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.

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