Paul Singer: CalPERS’ Hedge Fund Exit Was “Off-Base”

Paul Singer

Paul Singer, a hedge fund manager, activist investor and billionaire, wrote in a recent letter to clients that CalPERS’ exit from hedge funds was “off-base”.

CalPERS said at the time that its decision to exit hedge funds was based on their “complexity, cost and the lack of ability to scale at CalPERS’ size”.

Singer responded to those criticisms, according to CNBC:

“We are certainly not in a position to be opining on the ‘asset class’ of hedge funds, or on any of the specific funds that were held or rejected by CalPERS, but we think the decision to abandon hedge funds altogether is off-base,” Singer wrote in a recent letter to clients of his $25.4 billion Elliott Management Corp.


On complexity, Singer wrote that it should be a positive.

“It is precisely complexity that provides the opportunity for certain managers to generate different patterns of returns than those available from securities, markets and styles that are accessible to anyone and everyone,” the letter said.

Singer also took issue with claims that drawbacks of hedge funds include opaqueness and high fees. From CNBC:

“We also never understood the discussions framed around full transparency. While nobody wants to invest in a black box, Elliott (and other funds) trade positions that could be harmed by public knowledge of their size, short-term direction or even their identity.”

Singer also slammed CalPERs for its complaint about the relative high cost of hedge funds.

“We at Elliott do not understand manager selection criteria based on the level of fees rather than on the result that investors could reasonably expect after fees and expenses are taken into account,” he wrote.

The broader point Singer makes is on the enduring value of hedge funds to diversify a portfolio.

“Current bond prices seem to create a modest performance comparator for some well-managed hedge funds. Moreover, stocks are priced to be consistent with bond prices, and we have a hard time envisioning double-digit annual stock index gains in the next few years,” the letter said.

“Many hedge funds may have as much trouble in the next few years as institutional investors, but investors should be looking for the prospective survivors of the next rounds of real market turmoil.”

Hedge funds have returned 2.92 percent this year, according to Preqin. Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Associates LP, has 13.9 percent annually since 1977.


Photo by World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons

Pension Funds Need To Stay Out of the “Bargain Bin” When Shopping For Hedge Funds


More than ever, pension funds are negotiating fees with hedge funds in an effort to lower the expenses associated with those investments.

That sounds like a wise course of action. But a new column in the Financial Times argues that pension funds need to stop shopping in the “bargain bin” for hedge funds—because the hedge funds that are willing to negotiate fees are also the ones who deliver lackluster returns.

From the Financial Times:

With many pension funds facing deficits, and needing investments that will generate high returns, the promise of hedge funds has an obvious appeal.

The problem is, like the star chef, the small number of hedge funds that have made staggering amounts of money for their investors over several decades already have too many clients and are closed for business.

Among these are Renaissance Technologies’ Medallion Fund, founded by the mathematician James Simons, which has long been all but shut to new money, and Seth Klarman’s Baupost Group, which last year returned $4bn to clients and has a highly select number of investors.

At the same time investors in hedge funds, such as pension managers, are loath to pay high fees for their services, and must enter into tough negotiations to bring these fees down. This makes sense.

But few of the handful of truly top tier hedge funds have any need to lower their fees for new investors and tend to politely show such requests to the door.

Mediocre hedge fund managers on the other hand cannot afford to be so dismissive, and are more than happy to gather more assets to play with.

The outcome is that many pension funds end up forcing themselves to shop in the hedge fund equivalent of the reduced aisle in a supermarket. They should stop. At the root of this problem is the flawed thinking that a large number of investors have been either seduced into, or institutionally obliged to believe in: the idea that hedge funds constitute an “asset class” all of their own, distinct from other types of active fund management.


Wholesale shopping for hedge funds is a bad idea. Instead of deciding to bulk invest in hedge funds as a questionable means of diversification (the HFR index shows the majority of hedge funds have underperformed the S&P 500 while being correlated to it), investors should only seek out the select few.

And if the best are closed to new investment they must find something else to do with their money.

The author puts the situation in context by comparing hiring a hedge fund to hiring a caterer. From the column:

You are planning a party and have decided to hire a caterer. A trusted friend has recommended two of the best in the city. One is a famous chef who has won numerous awards for his cooking, and another is a younger caterer who previously worked for one of the best restaurants in the world.

You call them both, only to have second thoughts. The first, the famous chef, is simply too busy with existing work to help you.

The other is unbelievably expensive, costing at least double what a regular caterer would charge. But you need your guests to be fed, so you look for an alternative option. You find a cheaper company on the internet and book them.

Come the party the food arrives late. When you taste it, the hors d’oeuvres are stale and the wine tastes like biro ink. Embarrassed and enraged, you mutter under your breath about the money you have wasted, vowing to never hire a caterer ever again.

This flawed thinking resembles the way too many institutional investors select hedge fund managers.

Pension360 has previously covered studies that suggest problems with the way pension funds select managers.


Photo by Gioia De Antoniis via Flickr CC License

Advisors Question Hedge Fund Fee Structure

Monopoly shoe on Income Tax

In light of CalPERS’ recent pullback from hedge funds, scores of investment consultants are coming out of the woodwork advocating for changes to the “2 and 20” fee structure traditionally used by hedge funds.

Towers Watson research chief Damien Loveday told the Wall Street Journal yesterday:

“We believe a better way of tackling fees is by assessing the skill managers offer to clients, rather than paying for market-based returns. ‘Two and 20’ should not be the norm.”

Kerrin Rosenberg, an executive at the consulting firm Cardano, shared the sentiment:

“If ever there was a moment to get rid of ‘two and 20’ forever, this is it.” He backed Towers Watson’s initiative, noting that many hedge funds were out to survive, rather than prosper.

Just because consultants think one way doesn’t mean pension funds will think the same. But it’s important to note that these firms frequently advise pension funds on investment decisions—so it’s safe to say the funds are hearing the same anti-fee sentiment that we are.

Last week, a major Dutch pension fund shut out hedge funds and cited one reason: the fees. From the Wall Street Journal:

Last week, PMT, the Dutch pension fund with €56 billion ($71.7 billion) under management, said it would close its €1 billion hedge fund portfolio, adding that although hedge funds were only about 2% of assets, they collected 32% of the investment fees it paid.

A spokeswoman for the fund said: “The hedge fund investments were expensive if you relate the cost to what the funds delivered. We found that we did earn from hedge funds, but we did not earn enough versus the risks and the costs.”

To be fair, it seems hedge funds have budged just a bit from the “2 and 20” scheme. According to Preqin data, fees have fallen to around 1.5 percent of assets and 18.7 percent of performance.