In January I linked to a WSJ interview with David Swensen in which he attacked hedge funds of funds. Here is the relevant excerpt:
In last Monday's FT, Paul Isaac, the CIO of fund of funds company Cadogan Management, answered Swensen's accusations. Cadogan has a good track record, and a reputation for being a "non-mainstream" FoF company, down to its choice of office location near the Flatiron building. When the Madoff news hit, Cadogan put out a statement that it had successfully avoided any exposure, something many of its peers did not do (avoid exposure I mean, not put out a release). Isaac spoke at the 2003 Grant's Spring Conference, so he is a legitimate spokesman for his industry, not just any geek off the street.
Go read the Swensen interview, then read Isaac's rebuttal, then come back and we're going to have a little trial, with moi as judge and jury. I used to evaluate litigation for a living (actually I was the guy who helped the guy who evaluated litigation for a living) so I'm a trained professional at this, sort of.
Oh, I almost forgot: I went to Yale and am a proud alumnus, consider Swensen my manager selector role model, and, um, I interviewed at Cadogan once, with an emphasis on the "once." So think of me as the uglier version of this guy. If this were any state except New Jersey, I'd no doubt have to recuse myself from this trial. Fortunately, I happen to be from New Jersey. So let's begin:
First let's summarize Swensen's case against funds of funds. FoFs are a cancer because :
1) They facilitate the flow of ignorant capital, as unsophisticated investors who can't pick managers themselves cannot pick manager selectors either.
2) They charge an extra layer of fees and deliver nothing in return for it.
3) Fund of fund money is unreliable, therefore the best hedge fund managers don't want it, and you can't be successful investing in hedge funds unless you invest in the best.
Issac does not address these assertions in order. Instead his first rebuttal one is a clever one:
Yes, but . . . we need first to define our terms (it's remarkable how many legal battles turn on differing definitions of a single term). Per Isaac, a fund of funds is simply a pool of capital that maintains a staff to research, vet, select and monitor investments in a number of hedge funds. By that definition, Yale's endowment is a fund of funds, as is Cadogan, as is a family office that invests in a number of hedge funds, etc.
But is Isaac's definition of a "fund of funds" the same as Swensen's? No it is not. Let's go to Swensen's own words on the subject, from pages 309-310 of the new edition of Pioneering Portfolio Management. This section of the book is called "USE OF INTERMEDIARIES," and the relevant excerpt is as follows (my emphasis added):
Fund of funds managers provide the service of making investment decisions for fiduciaries. By pooling assets, usually from less sophisticated investors, fund of funds managers argue that economies of scale allow professional staff to manage monies in institutional fashion . . .
In spite of the purported benefits from employing fund of funds managers, substantial risks stem from imposing a filter between the investment manager and the ultimate client . . . Clients unable or unwilling to understand the underlying manager characteristics rely solely on performance to evaluate investment strategies.
Isaac's definition of a fund of funds turns on WHAT it does. Swensen's definition turns on FOR WHOM and WHY it does it. Per Swensen, a FoF is defined by its role as agent, a paid intermediary that performs a task (manager selection) on behalf of a principal (an investment fiduciary) who is unwilling or unable to do it by itself. By Swensen's definition, Yale's endowment is not a fund of funds, as Yale performs manager selection entirely in-house, without the use of any agents, and commits substantial time, energy and resources to do so. Cadogan, on the other hand, most certainly is. When you and I and the world think of what a fund of funds is, we think of the Swensen definition, not the Isaac definition. All of Swensen's problems with FoFs stem from his (and our) definition of it as an agent, so Isaac creates a straw man by creating his own definition.
Round 1 to Swensen.
Isaac's next argument is that hedge funds of funds can add substantial value to their end-clients:
Those "remarkable" numbers certainly sing a seductive siren song, don't they? But tie yourself to the mast and let your consigliere set you right:
1) Isaac's second sentence is a non-sequitur. Extrapolating from Swensen's common-sense definition, a fund of funds adds value not by outperforming equity markets via investment in hedge funds. A fund of funds adds value by outperforming (after fees) what a fiduciary could do on its own by investing in hedge funds directly. Isaac is arguing the wrong thing.
2) Isaac errs by invoking an INDEX of FoFs to justify the ACTIVE investment fund of funds industry. That such a thing as the HFRI Composite FoHF Index even exists is strong evidence that it's possible for a fiduciary to construct a hedge fund portfolio WITHOUT having to pay an intermediary a lot of money to do it for you, and belies Isaac's claim that "index investments in alpha generating strategies are in their infancy and have yet to prove themselves". Just do your best to replicate the index. You won't do it perfectly, but you don't have to in order to benefit from saving 1 and 10. What Isaac should have argued is that there are many funds of funds like Cadogan that add value by exceeding the performance of the index. That he did not is telling. That Yale does (see page 23 of the pdf, aka page 21 of the report) is also telling.
Round 2 to Swensen.
Isaac's next two arguments concern Madoff. Here is the first one:
I believe the legal term for this argument is "WTF?" Given what they charged and their purported expertise, the correct number of funds of funds that should have invested in Madoff is precisely zero. The correct number of "quality" funds of funds should have been less than zero--they should have led the fight to unmask him. The actual number was way higher than zero, AND included some of the leading names in the industry (Bramdean, Fairfield Greenwich, Maxam, UBP, EIM, Merkin, etc.). I can't see how the fund of funds industry distinguished itself in the Madoff affair. I can only see the opposite.
Round 3 to Swensen.
Here is the second Madoff-related argument:
Several things come to mind when I consider this argument. I could, for instance, recall how many Jewish/Chinese/Armenian/etc. tax collectors died at the hands of angry peasants while providing a layer of protection for the reputation for the rulers who were reluctant to put themselves in the spotlight by collecting taxes directly. I could even point out how the Pharisees of Judaea were an important tool for their Roman overlords who could not afford to put themselves in the spotlight and required a layer of protection for their reputations when it came to dealing with a certain itinerant rabble rouser. But I won't, because I'm not an expert in those subjects and am sure to say something incorrect. It will suffice simply to point out that you should always look through, and that the imposition of a middleman does not absolve an investor of any of its fiduciary or ethical obligations.
Round 4 to Swensen.
How does Isaac respond to Swensen's assertion that FoFs represent unreliable capital, and that therefore the best hedge fund managers shun them? He responds as follows:
There is no common definition of a “best” hedge fund. Certainly, more than 10 per cent of all managers can be potential parts of a given portfolio when the goal, and not just the components, define the objective. The ability to substitute managers, rather than being wedded to an underlying manager, can be useful for FoHF managers seeking to represent their investors’ interests.
Isaac is correct that FoF managers should be judged on their portfolios as a whole rather on the the performance of their component parts, and that theoretically it's possible for a hedge fund portfolio that consists of less-than-top-decile funds to combine in such a way as to produce an attractive portfolio return. But the combination of the typical 2 and 20 charged by the underlying hedge fund, and the typical 1 and 20 charged by the FoF, makes it almost impossible for the end user to get a value-added product unless both layers are in the top tier of what they do.
Round 5 is a tie.
Regarding Swensen's assertion that fund of funds fees are unjustified, Isaac correctly points out that "the fees charges by FoHF's vary," and that "They key is to find value for fees paid." I believe Swensen would reply that empirically, most FoFs fail to provide value for money. 2008 is good evidence for that. It's hard enough to beat the market via direct active investing; doing it via an extra layer of fees is even harder. Also, it's generally true that the lower the fee charged by a FoF, the more closely it resembles one of the "index investments in alpha generating strategies" that Isaac derides.
Round 6 goes to Swensen on points.
Finally, as the recipient of a Jesuit education (thank you Dr. Stewart!), as the descendant of a distinguished family of talmudic scholars, as a former copy editor, and as an admirer of George Orwell, I must point out this example of Mr. Isaac's tortured language:
Strip out all the double negatives and you'll find that Isaac meant the opposite of what is written, i.e. the idea that only Mr. Swensen should invest in active vehicles is condescending and limiting. Giving Isaac the benefit of the doubt that the sentence was just a typo, it still misstates Swensen's position. Swensen's position is that those who wish to invest in active vehicles should not hire agents to do so on their behalf, but rather must devote the time, energy and resources to do it themselves. Be a principal, not an agent.
Final round to Swensen.
Overall verdict: David Swensen. Go Bulldogs.
P.S. In a future post I hope to play devil's advocate regarding Swensen and his record. Is it really as good as his drooling idolators (I'm wiping my mouth as I write) assume? Stay tuned.