Friday, 28 January 2011

Top Macro Manager Talks Through Set-Ups, Triggers and Sizing Positions

This week I heard a presentation by a senior trader at one of the large global macro hedge funds which has been in business for nearly 20 years. He put across several insights into the way of working of those who engage in the strategy. The particular trades under discussion were in foreign exchange, in the Euro/U.S. Dollar, during last year.

Fundamental Set-Up

In FX there are three elements to the fundamentals that should be aligned for putting on a position, according to the trader. The first is valuation. In FX there are several valuation models which are commonly used though each has limitations. Purchasing power parity (PPP) for a currency pair is a value which is unobservable in markets, and is a conceptual level that actual FX rates pass through without pausing. Extreme deviation from PPP is taken as an under or over-valuation. The Economist uses the price of the ubiquitous McDonald's meal to calculate the "Big Mac Index", a guide showing how far from fair value different world currencies are. The Big Mac theory, which is based on an observable purchasing-power parity, says that exchange rates should even out the prices of Big Macs sold across the world.

The second element of the fundamentals to consider is the interest rate differential between the two countries on each side of the currency pair. This is not a static element, as the FX markets (spot rate) move with forward forward rates. So expectations of future interest rate differentials are what count. The relative growth outlooks of the two economies is what the senior trader emphasised in getting a handle on interest rate differentials. For my part I would say that the perceived prospects for medium term inflation are now taking a much bigger role in the mind of the market than hithertofor in looking at interest rate differentials.

The third fundamental element to a good FX set up for a macro trader is the policy environment. Last year presented a classic opportunity (in looking at Euro related trades) in that European politicians/central bankers commented on levels and movements in traded rates (CDSs as well as bond auctions and FX parities). Some of the great macro trades have been set up by governments attempting to talk down markets when their policy objectives clash with what the markets discount as sustainable. So last year was a classic of its type in this regard, though interest rate policy specifically was a stale issue according to the bulge-bracket macro trader. That is, changes to interest rate policy were not expected to be a driver of the market condition for the trade under consideration in the time-frame envisaged. For trades at the market level like those illustrated here, and particularly in FX it is very important to understand the market drivers at the time. The graphic below indicates what the macro trader stated were the major drivers for the €/$ level last year through the different phases.

Technical Set-Up

The technical set up for a macro trade can be about flows and positioning by the various categories of market participants (say hedgers, speculators and governments). For example, the Commitments of Traders report for listed US futures showed there were very high levels of Dollar bear positions just before the monthly employment report for July 2010 released on the 6th August last year. So the positioning in the market shifted the odds of the labour market data being bad enough to move the Euro up further versus the Dollar. That date marked an interim top for the Euro versus the Dollar.

The other form of commonly used technical set up is pattern recognition, which in its crudest form is chartism. Along with the rest of the market, the senior trader from the well-known global macro firm was onto the break in the multi-quarter uptrend for the Euro (versus the Dollar) that occurred in December 2009. The Greek debt crisis powered the multi-month fall in the Euro which lasted into the middle of 2010. The break in trend of itself is often a good entry point for a trade, but as FX markets have lots of minor reversals against the major trend traders have to have tools to identify the second and third high quality entry points as the new major trend unfolds. In the middle of January 2010 there was a good secondary entry point on such a short term reversal – as is typical the secondary entry point corresponds to a support/reversal level on the previous major trend – in this case around 1.45 on the €/$ in the period 13-15th January.

This secondary, high-quality entry point can be illustrated in another trade mentioned on this website – in Gilt futures (see here and here).

Technical Set Up for Trade in Gilt Futures Showing High-Quality Entry Point

The significance from a money management perspective is that the second entry point - as the security price accelerates away from a key support or resistance level - can be a higher conviction entry point than the first. This is because the investment hypothesis ("the market is going to go down", say) has been tested by market action and passed the test. So depending on style, the macro trader can trade in several risk units at the second entry point. In no way is the second entry point a secondary entry point!

The global macro trader also disclosed the use of a particular tool to assess sentiment – the world wide web. The fund monitored the occurrence of the phrase "quantitative easing" on the web in August, September and October to ascertain the degree of dominance in the minds of investors.


Global macro trading is often about assessing the persistence of action by the various actors in the market drama. It was interesting that the senior macro trader said that the trigger for putting on the position was often the behaviour of the markets themselves. Note that the crucial observations are across markets, not necessarily from market action within the market under consideration. So for the €/$ last year the maturity of the Euro rally that began in June was under consideration in August by the trader because the co-movements of the S&P500 (as a proxy for global equities) and the fx rate diverged. The €/$ and the SPX had synchronised price changes for a period of some months, but over the first few trading days of August days the S&P was flat whilst the € was still appreciating against the $. For the macro trader this signalled a change of behaviour was imminent for the Euro/Dollar relationship because the S&P action signalled at least a pause in the driver for the FX rate (the slowing US economy). To quote the trader directly, "divergences between markets are the best clue for market behaviour. A correlation break that lasts for one-to-two days and can indicate a movement to follow that lasts for 2-3 months." He also stated that more than 50% of a macro trader's insight comes from understanding the message of the markets, that is the behavioural inference is key. Like many traders, including those with a macro framework, the presenting macro trader only puts capital to work if the market has already started to move in the direction he wants to play.


Sizing of positions in macro is usually a function of risk/reward and correlation. The senior trader didn't mention correlation himself in this regard, so we'll concentrate on the potential profit and loss as the key input to position sizing. The target price and stop loss levels for positions in markets are typically placed at or near significant support and resistance levels – the difference between current price levels and these two levels gives the upside/downside ratio for the potential trade. The potential loss between current levels and the stop is used to scale the maximum position size. A loss of say 5% on a position that is 20% of the gross equity of the fund would give a portfolio level loss of 1%. If two percent loss at the fund level for a single position is the outer bound then a 3% loss to the stop would equate to a 24% of equity maximum position size. The principle is determine how much you are prepared to lose – "anything else is bad discipline, or has ego in it," admonishes the trader.

This particular macro fund also uses drawdown from peak as an additional risk limiter at the level of the individual trader. So the risk capital of the trader will be reduced if his P&L is down 5% from his own peak, and he will be out of the market for a period if he loses 10% from his peak P&L, even if he is still positive on the year.

Closing the Position

The macro trader acknowledged his belief in the concept of reflexivity – Soros' concept that positive price changes themselves impact how positively investors think about the market – such that prices can waterfall down or continue upwards way beyond most expectations. Conceptualising potential price changes and unusual market impacts helps macro traders mentally prepare for a range of market outcomes. But still an all, positions have to be closed even after exceptional profits – so what feeds into the decision making at the closing of a trade? "A position should be reviewed when a price target is hit, and should be closed for sure when a lot of the market has joined you in that position."

How do you make money in macro trading? – "You need to take risk aggressively to make money, but you need to take it well." 

One of the reasons I posted this article is that the trader uses several methods I use in my own style of investing. If you run a hedge fund and would welcome input on your processes (investment, research and risk management) from my consultancy or want to persuade me to share my expertise full-time contact me on 

Friday, 21 January 2011

Chart of the Day – Funds of Hedge Funds Flat-line in Asset Flows in North America

My Chart of the Day comes from The Eurekahedge Report which looks at 2010 hedge asset flows and investment returns. The chart compares the monthly asset flows to North American hedge funds and funds of hedge funds since the start of 2008. The contrast in flows in the recovery phase is very striking: single manager hedge funds net redemptions stopped four months earlier than net redemptions to funds of funds; and there have been net subscriptions to single manager funds in most months since April 2009, and net subscriptions to funds of funds have flat-lined over the same period.

Monthly asset flows to North American hedge funds vs North American funds of hedge funds

The North American component of the hedge fund story is very constructive at the single manager level. Not only have NAVS recovered well since the Credit Crunch but in doing so last year the Eurekahedge North American Hedge Fund Index was ahead of the S&P 500 until the last month of the year. Over the last three years North American single manager hedge funds produced annualised returns of just over 7 1/2 %, versus 5 1/2 % for the Global Eurekahedge Index. Indeed American hedge funds produced better returns than funds managed from other developed regions in each of the last three years. So American single manager hedge funds have done better in performance terms than those in other regions.

The three year annualised returns of North American funds of funds are negative according to Eurekahedge, just as the MSCI North America had negative returns over the same period (to end November 2010). Further the 3-year annualised standard deviation of returns of funds of funds is the same as that for single manager hedge funds. So that on a three year basis funds of funds have not delivered absolute returns, and the volatility of returns over that period has not been lower than single manager funds (which historically had previously always been the case). So the return-for-risk argument is weak for funds of funds relative to single manager funds in North America.

As a source of capital for the whole hedge fund industry American investing institutions have become dominant. Survey evidence shows some recovery of appetite amongst institutional investors in hedge funds – questions on investment intentions produce a net positive balance from respondents on a consistent basis since the end of 2009, with US investors more positive than investors in other regions. But the "intentions" have turned into net positive flows only for single manager hedge funds in aggregate (though around 30% of funds of hedge funds report net inflows in the second half of last year). There several plausible explanations for the contrast in flows depicted in the chart.

The gap in performance between single manager hedge funds and funds of funds may have got too wide for investing institutions to bear. Historically there were a few years, over the course of decades, in which multi-manager hedge funds out-performed single manager hedge funds. So in those years there was a (relative) pay-off for strategy allocation and avoiding the under-performers and blow-ups – which is for what investors pay funds of funds. It was commercially crucial that funds of funds did that in the key year of 2008, and they didn't, as a whole. It is now many years since funds of funds in aggregate even got near single manager returns.

Given the return records for single manager and multi-manager hedge funds the additional layer of fees in the latter cannot be justified in the minds of institutional investors. Fund of funds' management fees have been falling for more than a decade, reflecting the balance of supply and demand over that time. In contrast single manager fees have held up much better, with the exception of the immediate post Credit Crunch period. Indeed Eurekahedge record that the average management fees for single manager start-ups in 2010 was higher than for 2009's start-ups.

A third plausible explanation for the difference in asset flows to the two hedge fund sectors in North America is the increased accumulated knowledge and experience of the investing institutions there. The model seems to have shifted. For most of the last decade funds of funds were the mechanism for investing institutions to allocate to hedge funds, but a knowledge transfer has taken place. The senior staff at institutions now have a familiarity with hedge fund concepts and can interpret hedge fund data readily. Whilst funds of funds companies can demonstrate advantages in due diligence process, depth of understanding of investment strategies, and risk management and portfolio construction of funds of funds compared to the dedicated resources available to most investing institutions, the latter can now comfortably find these capabilities on an out-sourced basis. External advisors for strategic decision making and tactical monitoring of hedge funds have usurped the role of the dedicated funds of funds. The same tasks are being carried out, but maybe by a combination of a very small dedicated in-house team with input from an external advisor on a fixed fee basis. A number of funds of funds companies may be retained by investing institutions to give a plurality of opinion and form of analysis, for benchmarking, but experienced investing institutions may not feel the need to pay the old fee scales. Plus the marginal increases in allocations to hedge funds by pension plans is increasingly going to direct investing in single manager funds.

In each of these regards the North American part of the industry is in the vanguard. Most of the assets of the hedge fund industry are managed by managers in the United States. For a U.S. investor to visit (and allocate to) an American hedge fund manager is a lot easier than for a Japanese investing institution – hence there will always be a place for funds of funds for Japanese investors in hedge funds. American investing institutions are the largest contributors of capital to the hedge fund industry at the moment, and will be for some time. Given all the above - relative performance, regional strengths, fee structures etcetera - plus the fact that large, branded hedge fund groups are highly likely to be American, is it any wonder that 85% of the global flows into hedge funds are going into American single manager hedge funds? 

To see more postings on multi-manager hedge funds click on "funds of hedge funds" in the LABELS gadget on the lhs of the page.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Cevian Capital II Ranks High on 2010 Returns

Europe's largest activist fund, the €3.5bn Cevian Capital II, has had a(nother) banner year – up over 34% in 2010, after a return of 35.7 percent in 2009. This puts the Fund very close to the top of the ranking for hedge funds of any style, ahead of almost any other equity hedge fund, and given that most of the other top-ranking funds are a fraction of the size of Cevian II it again confirms the quality of the management. Without doubt founders Christer Gardell and Lars Förberg are amongst the most impressive managers of capital I have met. So I thought I would share some thoughts from Lars Förberg that were elucidated during a session in October last year under the auspices of The Greenwich Roundtable.

First here's a bit of background on the firm and what it does, and the talk should illustrate the principles outlined.

Cevian Capital was founded in 2002 by with the launch of Cevian Capital I, a fund dedicated to activist investments in the Nordic region, and in which Carl Icahn was a significant investor. In 2006 Cevian raised its second fund, Cevian Capital II which had a remit to invest in companies in Northern Europe. To put the wider remit into practice Lars Förberg moved to Zurich, whilst Gardell remained in Stockholm.

Cevian Capital's version of active ownership creates value by (i) acquiring substantial ownership positions in undervalued public companies and (ii) realizing their long term value potential through change. Cevian generally invests in companies overlooked or misunderstood by the market and in many instances out of favor with investors. Cevian targets investments where there is a meaningful opportunity to enhance the long term value by improving corporate governance, operational performance, corporate strategy and structure.

Cevian manages a concentrated portfolio of 8-12 companies at a time, with significant ownership positions in a limited number of publicly listed companies and is typically one of the largest shareholders in its portfolio companies. Consequently, Cevian maintains a strong commitment to oversight of each of its investments.

The investment process of Cevian is in two stages. Prior to investing, Cevian commits considerable time and resources to evaluating and analyzing prospective investments. All investment decisions rely on a well established and rigorous proprietary due diligence process, including comprehensive financial, commercial, operational and legal analysis. In the second stage Cevian looks to work constructively together with the management and board of directors of its portfolio companies, aiming to increase the company's long term competitiveness and create value for all shareholders. Cevian frequently participates on boards and nomination committees of its portfolio companies.

Lars Förberg
Three Questions for Lars Förberg

Question One: Is Europe Falling Apart?

To the first question, is Europe falling apart, the answer is clearly no. Sure, there are immense macroeconomic issues in many parts of Europe, notably in the south, what many people call Club Med or the pigs. That is Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain. These countries are over-levered. They have big deficits. They're not easy to run politically.

Having said that, the most difficult countries -- Greece, Portugal and Ireland -- only account for 6 percent of GDP of Europe. If you add Spain to that, you go 10 percentage points higher. This is still a small part of Europe, and it's not big enough to bring the more healthy northern and central Europe down. And what is interesting is that fiscal and labour market reform of almost unprecedented scope in the problem countries is going roughly according to plan.

Question Two: Can Europe Compete?

On the second question, can Europe compete -- a common view is that Europe is ridden by Euro-sclerosis, an inability to grow and compete based on regional labour markets, militant unions, punitive taxes, and generous social security. In some countries this is true. But when I look at our home market, Scandinavia, and German speaking Europe, i.e., Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, you see a different picture. Look, for instance, at the statistics over which countries are the most competitive in the world, and I'm now using the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness statistics. You'll find Switzerland number one, Sweden number two, Germany number five, Finland number seven. As in parenthesis, U.S. is in the middle of these being ranked at number four.

Also interestingly, these numbers go hand in hand, leaving the U.S. aside, with where you will find the most fiscal sound countries. These northern European countries, I imagine, have limited budget deficits, if at all. And a country like Sweden, as an example, has been running budget surpluses for almost every year since the mid-nineties. Another characteristic of these countries is that they all have a strong industrial base geared towards exporting and being the home of a number of successful global companies with strong market positions, excellent product and services, and wide ranging distribution capabilities. These companies benefit from the global economic growth driven by emerging markets, and they have shown an ability to adapt to the changing market environment. I will come back to these companies a bit later.

So, the somewhat short answer to the second question, is Europe competitive, is two-fold -- a strong competitive northern Europe and a somewhat weaker south. One thing I'd like to add here, though, is that when you look at most of the countries that are now successful and most competitive, they went through major reform to get there. Germany did that in the early 2000s after the reunification of the problems that that led to in Germany. Scandinavia did that in the mid-nineties following the financial crisis in a number of Scandinavian countries. These reforms, many times orchestrated by the social democratic governments, led to labour productivity growth way above peers, many times at the level of 5 percent year after year.

Many of these same measures are now being undertaken in the currently weak countries - the fiscally problematic countries in southern Europe. This is being forced by the financial crisis. Examples of these efforts are major deregulations of labour markets, fiscal savings of up to 10 percent of budgets, restructurings of the pension systems, and VAT hikes of 5 percentage points. It's difficult to tell, but in a rosy scenario, these changes can lead to pretty benign environments in southern Europe and have attractive effects in the medium term. But that's something I wouldn't bank on, though, because the political situation is difficult and will continue to be difficult and uncertain over a couple of years, in my estimation. But what should be noted is that the financial crisis is used as a tool to move through structure reforms that are well needed in many parts of Europe, especially in the labour market.

Question Three: Attractive Opportunities?

So, on to the third question -- where do we see the most attractive investment opportunities in Europe right now? Well, we are an activist fund operating primarily in northern Europe, buying into equities, so I will back up the earlier comments by what we're doing. What we think are the most attractive investment opportunities right now are the companies I mentioned before -- the equities of the globally oriented companies out of Scandinavia and Germany.

You can still buy these companies as they are for double digit cash on cash yields, and get companies with excellent products, strong market positions, and full exposure to the emerging markets. Prices vary, though, and I don't believe there's going to be an over the line bull market, but I believe that with selective stock picking there are immense opportunities. I'll give you a couple of examples that we have put on into our concentrated portfolio of ten companies.

One example is the German crane manufacturer, Demag Cranes AG, in which we bought more than 10 percent of the share capital over the spring. Demag is the global leader in its field and has the largest installed base of industrial cranes globally. This is important because that means a great opportunity for stable earnings servicing this installed base. The company was undervalued because of its late cyclical nature, but also because there were some question marks over its strategic -- future strategic direction. Therefore, we could buy the company only paying for the service business which is 35 percent of the business, and getting 65 percent of the business - the equipment business - for free.

Another way to see it is that we bought the company paying an enterprise value equivalent to 50 percent of sales. This is for a company that we think will make 10 percent EBIT margin on a sustainable basis.

Another example is Panalpina World Transport, one of the global leaders in freight forwarding, which is based in Switzerland. This company we could buy early this year for a price reflecting the difficult conditions of the logistics industry during the slump. If the company comes back to its normalized earnings level, it will mean a doubling on our initial investment. If we manage to close the company's underperformance to its peers, which is our job as an activist, it will be a 3x investment.

On top of having these sound companies with attractive valuations, I think Europe has offered and continues to offer great opportunities for restructurings. Many companies have been unexposed to active ownership due to a legacy of passive shareholdings, unengaged board members, and value destroying cross share holdings. I believe there is a tremendous value potential in the existing unwieldy corporate structures, operational inefficiencies, underutilized balance sheets, and entrenched boards and management teams that are not pressured to perform. And in most parts of Europe, the corporate governance framework is there to unlock these inefficiencies. The restructuring opportunities, the low valuations, are coupled with one of the greatest opportunities that is not in the share prices today, and that will soon come to fruition, which is restructuring in terms of M&A.

If you are on the right side of M&A, there is tremendous opportunity to make great returns. And I point to a few factors that is driving this. One, corporate restructuring has been absent over the last two years. We all know why. So, there is a pent up demand and appetite. Two, the debt financing is there, both for industrial companies and private equity firms, and corporate cash is at all time highs. Three, the ability to make these M&A decisions is back in the boardroom: markets have stabilized; there's better visibility, and you don't have to focus on your short term crisis anymore. If you as a CEO had brought a big acquisition to your board a year ago, you would have gotten no traction. Now it's a totally different story.

When this M&A boom will happen is difficult to know. It's going to happen. Will it be three years ... three months from now, six months from now, or within a year, I can't say, but it's going to happen.

So, I think these three factors in terms of low valuations, restructurings, and the M&A opportunity, have created some very attractive opportunities in Europe from our vantage point in what we think, at least in northern Europe, is going to be a relatively benign macroeconomic environment.


Q1. To marry what you're seeing in terms of micro opportunities with the macro, I was wondering, have you come across situations in your portfolio where macroeconomic or regulatory risk that one of these companies, say the crane company, in the tough economic environment, dwarfed what you saw as the micro economic opportunity. So what you thought was a great value turned out not to be because of macroeconomic risks?

A. (Lars Förberg): You're saying with a macroeconomic environment is it too tough for these companies? Well, when we buy companies that are cyclical, like at Demag, the crane manufacturer, yes, it was a cyclical company. But we would not buy it if we had to rely on a macroeconomic upturn. I think this is the attractive thing. We could buy it paying only for the servicing business. That servicing business is really something, and this was in a slump. So, this servicing business is typically something when you're a core manufacturer or, which Demag sells to, you need these things to function.

It's almost like an elevator business. So, we could buy into this company only paying for this business which is very stable. An elevator business has to go there. You know, it has to run. But we've got the equipment business - 65 percent of the business for free - so we're covered on the downside because we're not paying for the macroeconomic upside, but we're getting that if it comes. I think it's going to come, but it doesn't need to come for it to be an okay investment. If the macroeconomic environment swings up, which it's doing, it's going to be an excellent investment. So, that's the way we think about it.

Q2. Have you thought about playing on the fixed income side at all - corporate fixed income?

A. You know, there isn't much corporate depth in that. I think if you have a credit fund in Europe you have a lot to do two years, and then you have nothing to do for five years. It was a great opportunity two years ago. Then there were many of the convertibles trading maybe at 35 percent of par - very attractive opportunities, companies that you know would survive maybe with equity infusion but they were not going to go dead. But I think that opportunity is gone from my perspective. I think the opportunity in (European) corporate bonds is not there now.

I think when you look at the macro there are a number of issues in terms of how Europe is going to grow, and I think a common view is that Europe is not going to grow that much. When I painted a pretty positive picture of Europe, I was not talking about the GDP growth numbers. I pointed to the Export-oriented companies that have global market positions. If we do something in the domestic oriented sector, which we do limited of but if we do, we only do situations where we can increase the profits of the company by, say, 50 or 100 percent by cost-cutting, typically, or by restructuring in terms of selling off non-core assets because I don't think you should expect in Europe domestic demand to drive growth.

The joker could be Germany, actually, which has been a laggard for many years in terms of domestic demand - consumption demand being very low for many years. But you have a situation in Germany where the unemployment is at its lowest for probably 20 years, and so there could be consumption growth coming in Germany, which would surprise the markets, I think. But it's not going to make a huge lot of difference if you go from 1 percent growth to 3 percent growth. You're not going to make much money from that, so in the domestic economy you have to find special situations.

Q3. There's been a concentration on bank debt in Europe, as opposed to corporate fixed income. So there's not enough in play in the distressed and high yield and corporate bond markets. Does that make it difficult for an activist to get purchase to force through labour reforms in target companies? Europe needs labour reform to make the economies more flexible. That's what the activists need isn't it, flexibility?

A. I think restructuring in Europe is much easier than generally perceived from a legal/cultural perspective. There are countries in Europe where the companies have already restructured. In Germany it used to be impossible to restructure a company ten years ago. It's completely different now. After the agenda 2010 laws that were passed by the social democratic government in the early 2000s, you can restructure in Germany.

And you have to remember that these companies, and many of the countries of Europe, are very dependent on exports. And the governments and the unions know that the companies have to be successful, otherwise it's going to be a problem in terms of employment. They're subject to global competition from China, from the U.S., from everywhere. And therefore many times you have a consensus among the stakeholders (the boards, shareholders, unions, and governments) in cutting costs.

In the countries where I operate (Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway) you have, by law, unions on the boards of companies. And you would think that's going to be problematic in terms of restructuring a company. It's actually the other way around because the unions understand that if we don't do anything to improve the company we're going to be out of business. They hate underperformance more than shareholders do or as much, I should say.

Now, southern Europe is a different thing ... if you look at Spain and Italy and so on. But I think we're seeing labour reform there, and in Portugal as well. And I think that that's the good thing, that the crisis is used to reform labour laws. I think in terms of Greece, we should recognize that it's not that relevant. We talk a lot about Greece, but it's like in a discussion about the U.S. talking 50 percent of the time about North Dakota. It's not that significant.

Q4. So can Europe split – into a fast-track Euro with a slower Euro for certain countries? There are countries that were thinking of leaving the EU, though there are a lot of logistical issues with that?

A. I think politically it's a no-starter. When Europe looked this spring at the budget problems in Greece it took some time for Germany to come around and help bail Greece out. That was a purely political calculation, and I think rightly so. What they did was to wait to endorse a bailout package until Greece had committed to more far reaching reforms. So, it was more a political process than anything else. I don't think a two-speed Euro is going to happen.

I should say, though, I personally voted as a Swedish citizen against the adoption of the Euro a few years ago. I'm a Euro skeptic - there are a lot of problems with it that we're seeing in a country like Greece where they should have a lower currency. But look at Estonia, for example, a country which was not with the Euro, but they were locked in terms of parity with the euro, and they made an internal devaluation by lowering the salaries of government employees by 25 percent an incredible process to adjust their economy to staying with the locked in currency rate with the Euro. They managed through that, and hopefully they will manage through that in Greece as well.

Appendix- Key terms of Cevian Capital II 
A full profile of Cevian Capital can be found at The Hedge Fund Journal

Friday, 7 January 2011

Consulting One - Team Working in Hedge Funds

There is no such thing as a perfect hedge fund – we are all trying. So in my role as a consultant to hedge fund portfolio managers (PMs), I am usually carrying out remedial work in some dimension. Sometimes it can be about the positioning of hedge funds commercially, but usually it is about what the portfolio managers are doing. I'm going to write a series of articles about my consulting work – this is the first.

One of the key elements I have to investigate in my consulting work is the relationship between team members. I'm going to discuss one project I did with two joint-portfolio managers of an equity long/short hedge fund. This discussion is to raise issues and to describe ways of working. The team in this case comprised two members, PM "A" and PM "B", and they ran reasonably successful long-only products. There are three topics in this snapshot – the ground rules were not well established in this example, there were some important differences in style (personal and investment style) that got in the way of successful team working, and one of the portfolio managers had an unusual trait which had a bearing on his money management style. Finally I have included some of the solutions I gave to the portfolio managers and their boss.

Ground Rules

It is not unusual for a team to move from running long-only money together to managing a hedge fund. In doing so there will, of necessity, have to be new rules of engagement. Clarity of the decision making process is very important, for internal purposes (for accountability and reward), and for external parties like potential investors. It is important that there is agreement about the specific roles to be taken, and that there is a buy-in from the off of the structure adopted. A successful agreement or understanding will have a level of detail in it that may surprise some.

One of the most basic areas not made explicit in this case was the fund's objectives and the consequences that follow from that. The two portfolio managers did not have a common, agreed understanding of what returns would make the fund they both ran commercially attractive. Therefore they did not feel the need to measure their portfolio level risk and monitor it - where they taking too much or too little risk? They just didn't know.

Another consequence of this lack of commerciality in terms of return profile is that they had no notion of what was a the worst monthly loss they could sustain without putting themselves out of active consideration by investors. The worst monthly loss is a key metric both internally and externally. Internally the metric gives an implication of where portfolio level stops should kick in. Externally it is one of a number of measures that give investors an idea of what the whole risk profile should be like – number of winning-to-losing months, drawdown, recovery period, and what is a good and bad month for the style of investment.

One of the issues which provoked some tension in the relationship between the managers was how they split between them the sectors of the equity market they worked on. It was fine, and indeed seen commonly elsewhere, that the market was split into two – one half invested in by one portfolio manager. The tension, such as it was, arose because PM B did not want to be excluded from investing in some of the sectors covered by PM A. It was never satisfactorily covered in discussion at inception in the mind of manager B, and that oversight hung over discussions in the ensuing two or three years.

It is quite usual for a PM in a team of portfolio managers to be able to initiate positions without reference to their partners. But how the team will react to change for the positions (in size or price) does need to be covered in the ground rules. Is there any right of veto, is there a different scale of decision made when the partners don't agree? Once a position is owned is it subject to hard or soft stops – do both partners have to adhere to review and exit levels? For the fund and team under discussion one of the partners was much more engaged in challenging the positions initiated by the other partner. Whilst the partners whose positions were under discussion saw this as a personal style point (one partner was just more vocal/forthright than the other), the other partner saw such challenging discussions as part of the investment process. This difference in perception and therefore activity could easily undermine a relationship under pressure because of returns.

Differences Between the Portfolio Managers

Having had some preliminary discussions for an overview, and discussed at some length how the two portfolio managers spent their time and what structure they had in place in their investment process, some clear points of difference came through. To explore these further I conducted separate structured interviews – asking the same questions to each portfolio manager gave a chance to compare attitudes, preferences, and perceptions of the two team members. To put the following list of differences into context I quote from my written report on the managers: "The managers have fantastically complementary philosophies on the market. They get on very well on a personal basis. In fact they have worked incredibly well together with some quite significant differences in tactical approaches (strategy being broadly agreed)."

Differences in Time-Frame

PM B is more comfortable with the shorter term time-frame that running a L/S hedge fund usually requires. Specifically B is much more willing to incorporate the current implications of market action into his market view by stock than PM A.

Differences in seeing Companies and Stocks

They have a similar level of respect for each other's views on companies (specifically differentiating between stocks and companies). However, when looking at equities of companies (shares) portfolio manager B can be as dispassionate about shares as he can about companies. This is in contrast to PM A – who is still prepared to argue with markets when he likes the company, even when the share price action is saying that the market does not agree with the positive (or negative) view of the company in the short term. So the feedback loop from owning the shares – the P&L – is negative for the position and getting worse (e.g. if it is a short the shares are going up) and that message from the markets, even if it is just about short term timing of the position, is being ignored.

The Fall-back Input - is it Technical or Fundamental?

(or to put it another way "short-term or long-term" or even "stock market or real world")?

Through the structured interviews of the portfolio managers it is possible to tease out where there are differences between the team members on research time. For example, in this case PM A suggested that they needed to have 300 company meetings a year, PM B thought that 100 meetings a year with company management was enough. The different perceptions of what was needed fed through to the weighting given to the fundamentals. Or, as likely, reflected the biases the managers brought into the discussion. Under pressure PM A will rely on the fundamentals to win out, whilst PM B will listen to the message of the markets and will be prepared to cut losing positions.

Conviction or Confidence?

Operators in markets, particularly traders, but to a significant degree portfolio managers as well, bring with them the baggage from their previous life experience to their decision making. So sometimes in analysing a team it is not that there are subtle style differences so much as one of the team is coming from somewhere else attitudinally (or characteristically). There can be a one-sided difference, if you like. Portfolio manager X brings with them epsilon, whilst portfolio manager Y has acquired a trait of zeta.

Through the structured interview it came through very strongly that PM A (or the Alpha member!) had a strong conviction that the most important characteristic of a successful portfolio manager was confidence. It is true that someone operating in markets has to have the belief in themselves sufficient to take on the markets, but the very strong emphasis on confidence manifested itself in the investment process in this case. This happened in two ways.

The first expression of individual confidence, if you like an assertion of confidence of an investment view, was in position sizing. Having done the analytical work PM A would take what I would consider a large position for his initial holding in a stock. Almost by definition the stock was bound to be perceived as under-valued by the market at the point of taking the initial position. If the market further under-valued that (long) position by marking the shares down (causing a loss) this would create a "better" (cheaper) buying opportunity, so PM A would have some bias to expressing confidence in his initial view of the shares by buying more. But the more important point is the size of the initial holding – he may or may not add to the position. Portfolio manager B would take an initial position of less than half the size of that taken by PM A, and look to add to it.

The second expression of confidence was the maintenance of positions of large size. PM A would always look for a further up leg in longs he owned for fundamental medium-term reasons. PM B would have a bias to trim successful positions as the positive momentum waned (to top and tail the positions). There was clear anchoring by PM A in sticking to previously successful positions, and to cut them would, in his mind, be an expression of a lessening confidence in the initial research.

Recommendations and Suggestions to Address the Issues Raised

In this particular case I wrote a 30-odd page report to the CIO of the firm as well as presented my conclusions to the portfolio managers that ran the equity long/short hedge. In the report I made a series of tiered written proposals – key recommendations, other recommendations, and finally at a more elective level, some suggestions. In response to the issues raised above here are some of the Recommendations and Suggestions forwarded:

  • You should select what you consider to be "high potential" company meetings for both PMs to attend. This will enable higher conviction positions to be established at an earlier stage with a common background on the company.
  • Be very clear and explicit (shared between you) on the reasons for having a position in a stock. Indeed there may be five potential drivers for a stock to go up (or down), but you must be clear why you own it (are short of it). The stock position should be in a portfolio for reason of how it will contribute to the portfolio characteristics (factor bets) as much as any stock specific reason (factor). This allows you to control portfolio shape in an informed way. Drift in any one position may not matter, but when aggregated across a portfolio, factors like capitalisation effects will turn you into heroes or zeroes promptly in the hedge fund format. Own positions for a reason and stick to it.
  • You both have to have the capacity to invest in all sectors of the market.
  • You need a few mechanistic rules that you can apply to take even more of the emotion out of decision making:
  1. Automatic locking in profit/reducing exposure after a stated return. So a trading position that gives a 15% plus return in two weeks is completely sold, an investment position that gives 25%-plus return in a couple of months is halved automatically. The trading position can be bought again if it is equally attractive at some point. If the fundamentals still justify a larger position (they have improved since original position taken) then the investment position can be made larger.
  2. You need a review level and hard-stop level per position. I suggest a 10% loss on book should be a review level, and 15% is a hard stop level (sell whole position, no exceptions). As a reminder the ABC Large Cap Fund has a hard stop at 8% for non-core positions and a hard stop of 10% for core positions, and the ABC Europe Fund has 5 and 10% respectively.
  • Either can initiate a position, as at present. However there must be a vote before ADDING to a position – both PMs must agree.
  • Just as you need to know yourself to be an investor, you need to know your partner if you have joint and several decision-making, rather than having a presiding genius. Because you demonstrate some differences in personal style, there are times when you don't understand where your partner is coming from. I suggest that you complete a Myers-Briggs Model™ (Extravert, Introvert, Intuitive, Sensor, Thinker, Feeler, Judger, Perciever) questionnaire. This is particularly relevant for times of stress – we each revert to a fall-back way of operating and this is the kernel of what you need to know of each other for managing money as a team. If you understand more about where each other is coming from (not intellectually but in personal style) then you will be able to tolerate the differences more easily.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Opportunity to Attend a Master Class with Trader Vic

I've known of Victor Sperandeo for a long time now – I first read of him in "New Market Wizards" (incidentally I can heartily recommend both Market Wizard books by Jack Schwager), and he is featured in Barrons periodically. He has been described as the trader's trader, and I was getting quite excited when I was told that he is running a traders' Master Class next month. So I was disappointed when I enquired and I found out it is running in New York, and I wouldn't be able to get along myself. However, as a friend of mine has set this up, and he himself is a trader trainer I know this is going to be a very interesting day to participate in, if you are a professional trader.

In investing and trading there are very few opportunities to enhance your learning except by doing beyond a certain point. So this is an unusual chance to meet a well-regarded experienced trader who is prepared to share some of his own trading style and what rules he has given himself. I am told that Victor will be sharing material that is not included in his books, and anyone going along will have the chance to engage with Victor and get beyond the superficial. There is a whole programme that will run 9-6.00, so it will be intense at times, but course material etcetera is included.

If you contact me (via I can forward details and get a discount for anyone that comes through me. It looks suitable for trading firms to offer to an employee/partner as a thank you bonus to an investment professional that has had a good 2010. I wish I was going to be there!