FRANKFURT, Germany (HedgeWorld.com)–In separate reports this month, both the European Central Bank and the Bank of England highlighted the risks, but also the benefits, of hedge funds with respect to financial markets.
Leverage, lack of transparency and concentrated trading positions were among the potential concerns, while liquidity and the stabilizing effect contrarian trading, like that done by some hedge funds can have on markets, were among the benefits, according to year-end financial stability reviews from both banks.
Bank of England officials seemed most pessimistic in their analysis, emphasizing that the growing use of leverage likely would enhance volatility should markets experience a significant shock or shocks. “A combination of leverage, relatively illiquid assets and, in many cases, model-based approaches to trading and valuation may, in the event of material asset price shifts, exacerbate stressed conditions,” bank officials wrote.
This essentially was a toned-down version of the concerns the bank expressed in a decidedly “glass-is-half-empty” analysis it published in June.
Still, the bank pointed to what it called “crude proxies” that show funded leverage is on the rise. Although still not as high as in 1998, “given strong growth and the apparent increase in ‘economic leverage,’ it seems plausible to believe that potential leverage in the hedge fund sector may have been increasing in recent years,” bank officials wrote.
Additionally, hedge funds pose risks to other financial institutions such as U.K.-owned banks and so-called large complex financial institutions, or LCFIs, via those institutions’ exposure to either hedge funds directly–through lending or prime brokerage arrangements–or indirectly via the effect hedge funds can have on global financial markets.
While U.K.-owned banks’ direct exposure to hedge funds is limited, according to the Bank of England report, hedge funds increasingly are linked to non-bank entities such as securities dealers, which provide prime brokerage, and to life insurance and pension funds, which increasingly are investing in hedge funds.
For Bank of England officials, it all comes back to leverage. “?? 1/2 hedge funds’ leverage ?? 1/2 allows them to take positions that are far larger than their capital subscriptions,” according to the report. “They also usually trade more actively than other asset managers, so they typically account for a much greater proportion of market activity than their assets under management suggest.”
Finally, hedge funds tend to take similar positions, bank officials wrote, which can lead to problems if many try to exit those positions at the same time in response to some market disturbance.