If you're thinking about investing in a hedge fund, read this first

Thu, 17 Aug 2017 09:14:30 PDT

Special to the Globe and Mail
by Tom Bradley

The first article I wrote for the Report on Business in 2006 was one of my most controversial. It questioned the value of hedge funds. Not how they invest, but rather their high fees, lack of transparency and, in general, client-unfriendliness.

These funds, which represent a broad array of investment strategies, have had their ups and downs since that time. They’ve grown significantly – the latest tally is $3.2-trillion (U.S.) – but have come under increasing scrutiny. Investors are saying, “I bought the sizzle, but where’s the steak?” In general, actual returns have not justified the fees and complexity. As it turns out, the managers have done much better than the clients.

Nonetheless, hedge fund-like products are creeping into portfolios of individual investors. I’m referring to investment products where the manager shares in the profits, or what I fondly refer to as “fee impaired” funds.

To justify higher fees, these fund managers have to do things that are different and difficult. That might mean using leverage, shorting, private securities, and various forms of arbitrage and hedging. In addition, managers point out that performance fees better align their interests with clients. “When you do well, I do well.”

If you’re considering such a product for your portfolio, you and your adviser have some work to do. You need to know how it works, what the risks are, how much you’re paying and, importantly, who you’re dealing with.

Sources of return and risk

First off, you should understand where the profits are expected to come from. I mean the basics, not the details. The strategy should make sense and fit well with the manager’s experience. Using leverage, shorting stocks and taking advantage of illiquidity require special skills and temperament.

Bob Hager, my former partner at PH&N, regularly reminded me that with any investment product, it always comes down to bonds and stocks. That’s what drives returns. Well, he’s right about that, but with additional strategies layered on top, the character and timing of the returns and risks can be different. Not to mention that increased complexity broadens the range of outcomes.

Hedge funds have risk profiles ranging from conservative to aggressive. A good rule of thumb is, if the product promises equity-like returns, then it has equity-like risk. Warning bells should go off if the marketing materials promise high returns with little or no risk.

How impaired?

The fees may be as hard to understand as the investment strategies, but it’s important to know if the manager will be rewarded for exceptional performance, or simply because markets go up. If he loses money, is he required to make it up before collecting additional performance fees?

In a well-designed fund, the performance fee doesn’t kick in until after a minimum return has been achieved. If the manager gets above the hurdle rate, as it’s called, then he shares in the additional return, usually to the tune of 20 per cent. Unfortunately, many funds don’t have a hurdle rate. In other words, they get 20 per cent of the first dollar earned.

Another element to look for is what’s called a “high-water mark.” The HWM requires that the fund recoup any prior losses before further performance fees are collected. The HWM should be perpetual, although some funds have an annual reset (they get to start fresh after one year). For me, if the HWM isn’t perpetual, it’s a deal breaker. I’m not willing to give the manager all the upside while limiting their downside.

The bar is higher

I’ve had experience with fee-impaired funds for two decades, both personally and on behalf of institutions. If the manager and fund structure is right, they can be a nice complement to the bulk of your assets, which hopefully is at the other end of the spectrum – understandable, low cost and transparent.

To justify client unfriendliness, hedge funds must be held to a higher standard. Before you write a cheque, make sure you know how the fund works, what the risks are and how much you’re paying. After all, you want some assurance that you’ll do well if your manager does well.

Bank profits: Are the customers tapped out?

Tue, 15 Aug 2017 12:18:10 PDT

by Tom Bradley

As a stock analyst, I always thought it was important to look at who a company’s customers were. The quality of the customers speaks volumes about the quality of the products and services.

This is only one part of any analysis, but it’s one that I’m not hearing discussed with respect to the Canadian banks. It’s clear that our banks are very strong companies. Their capital ratios are higher than ever. Profitability is insanely good. And they’re widely diversified across business lines, including basic banking, credit cards, car loans, wealth management, brokerage, investment banking, asset management, commercial and corporate lending, prime brokerage and insurance. You name it, if it’s financial, the banks are dominant players.

But back to where I started. The interesting thing about this strength and diversity is that it’s based on product line, not customer. Most of the banks' products, and a vast majority of their profits, relate to just one customer - individual Canadians.

So, in assessing the banks on my obscure Customer Quality Metric, we may be hitting on one of their only weaknesses. Their customers are getting tapped out. They’re up to their eyeballs in debt and in two of the banks biggest markets – Toronto and Vancouver – their bricks and mortar collateral is highly priced.

Do I think the banks are at financial risk? No.

Do I think they will continue to be highly profitable? Most likely.

Do I think we should pay more attention to who’s paying the bills? Absolutely.

At Steadyhand, we have exposure to Canadian bank bonds and stocks, but it’s perceptively lower than other Canadian-based managers. In the Founders Fund, which is a good representation of our balanced clients’ portfolios, financial services represent 20% of total equities. TD Bank is the largest stock holding in the firm (it’s held in the Income and Equity Funds), but RBC and Scotiabank don’t show up in the top 15. Rather, our financial service holdings are spread across a wide range of company types (banks, insurance, securities exchanges, credit rating services) and importantly, customers in a number of geographic regions including Europe, Asia and the emerging markets.

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