Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The insider trading scandal: Thoughts about the hedge fund business

As many of you are aware, the last week has been filled with news stories about imminent arrests in an insider trading scandal that supposedly entangles multiple hedge funds and bankers at a couple of large investment banks. I am being leery about naming names, even though they are now in the public domain, since these selective leaks  can be devastating not only to the individuals named but also to the entities that they represent. While some may feel that "they" deserve this, I think we still live in a country where you are innocent until proven guilty.

So, I am going to use this story to talk about a bigger question. Not insider trading, because I have put my views on the topic down in a previous blog post, but about the hedge fund business. Note that many of the targets in this investigation are hedge fund managers. Since I have no reason to believe that hedge fund managers are any more immoral or unethical than any other random group of money managers, the question then becomes: What is it about the hedge fund business that seems to drive this constant search for an information edge? Or why do we not see more traditional mutual fund managers involved in these scandals?

At first sight, hedge funds and mutual funds share much in common. They both solicit money from investors, promising to deliver above-market returns to them and they get compensated for managing this money. But there are three significant differences:
1. Constraints on investing: Mutual funds are far more constrained in where and how they invest than most hedge funds are. Some of these constraints are imposed by regulators, some are self imposed and some are the created by clients.
a. Long versus long/short strategies: Most mutual funds can only buy stocks (The Investment Company Act of 1940 that governs mutual funds puts significant restrictions on short sales by funds), whereas hedge funds often can both sell short on some stocks and go long on others.
b. Investment choices:  There are several mutual funds that are judged based on "tracking error", measured by how far their returns deviate from a specified index's return. This constraint, usually imposed by clients, is designed to prevent fund managers from straying too far from the companies in the index. Hedge funds generally can invest not only in whatever company they want but many invest across asset classes.


2. Clientele mix: Hedge funds attract investments from either the very wealthy or institutions (pension funds, for instance). In fact, most of them actively discourage small, individual investors by requiring a large, minimum investment. Mutual funds tend to attract individual investors. At the risk of a gross generalization, institutional and wealthy investors are more demanding than individual investors; they move their money out of loser funds and into hot funds far more quickly than other individuals do. Put another way, if the herding effect is a phenomenon that affects all investors, it seems to affect wealthier and institutional investors more. (Some hedge funds put withdrawal restrictions on investors to counter.)

3. Financial leverage: Hedge funds are far more likely to use borrowed money to lever their bets. Most mutual funds either do not borrow money or do so on a very restrictive basis.

4. Compensation systems: Mutual funds generally make their money in two ways. All mutual funds cover their expenses from the money under management; the management; these management expenses are public information and can be accessed at services like Morningstar. A subset of funds also assess a one-time up-front sales charge (load), when you invest, where a certain percent of what you invest is taken by the fund at the time of the investment. Hedge funds assess an annual load (1% or 2% of the invested amount each year) and a percentage of the profit on the investment (10 or 20% of the profits).

You may be wondering at this stage what all of this has to do with insider trading. Consider why people seek out insider information. If they succeed, they can buy or sell a stock prior to that information becoming public; when it goes public, the stock will pop up or down, depending on whether the information is good or bad news.

All four differences highlighted play into why hedge fund managers see more gain from seeking out and exploiting private information:
  1. Hedge funds can exploit both good news and bad news, by buying stocks in advance of the former and selling short ahead of the latter. Mutual funds can only buy on good news (though they can sell any existing holdings of companies on which bad news lies ahead).
  2. While money management at any level is a rat race, where funds try to keep their own clients and coax clients away from their competitors, the race becomes more frenetic with hedge funds. A hedge fund that lags its peer group can enter a death spiral, where losses spur withdrawals which feed into more losses.
  3. If the "inside information" is precise, you can use even more debt in your investment strategy, creating huge payoffs on your investment, when the information becomes public. Financial leverage acts as a multiplier on profits from insider trading.
  4. The compensation system at hedge funds essentially gives every hedge fund manager a call option: they make 10 or 20% of all profits, no matter how large, and do not share in losses. Trading on information ties in well with this system, since it delivers skewed returns: most of the time, information turns out to be worthless, but when it is relevant information, the payoff is very large. Thus, even if insider information is noisy and provides little benefits or even creates costs for investors over the long term, hedge fund managers may still benefit personally from its use because of the upside call built into their compensation systems...
In summary, hedge fund managers are far more likely to be "information traders" than mutual fund managers and "insider information trading" happens to be one of the more lucrative (albeit illegal) manifestations of the same. So I am not surprised to see them ensnared in insider trading scandals more frequently. (I think the clustering of hedge funds around Stamford, Greenwich and other old-wealth Connecticut towns also adds into the mix. I would assume that there are hedge fund managers constantly rubbing shoulders with each other in every expensive restaurant in those towns...  trading stories and comparing returns...

In closing, though, I am not sure that all of this seeking out of information is generating a payoff for hedge funds. In the aggregate, they continue to either match or under perform actively managed mutual funds (which, in turn, under perform index funds), when fees and transactions costs are factored in. It is entirely possible that some of the "super" performers among hedge funds got there because they had access to private information that no one else had. I just don't think it is likely! As Shakespeare would put it, this seems like much ado about nothing!

4 comments:

rajsmusings said...

Sir,

Today i heard your first introductory webcast on valuation.
I would be interested to buy your book 'investment valuation 2nd edition'. However i am little confused between these 2 books as listed some websites.
1. Damodaran on valuation - http://www.bookadda.com/product/damodaran-valuation-aswath-damodaran/p992c5f70-b187-102c-803b-123139007a57
2. Investment Valuation - http://www.flipkart.com/investment-valuation-2nd-aswath-damodaran-book-0471414905

Which one of these books were you referring to in the webcast?
Are they same ?

Regards
Raja

Aswath Damodaran said...

I don't stick with any one of my books during my classes because they are built around the same fundamental principles. If you were picking a book for this class, I would pick Investment Valuation, because it is written as a text book. Damodaran on Valuation and The Dark Side of Valuation are more practitioner oriented.

rajsmusings said...

sir,

Thanks for your prompt reply.
I am trying to learn about valuation specifically from an individual investors perspective. So do you think i can take up 'Damodaran on Valuation' ?

Regards
Raja

Mahesh said...

One of the things the post misses is the enormous amount of leverage that is accessible to the hedge fund business which is not accessible to everyone else. The collapse of LTCM is a case in point which leads to the next issue which is contagion risk. Are investors in the hedge fund willing to lose their shirt without creating other non-related third part risk which could requre a bailout as in the case of the CDO market which was a form of a hedge fund business. The post misses out on these points.