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Rethinking Hedge Funds Post-Calpers

October 6, 2014

There’s a “dirty little secret” about “open architecture,” according to Wall Street Journal columnist Norb Vonnegut.

“Most financial institutions select external managers who share the economics,” writes Vonnegut, who worked at Silvercrest Asset Management and Morgan Stanley before turning full-time to writing. “It’s not a matter of best in class. It’s a matter of who pays.”

Vonnegut’s bigger point is that great funds sell themselves. Those that need advisors to help push them are — just maybe — ones “that can’t gather assets on their own accord because they’re nothing special.”

Applying this insight to a hedge-fund world roiled by Calpers’ recent decision to pull the plug on those vehicles, Vonnegut says advisors who recommend them have reason to pause. If a huge pension fund with “access to the best and brightest money managers out there” can’t figure out a cost-efficient way to use them, what role should hedge funds play in the typical high-net-worth portfolio — especially the funds willing to court customers through advisors?

Vonnegut’s own response: little or none. He’s wary of them as too expensive and overly secretive. Besides that, “as measured by the HFR index,” hedge funds “have underperformed a balanced index of 60% stocks and 40% bonds in each of the last five years,” he writes.

Setting aside his prejudices, however, he asks a few experts how advisors should approach hedge funds in light of Calpers’ decision.

Know what you’re getting from a fund and why you want those properties, counsels Katherine Nixon, chief investment officer for Northern Trust’s wealth-management division. “Unless you have high confidence that you are getting exposure to unique factors that are truly different and truly unique,” she warns, it’s “better to stay away.”

Meanwhile, Michael Zeuner of WE Family Offices says questions about hedge funds in the wake of Calpers’ move create opportunities to “reexamine how clients measure their risk.” In turn, this can lead to discussion about how these vehicles can calm volatility, boost performance against returns or — remember the lockouts of 2008? — lead to a shortage of ready cash “during severe and sustained bear markets.”

But, says Vonnegut, if “you’re an advisor who steers clear of hedge funds,” now’s the time to consider capitalizing on that stance. “Call every client who moved money away from you and into hedge funds,” he suggests. “E-mail them articles about Calpers. Ask them, as the pension fund asked, whether hedge funds are too expensive, too opaque, and whether they really counterbalance equities during choppy markets.” In their stead, he offers homely, time-honored recommendations: bond laddering, tax-smart portfolios, affordable fee structures “and equity allocations to tried-and-true companies that will be around for the long term.”

By Thomas Coyle
  • To read the Wall Street Journal article cited in this story, click here if you have a paid subscription.