There are many different types ofhedge funds. However, most of them have the following characteristics, potentially setting them apart from other types of asset managers:
Risk management is crucial in each of these areas:
Investors typically aren’t just interested in alpha in some abstract sense; they also want alpha delivery to make sense in the context of the investor’s overall risk budget (because an investor’s holding in any particular hedge fund doesn’t typically exist in splendid isolation, but actually forms part of a wider portfolio).
So, investors are very interested in the nature of the risks being expressed in a hedge fund, as well as the potential rewards that it might deliver. In turn, hedge fund managers need to have a keen appreciation of risk if they are to do a good job for their investors (and if they want to be able to explain what they are doing to those same investors).
In some respects, hedge funds behave as if they are operating to an internal ‘clock’ that runs more rapidly than for more traditional portfolios. Investors typically accept a shorter track record before investing in a hedge fund, but are correspondingly less forgiving of a short-term performance downturn. Taking the analogy one stage further, high performance cars typically need high performance brakes etc. So it is not surprising that good hedge funds typically place a premium on good risk management.
Hedge funds also typically take larger (and more dynamic) positions than more traditional portfolios. This makes them potentially more exposed if things go wrong.
Hedge fund managers constantly innovate in order to keep one step ahead of the competition in the search for alpha. But this, of course, also makes it particularly important for them to appreciate that the market areas and instruments they use might behave in unexpected ways.
A particular risk that seems to have come to the fore recently is that of so-called ‘crowded trades’. This applies not just to hedge funds focusing on less liquid strategies but also to ones employing more straightforward styles, eg. equity long/short. Hedge funds often (potentially unwittingly) seem to end up adopting similar positions to those of their close competitors. So they can be caught out even if there is just a change in risk appetite affecting their competitors, because the consequential position unwinds then affect their own positions. This risk has arguably been latent for quite some time, as the hedge fund industry has seen stellar growth rates, but has become more pronounced more recently because of the greater volatility in risk appetite we are seeing in the current market climate.
The more spectacular hedge fund disasters of recent times have typically been compounded by leverage. It was arguably excessive leverage that was the particular undoing of the great granddad of them all, LTCM. So, we will explore in more detail some particular issues relating to managing leveraged portfolios. In this context we take ‘leverage’ to mean any strategy in which there is some explicit ‘borrowing’ taking place by the portfolio in question. Otherwise almost any strategy might be deemed to involve leverage if only indirectly, eg. most equity investment is into companies that themselves have debt outstanding or have taken out loans from banks.
Such leverage can have the following impacts on portfolio behaviour:
(a) Leverage magnifies upside and downside. This is normally the main rationale for employing leverage, particularly by hedge funds. Return potentials in some areas may be inadequate to meet investor expectations without the use of leverage.
(b) Leverage introduces risks not previously present because of the need to fund the borrowing required to achieve the leverage, including: