Hedge funds refer to funds that can use one or more alternative investment strategies, including hedging against market downturns, investing in asset classes such as currencies or distressed securities, and utilizing return-enhancing tools such as leverage, derivatives, and arbitrage.
At a time when world stock markets appear to have reached excessive valuations and may be due for further correction, hedge funds provide a viable alternative to investors seeking capital appreciation as well as capital preservation in bear markets. The vast majority of hedge funds make consistency of return, rather than magnitude, their primary goal.
It is important to understand the differences between the various hedge fund strategies because all hedge funds are not the same -- 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.
Key characteristics of hedge funds
Many, but not all, hedge fund strategies tend to hedge against downturns in the markets being traded. Hedge funds are flexible in their investment options (can use short selling, leverage, derivatives such as puts, calls, options, futures, etc.). Hedge funds benefit by heavily weighting hedge fund managers’ remuneration towards performance incentives, thus attracting the best brains in the investment business.
Facts about hedge funds
Estimated to be a $2 trillion industry and growing every year, with approximately 10,000 active hedge funds.
Includes a variety of investment strategies, some of which use leverage and derivatives while others are more conservative and employ little or no leverage. Many hedge fund strategies seek to reduce market risk specifically by shorting equities or derivatives.
Most hedge funds are highly specialized, relying on the specific expertise of the manager or management team.
Performance of many hedge fund strategies, particularly relative value strategies, is not dependent on the direction of the bond or equity markets -- unlike conventional equity or mutual funds (unit trusts), which are generally 100% exposed to market risk.
Many hedge fund strategies, particularly arbitrage strategies, are limited as to how much capital they can successfully employ before returns diminish. As a result, many successful hedge fund managers limit the amount of capital they will accept.
Hedge fund managers are generally highly professional, disciplined and diligent.
Their returns over a sustained period of time have outperformed standard equity and bond indexes with less volatility and less risk of loss than equities.
Beyond the averages, there are some truly outstanding performers.
Investing in hedge funds tends to be favored by more sophisticated investors, including many Swiss and other private banks, who have lived through, and understand the consequences of, major stock market corrections. Many endowments and pension funds allocate assets to hedge funds.
Popular hedge fund strategies
The popular misconception is that all hedge funds are volatile -- that they all use global macro strategies and place large directional bets on stocks, currencies, bonds, commodities, and gold, while using lots of leverage. In reality, less than 5% of hedge funds are global macro funds. Most hedge funds use derivatives only for hedging or don't use derivatives at all, and many use no leverage.
Invests in equities expected to experience acceleration in growth of earnings per share. Generally high P/E ratios, low or no dividends; often smaller and micro cap stocks which are expected to experience rapid growth. Includes sector specialist funds such as technology, banking, or biotechnology. Hedges by shorting equities where earnings disappointment is expected or by shorting stock indexes. Tends to be "long-biased." Expected Volatility: High
Buys equity, debt, or trade claims at deep discounts of companies in or facing bankruptcy or reorganization. Profits from the market's lack of understanding of the true value of the deeply discounted securities and because the majority of institutional investors cannot own below investment grade securities. (This selling pressure creates the deep discount.) Results generally not dependent on the direction of the markets.
Expected Volatility: Low - Moderate
For more information, view article on distressed securities investing.
Invests in equity or debt of emerging (less mature) markets which tend to have higher inflation and volatile growth. Short selling is not permitted in many emerging markets, and, therefore, effective hedging is often not available, although Brady debt can be partially hedged via U.S. Treasury futures and currency markets. Expected Volatility: Very High
Fund of Funds
Mixes and matches hedge funds and other pooled investment vehicles. This blending of different strategies and asset classes aims to provide a more stable long-term investment return than any of the individual funds. Returns, risk, and volatility can be controlled by the mix of underlying strategies and funds. Capital preservation is generally an important consideration. Volatility depends on the mix and ratio of strategies employed. Expected Volatility: Low - Moderate
Invests with primary focus on yield or current income rather than solely on capital gains. May utilize leverage to buy bonds and sometimes fixed income derivatives in order to profit from principal appreciation and interest income. Expected Volatility: Low
For more information, view article on special-situations fixed-income investing.
Aims to profit from changes in global economies, typically brought about by shifts in government policy which impact interest rates, in turn affecting currency, stock, and bond markets. Participates in all major markets -- equities, bonds, currencies and commodities -- though not always at the same time. Uses leverage and derivatives to accentuate the impact of market moves. Utilizes hedging, but leveraged directional bets tend to make the largest impact on performance. Expected Volatility: Very High
Market Neutral - Arbitrage
Attempts to hedge out most market risk by taking offsetting positions, often in different securities of the same issuer. For example, can be long convertible bonds and short the underlying issuers equity. May also use futures to hedge out interest rate risk. Focuses on obtaining returns with low or no correlation to both the equity and bond markets. These relative value strategies include fixed income arbitrage, mortgage backed securities, capital structure arbitrage, and closed-end fund arbitrage. Expected Volatility: Low
For more information, view article on distressed securities investing.
Market Neutral - Securities Hedging
Invests equally in long and short equity portfolios generally in the same sectors of the market. Market risk is greatly reduced, but effective stock analysis and stock picking is essential to obtaining meaningful results. Leverage may be used to enhance returns. Usually low or no correlation to the market. Sometimes uses market index futures to hedge out systematic (market) risk. Relative benchmark index usually T-bills. Expected Volatility: Low
Allocates assets among different asset classes depending on the manager's view of the economic or market outlook. Portfolio emphasis may swing widely between asset classes. Unpredictability of market movements and the difficulty of timing entry and exit from markets adds to the volatility of this strategy. Expected Volatility: High
Investment theme changes from strategy to strategy as opportunities arise to profit from events such as IPOs, sudden price changes often caused by an interim earnings disappointment, hostile bids, and other event-driven opportunities. May utilize several of these investing styles at a given time and is not restricted to any particular investment approach or asset class. Expected Volatility: Variable
Investment approach is diversified by employing various strategies simultaneously to realize short- and long-term gains. Other strategies may include systems trading such as trend following and various diversified technical strategies. This style of investing allows the manager to overweight or underweight different strategies to best capitalize on current investment opportunities. Expected Volatility: Variable
Sells securities short in anticipation of being able to rebuy them at a future date at a lower price due to the manager's assessment of the overvaluation of the securities, or the market, or in anticipation of earnings disappointments often due to accounting irregularities, new competition, change of management, etc. Often used as a hedge to offset long-only portfolios and by those who feel the market is approaching a bearish cycle. High risk. Expected Volatility: Very High
Invests in event-driven situations such as mergers, hostile takeovers, reorganizations, or leveraged buy outs. May involve simultaneous purchase of stock in companies being acquired, and the sale of stock in its acquirer, hoping to profit from the spread between the current market price and the ultimate purchase price of the company. May also utilize derivatives to leverage returns and to hedge out interest rate and/or market risk. Results generally not dependent on direction of market. Expected Volatility: Moderate
For more information, view article on merger arbitrage.
Invests in securities perceived to be selling at deep discounts to their intrinsic or potential worth. Such securities may be out of favour or underfollowed by analysts. Long-term holding, patience, and strong discipline are often required until the ultimate value is recognized by the market. Expected Volatility: Low - Moderate
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