Book review: The Hedge Fund Mirage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 5:31am

You would think that a person who made a living allocating to hedge funds for more than a decade would take a kinder view of this sector. But Simon Lack, a money manager, earlier this year released a book with devastating conclusions about hedge funds.

Lack's book, The Hedge Fund Mirage , says that for the 13 years up to 2010, investors lost US$308 million through their hedge fund investments, when returns are calculated as gains in excess of Treasury bond yields.

That compares starkly with the US$324 million in fees earned by hedge fund managers over the same period, according to Lack.

The implication of the book is that investors should steer well clear of hedge funds unless they have a clear edge in selecting such funds.

As you can imagine, Lack's broadside was not taken lightly. There were different constituencies that rose to the defence of hedge funds, ranging from an industry association to a professional firm that makes millions in fees from the industry. In all fairness some of the rebuttals made sense. For example, the book measured returns by referencing a hedge fund index (HFRX, which is well known in the industry, but little known outside of it) that may not be representative of all hedge funds. Different indices give different results.

The book adjusted its hedge fund performance estimates downwards to account for "survivor and backfill bias". This basically means that only successful funds report data to index providers (the unsuccessful funds quietly die). This means that hedge fund indexes overstate the returns that funds generate.

But, say those in rebuttal, some of the most successful hedge funds also do not report performance to the index providers. If they did, their returns would make up for the losses of the failed funds.

Lack's critics also take issue with the weighting used to measure fund returns. They argue that individuals can make poor choices about the funds they put their money into. The book references index returns that are weighted according to the money that people put into hedge funds, which says more about individuals' (often bad) choices than about the returns of the sector. Performance would be more fairly measured by taking a simple average of hedge fund returns, regardless of the funds allocated to each, say Lack's detractors.

The book measured returns according to a hedge fund index that tracked only "investible" funds - specifically, funds that were open to new investors. Lack's critics say the index didn't include hedge funds that are closed to new investors; had these closed hedge funds been included, hedge fund returns would have been higher.

These opposing viewpoints have merit, especially in the area of whether poor performance should be blamed on hedge fund managers or on investors' poor selection skills. Rather than take sides I implore all hedge fund investors to read the book and the rebuttals and reach your own conclusions. I'll be sending this book to our clients this Christmas as a stocking filler.

Robert Jones is head of FCL Advisory, which advises family offices and wealthy individuals