Milo Winter—Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis
By Ian Salisbury
April 28, 2015

It’s like the investment world’s version of the race between the tortoise and the hare. And the hare is losing its lead.

Hedge funds, investment pools known for their exotic investment strategies and rich fees, have long been considered one of the raciest investments Wall Street has to offer, with $2.94 trillion invested globally as of the first quarter, according to researcher Hedge Fund Research.

Despite their mystique and popularity, though, hedge funds are about to be eclipsed by a far cheaper and less exclusive investment vehicle: exchange-traded funds.

According to ETF researcher ETFGI, exchange-traded funds — index funds that have become favorites of financial planners and mom and pop investors — have climbed to more than $2.93 trillion. ETFs could eclipse hedge funds as early as this summer, according to co-founder Debbie Fuhr.

In some ways the milestone is one that few people outside the money management business might notice or care about. But even if you don’t pay much attention to the pecking order on Wall Street, there’s reason to take notice.

The fact that ETFs have caught up with hedge funds reflects broader trends toward lower costs and a focus on long-term passive investing, both of which benefit small investors.

Exchange-traded funds, which first appeared in the 1990s and hit the $1 trillion mark following the financial crisis, have gained fans in large part because their ultra-low cost and hands-off investing style.

While there are many varieties of ETFs, the basic premise is built on the notion that investors get ahead not by picking individual stocks and securities but by simply owning big parts of the market.

Index mutual funds have been around for a long time. (Mutual funds control $30 trillion in assets globally, dwarfing both ETFs and hedge funds). But ETFs allow investors to trade funds like stocks, and they can be more tax efficient than mutual funds. Both ETFs and traditional index funds are known for ultra-low fees, sometimes less than 0.1% of assets invested. That means investors keep more of what they earn, and pay less to Wall Street.

Hedge funds by contrast exist for elaborate investment strategies. They are investment pools that in some ways resemble mutual funds, but they can’t call themselves that because they aren’t willing to follow SEC rules designed to protect less sophisticated investors.

Because of their special legal status, hedge funds aren’t allowed to accept investors with less than than $1 million in net worth, hence the air of wealth and exclusivity.

But hedge fund managers also enjoy a lot more freedom in how they invest, for instance, sometimes requiring shareholders to lock up money for months at a time or taking big positions in complex derivatives.

Hedge funds aren’t necessarily designed to be risky — they get their name from a strategy designed to offset not magnify market swings. But hedge fund investors do expect managers to deliver something the market cannot. Otherwise why pay the high fees? Hedge funds typically charge “two and twenty.” That is 2% of the amount invested each year, plus 20% of any gains above some benchmark. No that is not a typo.

Of course, hedge funds’ rich fees wouldn’t be a problem if they delivered rich investment returns. The industry has long relied on some fabulously successful examples to make its case. But critics have also suspected that, like the active mutual fund industry in its 1990s’ heyday, this could be a case of survivorship bias, with a few rags-to-riches stories distracting from more common stories of mediocre performance.

Hedge funds’ performance in recent years seems to be bearing that out. (By contrast ETFs, whose returns are typically tied to the stock market, have benefited from one of the longest bull markets in history.)

Why should you care if a bunch of rich guys blow their money chasing ephemeral investment returns? One reason, is you might be among them, even if you don’t know it. Pension funds are among the biggest hedge fund investors.

The good news: They too are embracing indexing, if not specifically through ETFs. Calpers, the giant California pension fund, said last year that it was dumping hedge funds, while also indexing more of its stock holdings.

Unlike ETFs, hedge funds — because they need to justify their rich fees — often suffer from short-term focus. In recent years, one popular strategy has been so-called “activist investing,” where a hedge fund buys a big stake in an underperforming company and demands changes.

While the stock market often rewards those moves in the short-term, many investors worry moves like cutting costs and skimping on research ultimately make those businesses weaker, hurting long-term investors. It’s no surprise then that one of activist investing’s most outspoken critics is BlackRock Inc. As the largest ETF provider, BlackRock represents the interests of millions of small investors.

And finally, there are those fees. The surging popularity of low-cost investments such as ETFs will inevitably focus more attention on fees, putting pressure on active investment managers — and even hedge funds themselves — to slash prices. And in the the end, that benefits everybody.

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