Are Hedge Funds A Con?

There’s this guy named Ray Dalio. He’s a multi-billionaire. And he makes his money running hedge fund company, Bridgewater Associates. Bridgewater is the biggest boy on the hedge fund block, managing $160 billion (USD) on behalf of investors. In 2016, when the S&P 500 clocked a total return of 12.25%, Bridgewater’s largest fund, Pure Alpha, returned a measly 2.4%. Dalio’s reward for huge underperformance? Take home pay of $1.4 billion.

The Big Fat Pitch

You see, hedge funds are something of a … hmmm, let’s be kind and call this sort of corporate structure a promotional vehicle. The sales pitch goes like this:

‘We have access to information that you don’t; we’re smarter, more knowledgeable and more talented than you when it comes to managing investments; AND we will earn you higher returns than anyone else.’

For the past few decades, wealthy investors and institutions (those who typically have access to hedge funds) greedily swallowed the pitch. And they paid big time fees for the privilege of handing over millions, or hundreds of millions, of dollars to this or that star studded hedge fund.

What kind of fees give investors access to media savvy, hot shot fund managers promising outsized returns?

Fees higher than most any other fund out there. Standard industry practice among hedge funds is what’s known as ’2 and 20 compensation’. Meaning, hedge funds charge fees equal to 2% of funds under management and 20% of profits earned above a certain threshold.

To make this clear, let’s use Dalio’s company as an example. As mentioned, Bridgewater manages a tidy $160 billion. Two percent of that is $3,200,000,000. And Bridgewater skims this ten–figure fee off the top regardless of investment performance. Rise or fall, Bridgewater collects the fee.

Ahhh, but that’s not all that has Bridgewater and other hedge fund managers salivating.

Typically, if hedge fund returns hit 8%, then the fund is entitled to receive 20% of any profits. This is on top of the 2%. The upside here for investors is the incentive. Presumably, Bridgewater strives for returns higher than 8%. If achieved, both investors and funds managers benefit. If not achieved? Well, think of it as foregoing a bonus payment. Because the 2% ($3,200,000,000) isn’t exactly a paltry payday.

So you see, the hedge fund game is even more about attracting money as it is about performance. Because the more money a hedge fund manages, the more guaranteed money it makes.


Are The Gazillions Justified?

Does Dalio, or any other hedge fund manager, deserve such lavish sums for his work?

Well, that depends on your perspective. I mean, here you have Dalio saying, ‘I’m the best at what I do and this is my fee, pay me or take your money elsewhere’. And investors pay. So in this sense, sure, he deserves the money.

It’s not like Dalio is forcing anyone to hand over their money. He’s simply tossing the sales line, and investors are biting. Presumably, these are wealthy, sophisticated investors who have read the fine print, understand the risks, and know the cost.

Okay, sales pitch aside, greed, ignorance and lemming like investor behaviour aside, does Dalio and other hedge fund managers offer substance? Sure, these guys are consummate salesmen, but are they excellent money managers? Do they generate fat returns for investors? Is their alleged talent worth the price?

I can’t answer these questions any better than Warren Buffett who said,

“There is huge money in selling people the IDEA that you can do something magical for them.”



Index Fund Trounces Hedge Funds

In 2007, Buffett made a million dollar bet with Protégé Partner, a New York based hedge fund. You can read Protege’s … uh, um, say, questionable sales pitch here.

The bet was simple: over an extended period of time, an S&P 500 Index Fund (in this case the Vanguard 500 Index Fund Admiral Shares with a, get this … 0.04% management fee) would outperform a portfolio made up of several different hedge funds.

Ten years later, the results are in: Index Fund up 85%. Hedge Funds, 22%.

In the financial world, this is a total wipeout. And it’s largely, though not entirely, owing to fees charged by Hedge Funds. Deducting fees would have seen a return of close to 50%; better but still not even close to a passively managed index fund.

Instead of gloating about his win, Buffett took the opportunity to:

  • Reinforce the fact that excessive investment fees destroy wealth.
  • All investors, including the wealthy, are better off placing their money in a low cost index fund.

And investors seem to be catching on.

In 2016, a record amount of money (close to half a trillion dollars) flowed out of active funds and into passive index funds. Also in 2016, hedge funds saw their first annual outflow of money ($28 billion) since 2009. The reason is simple: high fees and poor returns. Expect the bleeding to continue.

Even If It’s Not a Con, Don’t Believe The Hedge Fund Hype

Though there are active fund managers who are able to consistently (i.e., minimum 10 year stretch) beat passive funds, they are few and far between. As for hedge fund managers, Buffett said it best when rhetorically asking:

“How many hedge fund managers in the past 40 years have said … I only want to get paid if I do something for you? Unless I actually deliver something beyond what you can get for yourself, I don’t want to get paid.”

Of course, no one has said this. Because they do not, and cannot, do anything for investors beyond that which an Index fund may do.

As for Dalio, if huge investor fund flows into passive funds are any indication, it could be that he’s a dinosaur. An absurdly rich dinosaur no doubt. But maybe, hopefully, for the sake of investors, for the sake of fairness, honesty and transparency, him and his kind are on the verge of extinction.