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Hedge fund strategy

Time is not money. Technology is money. The best way to predict the future is to invest in it. The only certainty is change. Good hedge funds are inventing better ways to make money and disrupting the long only world that has failed people so dismally. NEW ideas have changed OLD strategies.

Creative destruction applies to investment innovation. There has been plenty of Darwinian natural selection in fund performance and survival of the fittest. Past returns are not predictive for future returns and market evolution means reliance on history is NOT applicable going forward. Investment technology benefits people just like other technologies so why ignore NEW things and hope to rely on the OLD ways?

The World Economic Forum in Davos seemed rather subdued but then the REAL action was elsewhere. Hedge fund managers were at their desks with no time to head for the Alps when there were mountainous trading opportunities and valleys of risks to negotiate. Sometimes the forum provides an end-of-party short sale signal like private equity in 2007 or dotcom stocks in 2000 but little irrational exuberance this time. I was hoping there would be another "obvious, no-brainer, definitely going up, can't lose" meme so I could short sell it.

Monetary policy should also take account of how globalization and capital flows have CHANGED the game. Economics is about maximizing the use of scarce resources and that includes how best to put money to work. The optimal utilization and protection investors' of capital are key to maintaining economic well-being. People respond to economic incentives. Performance fees INCENTIVIZE good fund managers to do a good job, work to MINIMIZE losses and control risks.

High compensation attracts the best people to set up and join the best investment firms. Responsible investing requires having the most skilled portfolio managers and traders taking care of your money. The 2 and 20 versus 0.20 fee debate is an example of how incentives lead to better products that more closely match INVESTOR needs. Index funds and "cheap" long only funds cost investors TOO much in bear markets. Pay minimum wage to fund managers and receive back minimum performance.

More information, lower trading costs, more liquidity, more computer power, new geographies, asset classes and financial products have enabled proper diversification. One reason buy and hold looked good in the PAST, although quite poor on a risk-adjusted basis, is that in earlier decades the costs of trading and information gathering were high. There wasn't much else to invest in other than long only but the range of opportunities TODAY is much broader. Long term performance is MUCH more important than long term holding periods. Some stock indices WENT up but WILL they now that financial markets are so different?

Formerly, many informational edges could not exceed the trading costs involved in executing the strategy but NOW they can. Commissions are lower, higher trading volumes mean less slippage and competition from national and global market deregulation have benefited ALL investors. Data gathering using machines with superior information processing capabilities have helped their human masters make and execute investment decisions. Financial innovation in the form of derivatives, structured products and hybrid securities allows risks to be sliced, diced and hedged as required. New strategies and assets have let investors FORTUNATE to be permitted to use them to get more diversified.

These benefits come with complexity which creates the need for "expensive" expertise in trading and managing these risks. Derivatives are useful trading and hedging vehicles OR weapons of financial destruction DEPENDING on the competence of those using them. Osaka rice futures and Chicago soybean futures have allowed farmers to transfer risk for generations AND built many traders' fortunes but have also wiped out many more unskilled speculators. Equity, interest rate and credit derivatives have been hugely beneficial to end users and competent investors but do damage if used wrongly. Fire has been very important to human economic development but fire in the wrong hands can be disastrous. We still need fire though.

Societe Generale's derivatives trader Jérôme Kerviel played with fire and lost $7 billion. I wonder if it would have been revealed if his rogue dealings had brought in $7 billion PROFIT? Curious how heavily regulated banks seem more prone to rogue traders than "unregulated" hedge funds. When it is your OWN money and own firm's reputation at risk you are more likely to catch unauthorized trading by the troops or question numbers that are out of line with margin limits. There have been a few hedge fund frauds although the premier meltdowns like LTCM, Amaranth, Bear Stearns were due to inexperience and lack of skill NOT rogue traders. You can't eliminate the possibility of losses but with proper due diligence and monitoring you CAN eliminate the risk of fraud AND incompetence in hedge funds.

I've written several posts about LBOs and CDOs but the products themselves are not to blame for losses anymore than credit derivatives. LBOs, pioneered by KKR, were a brilliant financial innovation but are too crowded now. The arbitrage has long gone. The issues that bothered me in recent years was their dependence on cooperative credit buyers, the strategy being too well-known and too much money in the "taking public firms private" trade. Similarly CDOs are potentially a great invention but it was executive arrogance, junk math, dubious pricing, mad modeling and ridiculous risk management that were the problems NOT the idea behind the products themselves.

The credit crisis is one factor that has led to the present economic situation. It looks like we are going to get some kind of stimulus package though whether it will be the catalyst for the necessary change in sentiment is anyone's guess. Rate cuts help banks with steeper positive carry, assuming credit worthy clients still exist and want to borrow, but the primary idea is that low rates spur spending and investors to move into riskier assets.

The possible flaw with this economic antidote is that when real estate and credit markets are performing even worse than stock markets then risk aversion can INCREASE. If your 401(k) statement shows a much lower number than the previous one and that house nearby just heavily reduced its asking price, a money market yield of 2% can START to look attractive compared with heading to the shopping mall or buying into the "stocks are cheap" sales pitch. Stocks can get MUCH cheaper but more importantly so can real estate.

Recession or not, stock markets ANTICIPATE problems and portfolio drawdowns change the economic outlook. Bear markets are "defined" as a drop of 20% but does it matter? A 20% fall is a huge loss already and needs a 25% rally just to get back to breakeven. So whatever economic scenario transpires, a fall of that magnitude for long only equity portfolios is not only unacceptable but also unnecessary. The appropriate use of hedging instruments and new investment strategies ought to have made such portfolio volatility obsolete by now.

Whether we are in a bear market or a recession is just semantic debate. Traditional equity, credit and real estate investors HAVE lost money and that WILL change behavior. The Fed has been criticised for "panicking" last week with a 75bp cut after heavy selloffs in Asia and Europe after the Societe Generale debacle but they probably had no choice given the circumstances. If Ben Bernanke had NOT cut, the US stock market would likely have lost 7-8% that day or 1,000 points on the Dow. Such a drop in a single day would have had a very negative impact on investor psychology. Central banks try to protect the economy and stock market fluctuations have a direct and immediate effect on economic well-being.

Doubly damaging is that not only have traditional strategies failed to preserve investors' capital but inflation is raising the cost of living. Reduced savings and less spending power are not a recipe for growth. Many analysts like to focus on a misleading metric called "core inflation" which EXCLUDES food and energy prices. So according to economists, as long as you don't eat, don't use any form of transportation and don't heat your home in the winter, insidious inflation is indeed "moderate"! For those of us outside the ivory tower in the harsh cold of the real world, let's hope stagflation is avoided. Six months ago some said credit contagion was "contained" and we know how that absurd assertion turned out.

Even if someone avoids new assets, structured products and hedge funds themselves I don't think anyone can dispute that such disruptive technologies have impacted market dynamics. You may dislike dark pools, derivatives, decimal point price increments, deregulated commissions and day traders as well but they have changed how securities fluctuate. A buy and hold investor is affected by new strategies and trading technologies whether they want to be or not. New ways of preserving wealth are like new ways of preserving health. But just as there are quacks and charlatans in medicine, there are plenty of good doctors in HEALTHCARE and talented fund managers in WEALTHCARE.

Financial and medical technology have other parallels. There was once a time when innovative surgeons were ridiculed for their "radical" ideas of washing hands and using anaesthesia before operating. Technological innovation in HEALTH management has benefited everyone. Why then in WEALTH management do many financial advisors remain in the stone age world of prehistoric "modern" portfolio theory? Hedge funds and derivatives are not fads and can assist in REDUCING market exposure BEFORE bad things happen. Portfolio immunization prevents economic diseases like recessions and inflation sickening investors.

"Hedge fund" is a loaded term these days so rebranding them simply as "diversifying skill-based strategies" would help. New investment technologies that seek, but do not guarantee, to produce absolute returns even if underlying asset classes fall apart. Some will deliver and many others won't but ALL investors need strategy diversification in their portfolios. As for "derivatives", they enable risk transfer from those that DON'T want an exposure to those that DO. Derivatives may be dangerous in the wrong hands but they are very useful and EVERY investor needs them.

Data-driven prediction and market anomaly detection are necessary for consistent returns. Systematic trading strategies like quant funds are in the news again because some weak models weren't properly tested for bearish conditions. Maybe it would be better to rebrand quantitative investing as carbon-based organisms outsourcing the more tedious aspects of security analysis, data gathering and trade execution to silicon-based organisms. Failing to make use of robust quantitative strategies and modeling techniques is a bit like refusing to use electricity or email. And why get one of those "unecessary" computers when sliderules have been so useful for so long? Society moves on.

Artificial intelligence complements human intelligence. Alan Turing didn't have financial markets in mind when he did his work but computerized traders can mimic and often "think" better than many human traders, thereby satisfying the Turing Test as far as trading is concerned. It may be a while before computers can pass for a human in natural language processing or other endeavors but in finance the Singularity isn't near, it's already here.

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