The Future of the Global Economy: One Step (ahem, Year) Ahead

Who can tell the future? 

Most people are not that good at predicting the future of the economy and the stock market, but there are quite a few pretty talented people who are. Most importantly, they are willing to bet their money (and a whole lot of it) on their vision of the future, instead of just yapping about it on television with no real consequences to themselves (think Ben Stein or Jim Cramer). These people are hedge fund managers, especially those who follow directional global economy based strategies.

Hedge funds are run by smart guys. They strive to generate attractive risk-and-return patterns for their investors through a wide variety of investment strategies. Broadly speaking, these strategies could be classified as “search for alpha” (e.g. “equity market neutral”) and “bets on beta” (e.g. “global macro”). Alpha strategies aim at generating returns patterns that are not related to the market or any known economic risk factors. Beta active strategies, on the other hand, generate returns by taking positions driven by underlying economic factors. The best beta active hedge fund managers are pretty good as a group in anticipating which of the economic factors would deliver superior performance in the future. If we could only see these positions, we would’ve been able to peek into the future (as perceived by a group of really smart hedge fund managers)…

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Smart Beta ETF Portfolios: Cloning Beta Active Hedge Funds

Cloning hedge fund returns is a tricky business. Some hedge fund strategies, like S.A.C. Capital Advisors’ trading in Elan and Wyeth shares off insider tips, cannot be replicated by any algorithmic cloning procedure. On the other hand, returns for many hedge funds appear to be driven by exposures to latent risk factors not readily discernible to average investors. As John H. Cochrane of the University of Chicago observes:

As I look across the hedge fund universe, 90% of what I see is not “picking assets to exploit information not reflected in prices,” it is “taking exposure to factors that managers understand and can trade better than clients.”

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Smart Beta as the “Easy” Button

Smart beta – another hot term these days… It has a nice familiar ring to it, as it sounds like an incremental improvement over the good old CAPM beta! There is something harmless and comforting in the name “smart beta”, especially after the past horrors of exotic derivatives and credit default swaps.

The brilliance of the marketing behind smart beta is akin to the “easy” button at Staples – it makes you think that there is a magic shortcut to solving the challenges of modern investing, almost as simple as pressing the easy button."easy" button at StaplesUnfortunately, the realities behind the easy button and smart beta investing are not simple at all. Instead of the easy button at Staples there are mind numbing choices of stationery and office products. Similarly, smart beta stands for hundreds, if not thousands, of funds that provide exposure to a multitude of risk factors, either in pure form or bundled with other risk exposures.

The true beauty of smart beta is in its very complexity, as it offers an opportunity for the extremely granular approach of fine-tuning your investment strategies across a multitude of risk dimensions based on your individual objectives. Navigating the smart beta world requires an understanding of all of the options, and it is ultimately your responsibility to pick the exact smart beta products that work specifically for you. And that isn’t easy at all, smart beta or not!

On Core and Satellite Approach to Hedge Fund Investing

A typical core and satellite portfolio approach involves investing in a “core” passively managed portfolio, and a “satellite” actively managed portfolio. The “core” is typically an index-tracking portfolio whose returns are driven by exposure to specific risk factors. Unfortunately, broad hedge fund index clones, that are currently being sold as “core” risk exposures are not exactly that. As I argued in my previous post, these clones attempt to replicate a mix of “cloneable” and “non-cloneable” funds, i.e. they are in fact “core” and “satellite” portfolios rolled into one product, with no transparency on the exact mix.

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Why Clone the Uncloneable? (In Defense of Talented Hedge Fund Managers)

Cloning hedge fund indexes with liquid portfolios is hot these days. Major players, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, BarclaysSociete Generale, and BNP Paribas, now offer hedge fund index clones. But guess what? These clones underperform the hedge fund indexes they were designed to replicate! The clone sponsors readily admit that, pointing to many technical reasons as to why that is the case (and a recent study by Ben Dor, Jagannathan, Meier, and Xu does a great job in explaining these). However, the most fundamental question is not usually mentioned at all – I mean, why is cloning expected to work in the first place?

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Hedge Funds and ETFs

Hedge funds charge hefty fees. Because they are that good (or so they claim)! They seem to provide good returns that have little in common with the overall stock market return (S&P 500), or U.S. bond market returns. But what is the source of their returns? Is it a stream of new and ever ingenious investment ideas generated by the hard work of a hedge fund manager, or could it be some “secret formula”, discovered long ago, and run by a computer, while the hedge fund manager is now busy golfing and fishing? An example of such a strategy would be just writing out-of-the-money put options on the S&P 500 index.

I, personally, have nothing against paying high fees for truly new investment ideas, generating high returns. For example, SAC’s 50% performance fee sounds like a fair deal for “sure-thing” returns generated by insider tips (oh, if only that strategy was legal)… On the other hand, I do have a problem paying a 20% performance fee as a “royalty” to a computer running a formula discovered a long time ago. However, if nobody else on the market offers returns based on the same (or similar) formula, then I am stuck with that hedge fund. And that is exactly what the situation was until recently.

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On Hedge Funds

What is a hedge fund?

A hedge fund is an investment vehicle that is designed to take full advantage of financial instruments, and to pursue any investment strategy in today’s markets. There is very little government oversight of the hedge fund industry. Most hedge funds are not even required to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission and can do pretty much whatever they want free of government regulation. This means that investors should be very careful in committing their money to a hedge fund – the risks could be significant, and so are the potential returns.

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