Over the past several years we have repeatedly stated that despite protests to the contrary, the single biggest factor explaining the underperformance of the active community in general, and hedge funds in particular, has been the ubiquitous influence of the Fed and other central banks over the capital markets, coupled with the prevasive presence of quantitative strategies, HFTs, algo trading and more recently, a surge in price-indescriminate purchases by passive, ETF managers. Specifically, back in October 2015, we wrote that "as central planning has dominated every piece of fundamental news, and as capital flows trump actual underlying data (usually in an inverse way, with negative economic news leading to surging markets), the conventional asset management game has been turned on its head. We have said this every single year for the past 7, and we are confident that as long as the Fed and central banks double as Chief Risk Officers for the market, "hedge" funds will be on an accelerated path to extinction, quite simply because in a world where a central banker's money printer is the best and only "hedge" (for now), there is no reason to fear capital loss, after all the bigger the drop, the greater the expected central bank response according to classical Pavlovian conditioning."
# Several years later, Goldman Sachs confirmed that we were correct. In a note released this April, Goldman's Robert Boroujerdi asked in a slide titled "Does Active Have A QE Hangover" and showed that the current run of active manager underperformance began shortly after the onset of QE...
The slide in full...
As we concluded at the time, and on numerous times previously, while hedge funds, especially established ones with significant AUM, find the current status quo relatively comfortable - after all they get to clip their management fees year after year (forget the "performance" upside), extrapolating current trends in central-bank dominated markets would eventually lead to "active" extinction, and the complete domination of ETF-based and other low-cost passive strategies. Furthermore, taken to its thought experiment extreme, a situation in which there is only passive management would guarantee that the next market crash would be truly unprecedented with few hedge funds there to hunt for bargains.
We added that in an ironic twist, the only event that could break this sequence of events would be a market crash, one which finally ends the current pernicious disequilibrium and resets the capital markets.
"For that to happen however, both the Yellen and now Trump put would have to be eliminated. And that, as the past 9 years have shown, is easier said than done. For the sake of hedge funds and their dwindling assets under management, however, they better fund a way and soon."
With the "resetting" market crash still elusive, where are we now?
# As Bloomberg writes, looking at the increasingly gloomy macro hedge fund landscape, "Financial markets no longer make sense to macro managers like Mark Spindel."
After spending three decades focusing on things like economic trends, currency moves, politics and policy, Spindel has been confounded by markets shaped by low volatility, algorithms and more. He finally gave up and closed his nine-year-old hedge fund.
Spindel's lament is familiar to anyone with no choice but to trade a market that, well, no longer make sense: “I felt the intensity of following markets at a time of increasing political and economic confusion very hard,” said Spindel, founder of Potomac River Capital in Washington. “My entire career had centered on an understanding of monetary politics and I had trouble getting my head around it all. It was exhausting.”
It's even more exhausting now when everything finance professionals have learned and practiced their entire careers has been turned upside down.
* These are troubled, and troubling, times for macro managers, those figurative heirs of famed investor George Soros who were once dubbed the masters of the universe. They’ve barely made money this year and once again, their returns pale next to those of cheaper index funds. Many investors are looking elsewhere.
Andrew Law at Caxton Associates has posted record losses. Alan Howard had the worst first-half in his hedge fund’s history. Even the old hands in the business such as Louis Bacon haven’t been spared from losses. And Soros’s son, Robert, conceded last month that his family firm has made fewer macro bets amid “lackluster” opportunities.
# Here Bloomberg asks, rhetorically, the same question we have been asking for years: "It’s enough to make a macro man wonder: in an age of untested central bank measures and algorithms, can this classic hedge fund style pay off like it used to?"
For many, the answer is increasingly no.
And it's not just central banks: in an age in which information travels at light speed by laser between Chicago, New Jersey and New York, what used to be an information advantage has been largely lost to most active investors, as "funds face an onslaught of technology that’s disseminating information more quickly and widely, while some algorithms are able to spot, and capture, price anomalies almost instantly. And computer models can more cheaply follow market trends."
The returns show it: according to Hedge Fund Research, Inc, macro managers on average returned less than 1 percent in the first half of 2017 and barely made money in the past five years. That compares with 2.6 percent this year by the broader hedge fund industry and 1.9 percent annually in the past five years.
This too is something we showed nearly a year ago, last August, when we demonstrated that the vast majority of hedge funds haven't generated Alpha since 2011...
The post-central banking world regime change was even more obvious in the next chart...
There was some hope in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election win, when the "macros" won a brief reprieve at the end of 2016, only to see their fortunes reverse in 2017 as the dollar and oil declined, stocks rallied and a political crisis erupted in Brazil. Volatility in equity and currency markets also fell to their lowest in years. In recent weeks, though, the dollar and Treasury yields have risen amid a hawkish tone from developed-nation central banks, which in turn has slammed risk-parity funds, who on several days in the past month have come dangerously close to sharp deleveraging levels.
Meanwhile, investors understandably have lost patience with the strategy. "They pulled about $3.8 billion from discretionary macro managers in the first quarter, the fifth straight quarterly outflow, while adding $4.9 billion into computer-driven macro funds, HFR data show."
# After we warned for years about the pernicious impact of central banks on investing returns, slowly but surely that allegation became mantra among the active investing community:
For years, managers have blamed central bank policies for their failure to deliver stand-out profits. Low interest rates globally made it harder to make money from differences among nations, they say. And as computers probabilistically forecast economic and market data, some managers say it’s a challenge to compete with algorithms that can be a driver of short-term price action, and create shorter and sharper investment cycles.
# As a result, many legendary names decided to leave the market altogether. # Others looked inside for answers:
Spindel, a former investment chief at a World Bank unit, is searching for answers to why macro didn’t work for him. Things started going awry for the 51-year-old just after Greece skirted Grexit two years ago. Spindel was wrong footed by China’s currency devaluations and Brexit, at times trading from his couch at home during the night to keep abreast of political developments overseas.
Over a salad lunch during a visit to New York last month, Spindel recounted times when he got his economic forecasts right but market predictions wrong. He referred to charts that show a declining relationship between economic-data surprises and bond yields, and discussed how he was perplexed by new central bank measures...