Michael Steinhardt on Differences Between Past & Current Hedge Funds ~ market folly

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Michael Steinhardt on Differences Between Past & Current Hedge Funds

Michael Steinhardt founded Steinhardt Partners in 1967 and generated 24% average annual returns over a 28 year period. He was one of the true pioneers in the industry and he recently sat down with CNBC for an interview.

The former titan talked about his time as a hedge fund manager, saying "When I was doing it, it was an elite phenomenon. Now it ain't an elite business anymore." Steinhardt is now the chairman of ETF firm, WisdomTree.

Hedge Fund Differences: Then & Now

Performance: He notes that the main difference between hedge funds then and now is the goal of performance. He targeted (and achieved) outsized returns, while many funds today are happy cranking out "only" 12-14% gains.

Assets Under Management (AUM): Steinhardt also slipped in his signature phrase of 'diseconomies of scale,' referring to the fact that as assets under management (AUM) grew, true outperformance was harder to achieve. He chastised modern hedge funds as asset gathering behemoths with goals of making money from the assets (management fee) rather than making money from performance.

Impact of Fund Size on Returns: This is a big talking point amongst investors, especially as of late it seems. The classic example, of course, is John Paulson. His hedge fund Paulson & Co catapulted to fame with his stellar returns shorting subprime. As his AUM has swelled, investors have raised concern and Paulson addressed his fund size in his year-end letter.

Maverick Capital's hedge fund founder Lee Ainslie also wrote a quarterly letter to refute the notion that large fund size negatively impacts a manager's ability to generate returns.

Steinhardt's point (and it's a good one), is that regardless of whether or not these funds generate performance, the funds are still making money due to the management fee on a sizable chunk of assets.

Hedge Fund Herding: The hedge fund legend also points out that so many managers are using similar strategies these days, whereas he was one of the few employing them in his time. This is yet another topic that high profile funds have been forced to address via investor letters. Viking Global's Andreas Halvorsen wrote about hedge fund herding here (scroll down in the post).

In short, Steinhardt raises some valid points about how hedge funds have slightly strayed from their original incarnation. The reason? Money, of course.

He's not alone in his concern, either. After all, so many prominent funds wouldn't have to address such issues had they not seen continuous signs of concern from their investors.

You can watch Steinhardt's interview below where he also gives his macro outlook and oddly enough goes on a tirade against Warren Buffett (email readers come to the site to watch):

In the video, Steinhardt also briefly mentions that he remains short 2 year Treasuries. You can also read his past thoughts on why he thinks treasuries are foolish.

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