Investors with a lower risk appetite or a shorter investment time horizon generally prefer to seek out an investment arrangement that provides a degree of certainty over capital, while seeking returns related to the performance of some of the world’s stock markets. Capital protected funds, also called guaranteed funds, are created to fill this need and have been offered at various times by Lebanon’s leading banks. A typical capital protected fund will promise to return at least 95%, and often 100% of an investor’s capital, while also paying out any gain on the given stock index during the fund’s life, normally between three and seven years. You hear it all the time: “The sort of investment I’d like is high yield, low risk, and completely liquid.” I’d like that too. Everyone would like that. In a perfect world. But in this world, that’s not how it works at all. The higher the yield you want, the more risk you have to take. Which means the more chance you have of losing money. And perhaps the only way of moderating this equation is to lock up your money for a longish period of time. So, no liquidity.
Hedge funds anyone?
How about something that has a record of around 20% per year, guarantees you all your money back after five or six years no matter what happens, and allows you to get out whenever you want. Does this come close to that perfect world?
Well, reasonably close. High yield: probably, but not certainly. Low risk: absolutely. Completely liquid: nearly. This is the new breed of capital guaranteed hedge funds. How do they work? Well, let’s say you have a sum, say a minimum of $25,000 (ok, it’s not a perfect world because that’s on average what you need to start with) and you want it to grow over the medium term.
A large chunk of this money the fund managers will put into something absolutely secure, that will grow to your original amount after the agreed investment period, in most cases a highly rated zero coupon bond, which is issued at a deep discount and is redeemed at par. A major bank guarantees this amount with at least two AAs in their risk rating. If the investment bombs badly, you will get all your principal back at the end of the investment term, guaranteed. The chances of a bank like that failing in the interim? About the same as Western civilization being annihilated by an asteroid, a new version of bubonic plague or a nuclear winter. Then again, with the degree of involvement of large financial companies in high risk these days … who knows? Anyway, that’s the capital guaranteed part. You get the return of your principal. Now, what about the return on your principal? How does that work?
Well, the company that runs the fund does not directly manage your money itself. It selects a number of hedge funds and managed futures houses and …
“Wait, wait, wait!” you scream. “Aren’t they risky?”
Yes, they can be, when they don’t tell anyone what they’re doing. But the only hedge funds and managed futures houses that will be selected by a capital company are those that state their trading discipline and allow the company to run their track record through their risk control system.
In other words they will only deal with hedge funds and managed futures houses that are not loose cannons. They choose a number of these, typically at least four and less than ten, and give them each a percentage of their pooled investment sum, a bit of your money included (you can’t get into any of these funds yourself for less than $1 million), which the hedge fund or managed futures house invests according to their stated trading rules.
How does this help? Well, three ways. Firstly, if a fund forgets about its trading rules or simply performs badly, the fund company can dismiss them, re-adjusting the weightings of the other funds, or straight out replace them. Secondly, each particular hedge fund or managed futures house is a specialist in a particular kind of trading or a particular sector. Between them, they cover a wide range, but without diluting expertise. Thirdly, because they are all doing different things, their monthly performance does not correlate strongly with each other. Which means the volatility of the overall performance is low.
The Sharpe ratio
Low volatility is good. It equates with low risk. In investing, a gentle, undulating hill walk is better than shimmying up and abseiling down saw-toothed peaks.
A measure of the quality of return is the Sharpe ratio. Divide: (the return minus the return you would have got in the risk-free interest of a T-bill) by (the standard deviation of the volatility). World stocks are currently at about 0.9. World bonds are currently about 0.7. Capital protected high yield low volatility investments typically have a Sharpe ratio in the area of 1.5 to 2.9. Which means more return for less risk.
How much return? Capital guaranteed hedge funds are closed-end funds. The guarantor has to know how much they’re guaranteeing. The capital protected high yield low volatility investment has a subscription period, which closes. From then on, no-one else can join. The thing continues for its stated period, normally five or six years. Then at the end it pays out the initial capital plus accumulated gains.
Each capital guaranteed hedge fund is therefore a one-off. Eight or nine of them come along a year. But they don’t have a track record until they’ve actually started. Which means you can’t ask what the performance is with a view to getting in. Once they have a performance, you can’t get in.
What you can do, however, is look at the pro-forma back testing. Each of the hedge funds or managed futures has its track record. The way they trade is the way they trade: being part of a capital guaranteed hedge funds/low volatility investment does not alter it. Therefore it is perfectly valid to look at the prior performance of the hedge funds and managed futures chosen by a capital guaranteed hedge funds/low volatility investment in their particular percentage combination and see how they have done collectively in the past. And typically these are in the area of 20%. Some are over 30% per annum. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if one I have only did 12%; I know my money would double in six years.
What about the trading? Well, people have since 1995, been getting used to stock market returns of 20% a year, and mutual funds that go up and up. This, however, is a very rare phenomenon, unparalleled since, well … 1924 to 1929. The stock markets won’t go up forever, even if we’d like them to. The alternative to stocks is bonds or cash. But bond prices can go down too, and cash performs about as spectacularly as a guinea-pig. If you buy stocks, you are long in the market. Performance is defined in upwardness; if stocks go up, you gain, but if they go down, you lose money. Mutual funds are long, geared to markets going up. In fact, they are not allowed to go to cash (except a few percent). In a real bear market, they are waiting to be slaughtered – all they can do is choose the stocks that will perform least badly.
Getting out in emergencies
Hedge funds, on the other hand, are allowed to be short on the market if that’s what they feel is warranted. This means they can sell stocks or stock indexes short and gain as markets fall. Participating in a hedge fund gives you insurance in the time of the bear.
Normally, however, they are not making one-way bets. They are doing things like using their expertise to exploit mergers and takeovers, or finding distressed companies that will see better times. Or, they are finding pairs of companies that do exactly the same thing in the same country, working out which is the better bet, buying shares in it and selling short an equal value of shares in the other company – this way it doesn’t matter whether the market goes up, or whether the market goes down, as long as the preferred company outperforms the other. There are in fact many, many strategies; the point is that they are more sophisticated than being straight and long the market, and enacted by specialists. And it’s not just stocks: managed futures houses work in commodities, metals, energy and currencies.
What you are doing by going into a capital guaranteed hedge funds/low volatility investment is buying a basket of such funds for a fixed period. It’s a way of investing that is suitable for any set of conditions in the market, an all-terrain vehicle rather than a temperamental sports car that needs a clear track.
Liquidity and charges? There are low front end charges, typically 2% to 3%. Performance above is expressed net of management fees. There may be a one year period of lock-in, or no lock-in. There is a decreasing back-end fee, a maximum of 4% in the first year, if you get out early. For most, after the first year you can get out free, or for 1% to 2%. When you get out, you will get your capital plus the gain in the fund if there has been a gain. If there’s a loss, the full capital guarantee is only extended at the end of the agreed term. But then, how many investments apart from guinea pigs and T-bills have a guarantee written under them?
Choosing the right fund
These funds are one-offs. Once they’re closed, they’re closed, so there’s little point naming particular ones. Each deserves careful scrutiny (some are better than others). A good financial adviser will be able to let you know his or her current recommendations. But bear in mind that the explosion in the number of hedge funds, which now are approaching 8000 worldwide has meant that their quality and returns have suffered, due to roguish traders setting up very aggressive structures, and this means hedge funds are not what they used to be. Also, with global markets so closely correlated, commodities, currencies, bonds and stocks have at this juncture huge risks embedded in them. But if your time horizon allows, and you have some risk capital available, then capital guaranteed hedge funds can smooth your overall portfolio returns.