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Futures Lab: Same net exposure, same risk? No, says Jon Sundt. See his example of a quant fund, based on the "perfect storm" of August 2007

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jon Sundt

Understanding Quants' Hazard

As investors consider riskier assets, it may be useful to recall a lesson from three years ago. The following parable is from an August 2007 newsletter sent to clients by Jon Sundt, president and chief executive of Altegris Investments, an allocator to hedge funds and commodity trading advisors.

The example was inspired by the steep losses suffered by quantitative traders in August 2007. It is from real experience, but Mr. Sundt used fictional names for the two funds he compared, PhD Fund and Plain Vanilla Fund.

Both funds are market neutral and go long and short US equities. Both have stellar track records, low correlation to the S&P 500 and reasonable performance in up and down markets

By 2007, low volatility had lulled many quant shops into a false sense of security. The lack of any recent blowups or spikes in volatility made them feel immune to market jolts. At the same time, quantitative models were picking up nickels where they formerly picked up quarters. Because the models would need to pick up more nickels to make the same amount of money, many turned to leverage for help.

The PhD Fund had run its models over the past five years and made a killing. Its managers were rich. They had found that because of the low volatility in the market and the low correlation within their market-neutral system, they could leverage their fund.
So they decided to lever eight to one. For every $1 million the Fund put forward, it borrowed enough to have $4 million for its long book and $4 million for its short book, staying with the "market neutral" label.

This was genius! The PhD Fund amplified returns, all the while keeping its market neutral hat on. It had $1 billion under management before leverage. With leverage, its assets were $8 billion. Its net exposure was zero ($4 million long plus $4 million short), but its gross exposure was 8x.

For comparison, consider the Plain Vanilla Long Short Fund, with around $400 million under management. It has an experienced research team that evaluates fundamental measures of a company's stock (bottom-up research) as well as overall industry trends (top-down research). The team buys what they believe are undervalued stocks and sells what they believe are overvalued stocks.

The Vanilla Fund's team trade 50 positions long and 50 positions short. They keep their book market neutral, so their net exposure is zero. They do this by using the regular margin available for many brokerage accounts. The Vanilla Fund borrows $1 million for every $1 million dollar invested, meaning it uses $1 million to go long and $1 million to go short, for a gross leverage of 2x. With leverage, the Vanilla Fund has $800 million under management.


The Vanilla Fund and the PhD Fund both have zero net exposures...for every dollar long they have a dollar short. Combine this with their performance, and they look pretty similar. But that is a wrong perception.

The difference is seen by looking at the funds' gross exposure. Here the differential is huge: 200% for the Vanilla Fund compared to 800% for the PhD Fund (chart). Gross exposure shows just how leveraged these funds are: 2x versus 8x.

During a few days in August 2007, there was an extreme event in the stock market. In particular, the stocks bought vs. short sold by quant funds went through a sharp reversal. Because many funds had similar positions, they drove the market down as they tried to liquidate holdings.

The PhD Fund suffered a 4% loss on the longs and a 4% loss on the shorts. But that was before the leverage. Because of the leverage, you have to multiply it by eight, for a 32% loss! The Vanilla Fund also lost money that month, but less.

The moral: Net exposure can be misleading. One has to pay attention to gross exposure.

This article was published in Opalesque Futures Intelligence.
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