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HedgeWorld: A Flawed Model or Modeler?

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There has been much self-satisfied tut-tutting lately by many in the investment management and advisory business over what they perceive as the wholly justified fall to earth of the hedge fund industry. There’s good reason to feel such justification, of course: many hedge fund managers have made plenty of enemies on their way to the bank, gladly participating in the mythmaking apparatus that paints those managers as Colossuses astride the investing universe, jealously guarding the knowledge of their sacred holdings as they collected their two and 20. As the latest sorry numbers show below, in this bear market, nearly all the vaunted hedge fund strategies lost money in 2008, and the average hedge fund’s value fell 20% for the year, according to Hedge Fund Research Inc., led by the convertible arb strategy index, which dropped 57% for the year.

Moreover, Bernie Madoff is now the poster boy for why the Federal government should regulate hedge funds, which the Securities and Exchange Commission attempted to do before its registration requirement was voided by a Federal judge. President Obama supported legislation while in the Senate to rein in offshore hedge funds, and fellow co-sponsor Senator Carl Levin of Michigan is still pushing the bill. A survey of hedge fund managers conducted by Rothstein Kass & Company just after the November election found that 84% believed an Obama Administration would at the very least increase the cost of doing business because of greater compliance.

While no hedge funds have actually blown up, a number have had to delay redemption requests from their investors, which has annoyed said investors to no end, and just added to the list of challenges that hedge fund managers will have moving forward in attracting more capital and dealing with Capitol Hill oversight.

The Real Problem With Hedge Funds?

However, the problem with hedge fund investing may not be with the industry or managers in general, but with the approach to using alternative investments in general. At least that’s one of the arguments made by David Swensen in an interview on January 13 with Craig Karmin in The Wall Street Journal. Swensen has been the Yale University endowment’s chief investment officer since 1988, delivering an average annual return of 16% for the 10 years through June 2008, the end of Yale’s fiscal year. While in mid-December Yale’s president said the endowment had lost 25% of its value since June, Swensen has stuck to his investing guns, especially the use of alternative investments, including hedge funds, as he says in his recently reissued 2000 book, “Pioneering Portfolio Management.”

In his fascinating interview with Kamin, Swensen argues that while many institutions say they are emulating the Yale model, “they are not. Most endowments use fund of funds and consultants, rather than making their own well-informed decisions. You can divide institutional investors into two camps: those who can hire high-quality, active-management investors and those who can’t. If you are going to invest in alternatives, you should be all in, and do it the way Yale does it–with 20 to 25 investment professionals who devote their careers to looking for investment opportunities. Or you belong at the other end, with a portfolio exclusively in index funds with low fees. If you’re not going to put together a team that can make high-quality decisions, your best alternative is passive investing. With a casual attempt to beat the market, you’re going to fail.”

Part of that approach to beating the market is demanding to know every position in every hedge fund that Swensen considers. “If they won’t trust us with that information,” Swensen argues, “why should we trust them with our money?”