Pulitzer Prize Winner: Hedge Funds Not Worth The Risk For Pensions

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David Cay Johnston, former Pulitzer prize-winning reporter for the New York Times and lecturer at Syracuse University, has written a column calling for pensions to stop risking assets with hedge funds.

He says the nature of hedge funds make the investment “not suited” for pension funds. First, he takes hedge funds to task for their fee structure. From the piece, published on Al-Jazeera:

Hedge funds charge hefty fees. Many hedge funds charge what is known in the trade as 2 and 20. That is for a 2 percent annual management fee, or $20,000 per $1 million, and 20 percent of all gains. Julian Simon’s Renaissance Technologies charges a 5 percent base and 44 percent of gains. From 1982 through 2009, when it averaged extraordinary 35 percent annual returns after expenses, that was a great deal, but since then, Simon has underperformed the market.

Compare these numbers with the very well-managed ExxonMobil pension fund, which its latest disclosure reports show has overhead charges of less than $1,200 per $1 million. Vanguard 500 investors pay as little as $500 annually to manage $1 million.

To get a better sense of the numbers, consider a year when the market return is 5 percent and a hedge fund earns that. On a $1 million investment, after a 2 percent management fee and a 20 percent profit performance fee, the hedge fund investor will be ahead by $19,200, or less than 2 percent; the Vanguard investor will be ahead by $49,950, or almost 5 percent.

The other facet of his argument is that hedge funds, while not necessarily a bad investment for other entities, are not a “prudent” investment for pension funds to make. From the editorial:

Hedge funds simply are not appropriate for taxpayers and public-sector workers. They are, rather, for wealthy speculators willing to take big risks in the hopes of earning big rewards while being able to tolerate the chance that an investment will shrivel or even be wiped out.

Pension money should be invested prudently. “Prudent” comes from the word “provident,” meaning to prepare for the future. And while its origins are in religious concepts, failing to prudently handle earthly money can turn the end of life into hell.

Given survivor benefits in pension plans, these pools of money should be treated as widows-and-orphans money. Under ancient and well-tested principles, the money of such vulnerable people must be invested with exceptional care to safeguard from loss. That means investment-grade bonds (more on that below) and either blue chip stocks or broad indexes.

Only with the rise in the last six decades of modern portfolio theory — investing in many different arenas to spread risk — have we gotten away from the idea that for widows, orphans and pensioners, only high-grade corporate bonds and a few blue chip stocks paying big dividends are appropriate investments.

The rest of the piece can be read here.

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