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Update from Hedge Fund Land

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This article provides an update on strong hedge fund performance YTD in 2019 as markets transition and the Fed reserves course. Continue reading and download the article below for more information. 

New Buy Rate Funds

Investing in Distressed Now

Distressed investing is a form of deep value investing with an event-driven element and at times an activist component. The opportunity set generally waxes and wanes with the credit cycle. When the economy rolls over default rates eventually rise and there is an increase in bankruptcies, debt restructurings, reorganizations and liquidations.

The current economic expansion in the U.S. has now lasted ten years, making it the longest ever. We are late in the credit cycle with low default rates, tight credit spreads and deteriorating covenant quality. We believe that defaults will eventually rise but readily available, low cost debt with borrower-friendly terms will likely extend this period of non-distress. It is difficult to predict what catalyst might cause a shift in the cycle or when it will occur.

Despite the benign market environment, distressed hedge funds are finding pockets of opportunity driven by episodes of market volatility and changing bank regulations. Larger managers have expanded their mandates and profited from realizations in structured credit, non-performing loans and distressed real estate. Such firms are oversized relative to many market opportunities and have adapted by pursuing illiquid, niche investments.

Smaller hedge funds have the flexibility to move between larger opportunities and middle market or off-the-run situations. These funds can take advantage of smaller complex and idiosyncratic opportunities that revolve around litigation, bankruptcy, regulatory action or a decline in profitability. We believe that smaller managers can generate attractive risk-adjusted returns in the current, more niche focused environment and still capitalize on more traditional opportunities when the cycle turns. Investments in such smaller funds do not require us to make a tactical call on when defaults will increase. We expect them to uncover attractive investments both today and tomorrow. Two such funds are highlighted in the table above.

L/S Equity Limitations

Their structure is not designed to meet some investors’ objectives

The very first hedge fund was a long/short (l/s) equity strategy created by Alfred Winslow Jones in 19491. Mr. Jones used leverage and short selling within an equity portfolio to create more opportunity for stock picking “alpha” and still control (hedge) the total market exposure. L/S equity continues to be one of the more popular strategies today, accounting for 50% of the funds included in the Hedge Fund Research Fund Weighted Composite, a rough indication of the total universe of hedge funds.

Strategy Structure

Long/short equity portfolio managers (PMs) search the universe for stocks that they believe will rise or fall and then take long or short positions accordingly. The funds typically use leverage to increase the impact of the stock picks and thus the potential value added or “alpha” over the market return. The shorts counteract the levered long exposure and hedge or reduce the impact of market moves on the total portfolio’s return.

These funds tend to have a long bias, or more longs than shorts, in part because markets tend to go up over time and the net long bias provides a tailwind to returns. A representative model of a l/s equity fund has a long exposure of 120% and a short exposure of -60%. The total gross exposure is 180% and the net exposure is 60%.

We note that equity market neutral funds and 130/30 funds are also both long and short equities but they have different exposure profiles. Both types of funds use leverage to increase their potential “alpha;” however, their net market exposure is zero and 100% respectively. Thus, the returns to equity market neutral funds, as the name implies, are not impacted by market moves and, conversely, 130/30 funds capture all of the market’s upward drift over time as their net exposure is 100%.

Model Fund Return Analysis

Hedge fund investors should develop expectations for not just the expected magnitude of returns but also the volatility reduction and the diversification benefits that come from investing in these complicated and expensive vehicles. Aon’s capital market assumptions indicate that global stocks are expected to return roughly 7.0% over the next ten years. This expected market return is multiplied by the l/s equity fund’s net exposure of 60% to get the market contribution to the fund’s return of 4.2%.

The other component of our model fund’s return is the stock picking alpha. Aon’s analysis of global unconstrained stock funds, both long-only and long/short, indicates that we might expect the very best PMs to generate around 3.0% of alpha per year. Our representative l/s equity hedge fund uses leverage so we multiply this 3.0% by 180%, the gross exposure, for a total return contribution from stock picking alpha of 5.4%.

The total gross return for this representative l/s equity hedge fund is the sum of these two components, or 9.6%. Typical fees for a l/s equity hedge fund today are a management fee of 1.5%, expenses of 0.2% and a performance fee of 20%. This takes our 9.6% gross return down to 6.3% net.

The first thing to note is that even with our assumption of outstanding alpha generation the l/s equity fund is up only 6.3% net while the market returned 7.0%. Importantly, this underperformance is not due to poor stock selection. We assumed the manager generated best in class stock picking alpha. The stock picking alpha was still insufficient to overcome the reduced market exposure and high fees. The fund cannot keep up in rising markets.

The reduced market exposure makes the l/s equity fund’s return about 60% less volatile than the market. The alpha component of the return will also be volatile but it should generally be uncorrelated to the market and to other exposures in the overall portfolio. While the l/s equity fund’s absolute return trails the market, the risk adjusted return, or Sharpe ratio, will likely be better than the market.

The market component of the return stream causes the l/s fund to have a meaningful correlation to equity markets. This correlation greatly reduces the diversification benefit of a l/s equity allocation within an investor’s overall portfolio. The incremental equity market risk that l/s funds add must be included when analyzing the total market exposure of the overall portfolio.

The l/s fund investors typically pay a 20% performance fee on the total return that is roughly half stock picking alpha and half due to market exposure. Market returns cost only a few basis points when obtained via an index fund.


Investors need to understand the inherent characteristics of long biased l/s equity funds when
determining the role of such an allocation within a portfolio. Performance expectations must consider the impact of the leverage, the net market exposure and the performance fee structure on returns.

The leverage will increase the impact of the manager’s stock picks. It allows skilled managers to deliver more outperformance for the same capital allocation, increasing efficiency.

The reduced market exposure of a long biased l/s equity fund is a double edged sword. It prevents the fund from capturing all of the upward drift of the market but it also reduces the volatility of the return stream. This reduced volatility, along with the increased alpha from the leverage, should improve the Sharpe ratio of l/s equity funds.

Finally, most l/s equity hedge funds include a performance fee on both the stock picking alpha and the market component of the return. The latter is available elsewhere for much lower cost. Our recommendations are:

  1. L/S equity funds tend to be highly correlated with the equity markets and this incremental market risk must be included in the analysis of a client’s overall equity market exposure.
  2. Investors should not expect these funds to keep up with the equity market over a cycle, even with excellent stock picking results. They will generally have lower volatility than the markets but also lower returns.
  3. Investors should not pay a performance fee on the market portion of the fund return.

1 Anson, Mark J.P. (2006). The Handbook of Alternative Assets. John Wiley & Sons. p. 36. ISBN 0-471-98020-X.

Expected returns are using AHIC Q2 2019 10 Year Capital Market Assumptions as of 3/31/2019, which are projections about the future returns of asset classes. For asset classes that can be implemented passively, which includes most public assets, alpha and active management fees are not included in the return expectations. For asset classes that can only be implemented actively, such as hedge funds and private assets, we assume alpha and higher active manager fees. Expected returns are geometric (long-term compounded). Expected returns presented are models and do not represent the returns of an actual client account. Not a guarantee of future results. See appendix for capital market assumptions disclosure pages. Data in this document is sourced by Aon unless otherwise stated. The opinions referenced are as of the date of publication and are subject to change due to changes in the market or economic conditions and may not necessarily come to pass. Information contained herein is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice. 

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Indices cannot be invested in directly. Please refer to the disclosures for Index Definitions and other General Disclosures.

Thought Leadership from the Hedge Fund Team

Comparing Risk Parity Strategies: How to Benchmark Returns when Returns are Not Targeted
Riccardo Lawi introduces the risk parity strategy, describing its main investment approach and intent. He also compares various benchmarking strategies, and explains the difficulties related to evaluating performance of managers in this space.

Bank Capital Relief
Alison Trusty provides a detailed explanation of the investment opportunity created by changing banking regulations in Europe.

About Aon

Aon plc (NYSE:AON) is a leading global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions. Our 50,000 colleagues in 120 countries empower results for clients by using proprietary data and analytics to deliver insights that reduce volatility and improve performance.


The information contained herein is for informational purposes only. Nothing contained herein should be construed as legal or investment advice; please consult your investment professional for any such advice. This information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but is not necessarily complete and its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Any opinions expressed are subject to change without notice. Aon Hewitt Investment Consulting, Inc. is a federally registered investment advisor with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. AHIC is also registered with the Commodity Futures Trade Commission as a commodity pool operator and a commodity trading advisor, and is a member of the National Futures Association.

The fee information presented reflects estimated management fees and excludes any operations or other expenses the client may incur, potential savings which may or may not be achieved. Actual fees and expenses may differ from those presented based on other fees and expenses you may incur as a client. The investment management fees presented above are based on the rate AHIC is able to obtain based on the firm’s volume of assets, and may not be available to individual plan agreements. There is no guarantee that the projected estimated savings will be achieved.

Index Definitions:

  • HFRI Fund Weighted Composite Index – Equal weighted peer group of self reported returns of hedge funds to Hedge Fund Research
  • HFRI Equity Hedge Index – Equal weighted peer group of self reported returns of hedge funds with hedged equity investment strategies
  • HFRI Event Driven Index – Equal weighted peer group of self reported returns of hedge funds employing an event driven investment strategy
  • HFRI Macro Index – Equal weighted peer group of self reported returns of hedge funds employing macroeconomic investment strategies
  • HFRI Distressed/Restructuring Index – Equal weighted peer group of self reported returns of hedge funds employing distressed and restructuring oriented investment strategies
  • HFRI Relative Value Index – Equal weighted peer group of self reported returns of hedge funds employing relative value investment strategies

The capital market assumptions (CMAs) utilized in the expected returns data provided in this document were developed by Aon's Global Asset Allocation Team and represent the long-term capital market outlook (i.e., 10 years) based on data at the end of the second quarter of 2019. The assumptions were developed using a building block approach, reflecting observable inflation and interest rate information available in the fixed income markets as well as Consensus Economics forecasts. Our long-term assumptions for other asset classes are based on historical results, current market characteristics, and our professional judgment. Expected returns are using AHIC Q2 2019 10 Year Capital Market Assumptions as of 3/31/2019. CMAs contain projections about future returns on asset classes. These do not assume additional alpha for active management strategies within these asset classes, and are modeled to represent a low nominal fee passive index, with the exception of hedge funds and private equity, where traditional passive investments are not available. Therefore, the model assumptions for hedge funds and private equity strategies include a higher model fee impact for these asset classes. You cannot invest in an asset class directly, or within the model asset classes assumed within the CMAs. CMAs do not include asset class fees or any underlying expense ratios. Expected returns are geometric (long-term compounded; rounded to the nearest decimal). Expected returns presented are models and do not represent the returns of an actual client account. Not a guarantee of future results.

This document has been produced by Aon Hewitt’s Global Investment Management (GIM) Research Team, a division of Aon plc and is appropriate solely for institutional investors. Nothing in this document should be treated as an authoritative statement of the law on any particular aspect or in any specific case. It should not be taken as financial advice and action should not be taken as a result of this document alone. Consultants will be pleased to answer questions on its contents but cannot give individual financial advice. Individuals are recommended to seek independent financial advice in respect of their own personal circumstances. The information contained herein is given
as of the date hereof and does not purport to give information as of any other date. The delivery at any time shall not, under any circumstances, create any implication that there has been a change in the information set forth herein since the date hereof or any obligation to update or provide amendments hereto. The information contained herein is derived from proprietary and non proprietary sources deemed by Aon Hewitt to be reliable and are not necessarily all inclusive. Aon Hewitt does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of this information and cannot be held accountable for inaccurate data provided by third parties. Reliance upon information in this material is at the sole discretion of the reader.

This document does not constitute an offer of securities or solicitation of any kind and may not be treated as such, i) in any jurisdiction where such an offer or solicitation is against the law; ii) to anyone to whom it is unlawful to make such an offer or solicitation; or iii) if the person making the offer or solicitation is not qualified to do so. If you are unsure as to whether the investment products and services described within this document are suitable for you, we strongly recommend that you seek professional advice from a financial adviser registered in the jurisdiction in which you reside. We have not considered the suitability and/or appropriateness of any investment you may wish to make with us. It is your responsibility to be aware of and to observe all applicable laws and regulations of any relevant jurisdiction, including the one in which you reside.

Aon Hewitt Limited is authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered in England & Wales No. 4396810. When distributed in the US, Aon Hewitt Investment Consulting, Inc. (“AHIC”) is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”). AHIC is a wholly owned, indirect subsidiary of Aon plc. In Canada, Aon Hewitt Inc. and Aon Hewitt Investment Management Inc. (“AHIM”) are indirect subsidiaries of Aon plc, a public company trading on the NYSE. Investment advice to Canadian investors is provided through AHIM, a portfolio manager, investment fund manager and exempt market dealer registered

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