Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Swashbuckling versus risk: a comment on marketing small hedge funds

Laurence Fletcher wrote a piece in Reuters about how some hedge funds are losing their sex appeal. Only a minority of rich clients want a swashbuckling fund - one that has high returns (and maybe higher risk) and takes high profile bets (such as Paulson’s bet against subprime AAA securities or even more famously - Soros’s bet against the pound).

To some extent he is right. For example (and I could choose many examples) Dan Loeb at Third Point is getting older. Third Point may be named after a surf break - but Dan is surfing less than he used to. He is not getting fat but he is no longer Mr Pink - the doyen of the yahoo chat boards and the man with the encyclopaedic knowledge of small cap stock promotes and frauds and the scumbags behind them. Moreover Third Point now occupies two levels of a Manhattan skyscraper - he has staff and responsibilities and guess what - 30-40 percent returns in 2010. [I am not sure that Dan ever admitted to being Mr Pink. He has however admitted to sharing many of Mr Pink's opinions.]

Most of Third Point’s clients don’t want Dan to be Mr Pink or even associated with someone like that. They want him to be the suited well-staffed machine that Third Point has become. One thing I did not comment on in my review of The Ackman-MBIA book is how potential clients of Bill Ackman’s thought his obsession with MBIA was a negative. Some would invest provided Ackman actually dropped his obsession. I am not sure whether David Einhorn has the same trouble - but David Einhorn has a knack I wish I could emulate - he can say the most contentious things and seem reasonable and moderate when he says it. (I think that is partially because he looks so preternaturally young.)

Laurence Fletcher is also right about the business of marketing a new hedge fund. The institutions are very powerful. On our trip to America (to market Bronte) we met lots of people who would be very useful clients if we wanted to increase our fund size from 750 million to 3 billion. We met very few people who would invest in a new fund.

And this is a real problem if you have a strategy which is low risk (meaning negligible chance of true blow-up) but which does not scale well above a few hundred million under management. In that case you can’t get to $500 million - and if you get there you don’t want to grow - making the institutions and funds-of-funds doubly useless.

If Laurence Fletcher is right - and there are a bunch of clients who are willing to bet on a swashbuckling fund they are not looking very hard. I have met more than a few bright ambitious and swashbuckling types. Recently for instance Kerrisdale Capital (two guys below 30 sitting in some dingy office in NYC) put out a detailed report on China Education Alliance (NYSE:CEU) - a Chinese for-profit education company listed in America. This included hiring private investigators in China to investigate their activities and produce videos (posted on YouTube) which supported their thesis that the company was (their suggestion) a complete fraud. It had the right effect too - the stock has more-than-halved since the Kerrisdale Capital research and I am sure the very few (adventurous) clients Kerrisdale had did pretty well out of that one. Kerrisdale’s actions are every bit as swashbuckling as Mr Pink.

Now if Kerrisdale wants to scale their business beyond a few hundred million under management they will have - by the nature of the business - to become a little less out-there. They may have to turn into Dan Loeb. (If they still get over 30 percent returns as Third Point did last year I am sure the clients won’t complain too much.)

Felix Salmon’s comment on the Laurence Fletcher piece misses the point of startup funds. Felix wonders why - if people want higher returns - they don’t just lever themselves into hedge funds (and implicitly he thinks the high returns of some hedge funds of yore came from putting the capital entirely at risk). This assumes (falsely) that risk-return is a continuum. Putting 10 percent of your capital into put options over China Education Alliance and then publishing your analysis is not a deadly strategy - you could lose 10 percent pretty rapidly or make 30 percent or much more - and given the research on CEU was so convincing it was likely to be extraordinarily profitable. I don’t know Kerrisdale’s returns (I have never asked) but if they got 35 percent doing that sort of thing during 2010 I wouldn’t describe it as “risky” but I would describe it as “swashbuckling”. I would also note that it is impossible to scale beyond even relatively small size (100 million would be a limit for that sort of investment strategy). Sure you might get 35 percent by leveraging into a bunch of 12 percent return hedge fund strategies as Felix suggests - but my guess is the risk would be considerably higher.

At Bronte there are parts of our strategy that scale more or less forever. (We could manage billions.) And parts of our strategy (incidentally the parts on which we are doing well) probably top-out at a few hundred million. Its the same problem faced by a bunch of smaller funds (many of the managers of which are readers of my blog).

I don’t know the potential clients that Laurence Fletcher was talking to. I wish I did (and if they would contact me I would be thrilled). If they want unconventional funds they are not going to find them in gleaming offices lined with modern art in NYC. They will find them in some dingy little office or outside the New York/London financial centers altogether. And they are going to have to do a little work because otherwise they are going to have to fall into Felix Salmon’s mistake and implicitly confuse high returns with high risk (by asking why not just lever into conventional hedge funds). There are high-return strategies you can employ when small which are not very high risk. The strategies however are often difficult to scale and potential clients have to work out whether they make sense and whether they should commit capital.

One reason why the institutions don't invest in small funds is that the due diligence for a small fund is as hard (or harder) than the due diligence for a large fund.  That is - they think - the adventurous client's burden.


PS. It's just not good enough to just buy small hedge funds. When you don’t understand either (a) the custody or (b) the strategy don’t do it - otherwise you are going to wind up investing in an Astarra or a New World Capital Management. Of these the first requirement - custody - is by far the most important. If the fund has genuine third parties holding the assets and doing asset valuation at least the returns are real. Once you have assessed custody - and only after you have assessed custody - do you make your decision on strategy.

PPS. This is not a recommendation for Kerrisdale. The only thing I know about Kerrisdale is the work they did on CEU. I met them. Smart, young, ambitious and more than a little out there. Potential clients will have to do the work I described in the last paragraph - I did not do it for you.

PPPS. Of course potential clients should make the same assessment of Bronte too. 


Nick said...

Felix misses the fundamental requirement that institutions/FoF are looking for in a hedge fund.
Often it is simply returns that aren't corelated to the market.
Alternatively it is LOWER volatility than the market combined with market beating returns.

2008 chased out all the funds who thought they were buying high volatility with low risk...

Ms. Mint Green, Esq. said...

Thank you for clarifying that Mr. Loeb never went on public record purporting to be Mr. Pink.

Mr. Loeb's fantastic 2010 performance can be partially attributed to his POT(ash) smoking. He may not surf as much, but once a POT(ash) smoker, always a POT(ash) smoker.

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