Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Selecting the Best Managers – a natural bias to hedge fund managers?

I carried out manager research for an American fund of hedge funds for several years early last decade. Manager research and portfolio construction is a team effort so I had to find a way to put across to my colleagues the merits of the managers I followed. We use a lot of inputs to understand how managers manage capital, so in our heads each of us has a multi-faceted view of the portfolio manager and his process, but it is not feasible to put it all across to someone else. So we have to find ways to summarise and capture the essence of our take on the hedge fund manager.

In my case I used a numeric score of what I considered then, and still do now, the key drivers of performance. So I gave each manager a score between 1 and 10 for each of source of alpha and for risk management. Risk management included portfolio construction, position sizing, diversification, risk measurement, downside risk and use of stops. The source of alpha score took into consideration the added value of the specific person/people pulling the trigger, the breadth and depth of research, whether there was a unique or unusual information source being used, the sustainability of the manager's edge, how adaptable the approach was to change, and the richness of the opportunity set being addressed. A mid-ranking manager would score 6 for each, in the way I used the scales, but this was a closed marking system. No manager ever got 10 for either metric. I never gave any manager a score less than 4 for alpha or risk management in the time I carried out manager research. At the bottom end it is easy to understand why: managers setting up a hedge fund have nearly always has significant success previously in trading or investing. They are not neophytes; and though some learn on the job about managing capital in the hedge fund format, they have all managed capital before.

After a while meeting managers, and hearing how they do what they do, I realised that whilst the alpha score was important, risk management was a bigger differentiator. So getting into risk management issues early in the process saved a lot of time and effort: if a manager didn't have discipline and a consistent process in risk management it was time to move on to another hedge fund.

A legacy of this time is that I remain interested in how to assess managers – it is useful in my consultancy work, at the least. In the book I am reading at the moment – "Investing with the Grand Masters" by James Morton – I am engaged to see what criteria the author used for selection of the managers.

So I was interested to read about the Skandia Investment Group's Best Ideas fund range. Skandia has a fund platform and operates multi-manager funds, but the Best Ideas funds are not a standard fund of funds. Neither are they portfolios of pure hedge funds. These are portfolios of funds (mostly long-only funds) run by well-regarded portfolio managers who have been given the freedom to invest in their highest conviction investment ideas on a dedicated basis.

The lead manager on Skandia Investment Group's Best Ideas fund range, Lee Freeman-Shor, applies four key pieces of academic investment research to his selection process. These are:

1. High conviction investing: Research from Randy Cohen of the Harvard Business School, Christopher Polk and Bernhard Silli of the London School of Economics suggests that the bulk of fund manager's returns come from their highest conviction ideas. As a result the Best Ideas managers are limited to holding only ten stocks, their ten highest conviction ideas.

 2. Kelly Criterion: a formula first described in 1956 by John Larry Kelly to determine the optimal betting size to maximise wealth. Perhaps the most famous Kelly practitioner is Warren Buffet who once said: 'Why not invest your assets in the companies you really like? In 1972 Buffet had 42% of Berkshires assets in American Express. Freeman-Shor allows the managers to apply Kelly to the extent that they can invest up to 25% in a single stock.

3. High Active Share: this measures the proportion of a fund's assets that differ from the benchmark index. In their 2009 paper 'How Active is your fund manager? A new measure that predicts performance' Martijn Cremers and Anti Petajisto indicated that running a fund with a high 'active share' delivers the highest and most repeatable returns. The European Best Ideas Fund has a high active share, currently 83%.

4. Behavioural science: Research by Andrea Frazzini in 2006 showed that the best performing managers realise the highest proportion of losing trades. Freeman-Shor's job as overall portfolio manager is to be a coach and work with the Best Ideas managers to ensure they do not succumb to, amongst other things, sunken cost bias when they are losing and are thus executing their ideas appropriately.

In a good hedge fund there is a competition for capital between the investment ideas – that is, all full sized positions are conviction ideas. So the concept of high conviction investing is seen in the hedge fund world. The Kelly Criterion applies in several hedge fund strategies – event driven investing, activist investing, and to a lesser extent in global macro investing. The third piece of applied research might just say why hedge funds have inherent qualities relative to long only strategies, as 100% of many hedge fund portfolios are active bets. There are no index constraints in hedge fund portfolios, though the presence of positions held only to hedge impacts the percentage of the portfolio applied to seek alpha.

The fourth piece of academic research applied to the Skandia Best Ideas funds has a very strong resonance for me. The conclusion from Frazzini is that the best performing managers realise the highest proportion of losing trades. From my work with traders I know that this can be applied with minor tweaks in hedge funds: the best traders realise their losses either early, or in line with their stated stop-loss policies. This allows winners to run, and losers to be cut. This characteristic is also often seen in systematic approaches to markets, particularly by CTAs. With good money management it is feasible to run a successful CTA with a hit-rate (percentage of winning trades) of only 35%. The hit-rate in a discretionary money manager has to be a lot higher, and for a fundamentally driven manager with a long holding period the hit-rate can get into the high 80's as a percentage.

The fruit of the application of these concepts has been good – the Skandia European Best Ideas Fund has shown some strong out-perfromance. On the third anniversary since launch the fund was 17% ahead of the MSCI Europe index and 15% ahead of its peer group (Morningstar European Large Cap Blend), putting it in the top 5% of European funds since inception and 1st quartile over all time periods.

There are a number of hedge fund managers and managers of absolute return funds amongst the roster of managers employed by Skandia in the Best Ideas Funds. In fact I would go so far as to say that there is a disproportionate number of such managers amongst the portfolio managers used (see tables below). Would that be because hedge fund managers tend to apply the best portfolio management practices given by Skandia more than long-only managers?


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