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Destroying Alpha: Everyone, even pensions, has become much more short-term, and it’s a problem - Geneva Roundtable

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Markets and investors themselves are starting to suffer from the proliferation of short-term strategies which are even more and more demanded from traditionally long-term investors. Regulatory elements might play a role in that evolution. For example, pension schemes have theoretically a much longer-term investment horizon, but they are not really long-term today. There are obviously many baby boomers about to retire which probably shrinks a bit the duration of investments, but foremost pensions are subjected to regulatory constraints, with yearly assessment of their financial health, and this in a way is making them short-term investors. Maybe sovereign wealth funds and some long-established family offices are the only real long-term investors left?

When investor demand and behaviour actually destroy Alpha

Investors have also become less and less patient, expecting positive performances every month from their managers. This behaviour typically destroys alpha as active managers have now to manage those expectations, often by limiting the risk taken. Overall, investors have unrealistic expectations as they want – though not necessarily need – liquidity, they want less risk but at the same time expect their managers to create alpha. Lots of investors today are expecting higher returns than what the liquid markets can offer them, with a lower volatility. Investing in very liquid markets - where you do not have the illiquidity premium anymore - and expecting double-digit returns is not possible anymore. In conclusion, investors have to readjust their expectations for the foreseeable future as expected returns have decreased substantially in all asset classes, driven by the drop of the risk free rate along with the fact that alpha generation from hedge funds is utterly difficult in liquid markets.

People are also noticing a certain level of crowding in these short-term, technical and often relatively simple strategies. This can also be an opportunity for active managers if they are able to adapt their style. We have seen recently that the best performing managers are those who are willing to withstand high volatility, who are willing to be wrong in the exact timing, simply because they have longer term views, which are ultimately rewarded. And managers who do that are providing liquidity to the market, which is can be seen as one of the social roles of hedge funds, for which they should be rewarded. This Roundtable also discusses investments that can still offer yield despite of the regime change that has happened in 2016 (and which we predicted in 2015), where it’s really about about capital preservation.

Intermediaries face more challenges but can also offer real value-add

Active management is under massive challenges. But, the more passive a market is, the more opportunities there are for active managers, and vice versa. Intermediaries can actually help investors to deal with such questions and challenges. Probably the greatest mistake in fund manager selection is based on the exact same behavioural bias, which is also rooted in short-termism: Buying a manager at the peak and sell him/her in the trough, and keep on doing that all the time because you can't withstand periods of under-performance. Intermediaries can provide investors a diversified portfolio of managers and actually deal with these periods of under-performance. Of course, intermediaries can also destroy value – fees to high, or insufficient quality of product and/or service, etc. – though end-investors now have the tools to measure their performance.

The Opalesque 2016 Geneva Roundtable, sponsored by IDS and Eurex, took place at the end of 2015 with:

  1. Ian Hamilton, Founder, IDS
  2. Frédéric P. Lebel, CFA, Co-CEO and CIO at OFI MGA
  3. Michaël Malquarti, Head of Manager Research & Alternative Investments, SYZ Asset Management
  4. Julien Tizot, Head of Investment Research, Inpact Partners
  5. Gregoire Haenni, Ph.D., CIO CPEG (pension fund of the state of Geneva)
  6. Ewan Graves-Tamvakis, Risk Manager, LCJ Investments
The group also discussed:
  • How do investors deal with a manager who is producing red numbers month after month? (pages 16-18) How do they react when a manager loses key staff? (pages 17-19)
  • Why do many fund of hedge funds portfolios invest in a lot (75%) of the same funds? (pages 19-21)
  • Why are some hedge funds able to keep their pricing power and charge higher fees? (page 8) Do high fee hedge funds provider better returns? (page 9)
  • How investors globally benefit from the fusion that is happening between traditional and alternative investments (page 9 )
  • Are sovereign wealth funds creating a huge overhang on the market? (pages 12-13) What is the so-called unconstrained money doing? (pages 24-25)
  • How do investors deal with the fact that the business of managing hedge funds has become much more fragile? (page 15)
  • What should be the number one discipline of a good hedge fund manager? (page 15)
  • What is Peter Drucker’s explanation of investor herding? (page 21) - How do pensions deal with negative interest rates? What else is worrying pensions today? (pages 21-23)
  • Is risk really necessarily linked to volatility? (page 23)

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