Monday, March 28, 2005

NEWS: NYT-If I Only Had a Hedge Fund

March 27, 2005

To critics, the frenzy has a very familiar ring. A flood of capital to the latest investment fad. Spectacular accumulation of wealth in a short time. New ventures created easily and often. Those, too, were the hallmarks of the dot-com boom, and, as everyone knows, the bursting of that bubble was far from pleasant. The stampede to hedge funds, some people fear, will be no different.

"It is completely obvious that this will end badly - for the firms, investors, everyone," said Seth Klarman, founder of the Baupost Group, which manages $5 billion. "No area of financial endeavor is immune from the effects of competition."

The numbers are mind-boggling: 15 years ago, hedge funds managed less than $40 billion. Today, the figure is approaching $1 trillion. By contrast, assets in mutual funds grew at an impressive but much slower rate, to $8.1 trillion from $1 trillion, during the same period. The number of hedge fund firms has also grown - to 3,307 last year, up 74 percent from 1,903 in 1999. During the same period, the number of funds created - a manager can start more than one fund at a time - has surged 209 percent, with 1,406 funds introduced in 2004, according to Hedge Fund Research, based in Chicago.

...Whether the hedge fund boom is a bubble may still be open to debate. But it is certainly not alarmist to wonder about the consequences of such torrid growth, built as it is on the leverage that banks provide managers to double or triple their bets. The Federal Reserve seemed concerned enough last fall, when it set up a group to examine what systemic risks had been created by the explosion of entrants into the market and the aggressiveness with which Wall Street was welcoming them.

...Perhaps topping the list of concerns is the proliferation of funds of funds, pools of hedge funds that are meant to lower risk but that also come with another layer of fees on top of what standard hedge funds charge. By the end of last year, assets in funds of funds had soared to $359 billion, from $84 billion just four years earlier. Traditionally, investors have needed a minimum of $1 million to get into a hedge fund; with the newest funds of funds, investors with as little as $25,000 to spend can gain entree...

Many industry veterans say the party will continue, partly because of the shift in who invests in hedge funds. As recently as 2000, hedge funds were almost exclusively for the very rich. Now institutions want a piece of the action. Pension funds and other institutions are expected to invest as much as $250 billion in hedge funds over the next five years, according to a recent study by the Bank of New York and Casey, Quirk & Associates, a consulting firm. That would ultimately account for half of all money flowing into hedge funds.

But as the pension money comes in, hedge fund returns are likely to go down, as fund managers adapt their strategies to suit the new clientele. Pension funds prize predictability over outsized returns; the average pension fund is looking to make just 8 percent, net of fees, on its hedge fund investments, the Casey Quirk report concluded. That is a far cry from the 25-percent-plus returns generated by rock-star managers like Mr. Soros and Michael Steinhardt.
A possible check on hedge funds is the simple fact that while anyone can start one, the industry has a high casualty rate - especially for the smallest funds, which struggle to attract and keep investors. Untested managers whose returns languish often see their capital flee and are forced to shut down.

"There are very low barriers to entry but very high barriers to staying in business," said Philip Duff, chief executive of FrontPoint, a $4.3 billion hedge fund, citing the average annual life of a hedge fund of 3.5 years. "That's problematic for investors," he said - particularly institutional investors who do not relish moving money around..



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