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What’s Alpha, really? Why Germany’s largest hedge fund investor isn’t searching for it & monthly returns are useless - Opalesque Roundtable

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Despite weak performance, investors pile into UCITS, but not without expectation mismatch

As everyone knows, liquid alternatives are suffering from a weak performance. The aggregate of all UCITS funds have made 1% a year since 2012. This could make you think that performance-wise that this would not be enough to attract investors, but fact is that German investors are still adding consistently to UCITS after having before focused on illiquid investments like real estate, PE or infrastructure.

Another positive development is that more-and-more American managers are launching their successful strategies in UCITS wrapper structures, broadening the UCITS universe. While this is good news in general, many investments are unfortunately done with a certain mismatch of expectations. Investors really need to be very clear and aware what types of characteristics they are really looking for when they look at substituting government bonds, because it seems some are asking the impossible, demanding that their new investment should be liquid and also capable of acting like a fat tail hedge where you win every time there is stress in the market, while during all other times it's paying you out a premium.

So what’s Alpha, really? Why Germany’s largest hedge fund investor isn’t searching for it

Alpha is not a return source per se, it's something which is just not explained so far by simple models. In Feri’s view, “We should always try to persuade investors to seek hedge funds that offer them certain types of exposure to market inefficiencies, trading techniques and alternative betas rather than this elusive alpha. Most of the times when people talk about alpha, it's actually more or less a statistical artifact from doing an often too simple linear regression.” Alpha will not get bigger and it will not be easier to find, just because more and more investors are looking for it. So investors felt trapped by zero rates, and they jump into the next trap.

The historical alpha is never a signal for future alpha. When Feri analyzes hedge fund strategies, “we actually look for funds with low historical alpha, because a high alpha means we cannot explain their return source. We look for funds maximizing risk-adjusted returns und correlation measures in the future, not in the past. Of course, this concept is sometimes hard to explain because many investors don’t understand why we are not interested in what others believe to be the holy grail of investing – alpha, but from our perspective, we want to know what the fund does, and this means knowing where the risks and the returns come from.”

Why monthly return numbers are useless for a proper fund analysis

In the current environment, the hedge fund space is more relevant for investors than ever before, but you need tools which are better than the tools you had in the past. The hedge fund space has a very serious problem related to the fact that a lot of the screening for managers and a lot of the “research” (i.e., understanding what managers do) is based on a single number that the managers report once a month: the return. And it’s virtually impossible, to find anything meaningful using this approach, says Prof. Luis Seco from Sigma Analysis. While the monthly return information is of course important, it’s a massive compression exercise from where it is hard to extract a meaning. Investors are getting just a summary of thousands of activity points cumulating to one number.

Hedge fund portfolios would be too complicated to understand from a data series of one number per month. Rather, “You have to go to the transactional data. We have been doing this for ten years now, on a lot of funds. When you look at every transaction that hedge fund is doing, you can develop analytical tools to understand where they make money and where they lose money, and why. I come from a world where we run all our clients’ money on a managed-account platform, so we have access to virtually all relevant information. Imagine you get to see everything the hedge fund does, what decisions were right, what decisions were wrong through the right analytical toolbox, you get access to what people call alpha, except it is not alpha anymore, because alpha and beta are statistical numbers, but there are no statistics involved here – they are direct analytics. Following this approach, suddenly you have a tremendous tool to do manager selection and portfolio construction.”

Germany to simplify its investment tax law

Germany right now is a very difficult market for certain funds, especially tax law wise. However, there is an initiative in the German Parliament right now, which is expected to pass parliament in July 2016, with the effect that from the 1st of January 2018 onwards, many of those difficulties and restrictions impeding the decisions of your fund investors right now will disappear or at least become much easier. From the 1st of January 2018, especially many tax law restrictions to the selection of funds will not exist any longer.

Right now, it is for example difficult for many investors to invest into highly leveraged funds. In the future, we won’t have this problem any longer as there will be an attractive investor taxation system with just a few tax reporting obligations and much less cost than at present, for almost all German investor types and for almost all funds that exist globally.

The Opalesque 2016 Germany Roundtable, sponsored by Eurex and WTS, took place in June in Frankfurt with:

  1. Prof. Dr. Luis Seco, President & CEO Sigma Analysis and Management, Director Mathematical Finance Program TU München, Professor of Mathematics, University of Toronto
  2. Dr. Thomas Maier, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, FERI Trust
  3. Frank Umlauf, Co-Founder, Tajdo
  4. Lutz Klaus, CIO, Tungsten Capital Management
  5. Holger Knauer, Managing Director, Catana
  6. Markus-Alexander Flesch, Head of Equity and Index Derivatives Sales, Eurex
  7. Steffen Gnutzmannl, Partner, WTS
The group also discussed:
  • Why manager selection is the main risk when investing in alternatives. Do UCITS funds of funds add value?
  • What does it mean for investors that hedge funds or liquid alternatives strategies have on aggregate a short volatility profile?
  • Why consultants prefer to talk about adding a second level of asymmetric strategies in the strategic asset allocation rather than “hedge funds or absolute return”
  • Is it true that the average hedge fund provides negative alpha?
  • What’s behind the ongoing concentration process where large managers are attracting more and more assets?
  • Are younger and smaller managers providing better risk-adjusted returns “by more or less any measure”?
  • How can a “black box” fund gain the trust of investors?
  • Which “Big Data” Alternative Investment Fund (AIF) has a better live trading record (13.5% in six month) then its already outstanding backtest? What’s “Big Data”, anyway?
  • What is Lutz Klaus’ rational way of investing in the irrational zero interest world? How to build the right base portfolio
  • What are “fashion premia”, and what are better options?
  • Has investing today been degraded to “trading emotions”? Will fundamental investing have its day again?
  • What’s more important than transparency for an investor?
  • Why especially smaller and mid size players benefit from the “Futurization” of the markets as pioneered by Eurex.
Enjoy!

Matthias Knab
Knab@Opalesque.com

Access the Opalesque Roundtable Series - Frankfurt 2016 | Download here

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