gains generated.
There are more specific characteristics that define a hedge fund, but basically, because they are private investment vehicles that only allow wealthy individuals to invest, hedge funds can pretty much do what they want as long as they disclose the strategy upfront to investors. This wide latitude may sound very risky, and at times it can be. Some of the most spectacular financial blow-ups have involved hedge funds. That said, this flexibility afforded to hedge funds has led to some of the most talented money managers producing some amazing long-term returns.
Risks of Hedge Funds:
- Concentrated investment strategy exposes hedge funds to potentially huge losses.
- Hedge funds typically require investors to lock up money for a period of years.
- Use of leverage, or borrowed money, can turn what would have been a minor loss into a significant loss.
Hedge Fund Manager Pay Structure
Hedge fund managers are notorious for their typical 2 and 20 pay structure whereby the fund manager receives 2% of assets and 20% of profits each year. It's the 2% that gets the criticism, and it's not difficult to see why. Even if the hedge fund manager loses money, he still gets 2% of assets. For example, a manager overseeing a $1 billion fund could pocket $20 million a year in compensation without lifting a finger.
That said, there are mechanisms put in place to help protect those who invest in hedge funds. Often times, fee limitations such as high-water marks are employed to prevent portfolio managers from getting paid on the same returns twice. Fee caps may also be in place to prevent managers from taking on excess risk.
How to Pick a Hedge Fund
With so many hedge funds in the investment universe, it is important that investors know what they are looking for in order to streamline the due diligence process and make timely and appropriate decisions.
When looking for a high-quality hedge fund, it is important for an investor to identify the metrics that are important to them and the results required for each. These guidelines can be based on absolute values, such as returns that exceed 20% per year over the previous five years, or they can be relative, such as the top five highest-performing funds in a particular category.