A More Reasonable Hedge Fund Fee Structure March 21, 2007Posted by federalist in Finance.
Hedge funds are a legitimate financial industry, distinct from the retail industry of tax-efficient diversified mutual funds geared towards small investors and individual savers. However, the hedge fund industry maintains a fee structure that embeds an unusual moral hazard. The industry is ripe for an evolution in fee structure, but it may take a major and somewhat altruistic player to effect that evolution.
The Status Quo
Typically a hedge fund manager will collect a 2% management fee and on top of that will take 20% of any profits generated. This emphasis on performance incentives is a hallmark of the industry. But the incentive is almost always implemented with a peculiar feature: The fund manager gets to lock in performance fees at the end of each calendar year. He will keep this money even if he subsequently loses investor capital.
This fee structure creates perverse incentives. Because the manager shares directly in the upside, but risks nothing material on the downside, he has every reason to take excessive risks. In effect he is gambling with other people’s money. The annual lock-in produces a behavior known as the Wealth Effect: Managers who have accumulated large profits tend to reduce the risk they take towards the end of a calendar year in order to protect their impending payout. In contrast, managers who have lost tend to “double-down” and take excessive risks, in hopes of recovering and turning a profit they can harvest at year end. In each case the manager’s incentives are not aligned with those of the investors, who want to take exactly the appropriate level of risk regardless of how much has been made or where they are in the calendar.
A common fix to this problem is to establish a “high water mark” so that managers do not earn any incentives until they have entirely recouped losses. The perverse result of this is that as soon as their performance draws down too much they tend to close up shop rather than stay in the game to recoup their investor’s losses. After all, they do not earn anything extra by making money back. The problem again is that they have still locked in past performance fees. Often it is easier to take their past winnings and start from scratch somewhere else, where once again they are “above water” and immediately share in profits. (This tendency for losers to quit has resulted in a notoriously large “performance selection bias” in the hedge fund industry.)
These hazards were on spectacular display at Amaranth Advisors where Brian Hunter, an energy fund manager, accumulated enormous paper profits in 2005. He personally took home an estimated $75 million at the end of the year based on that performance. However, he earned that money by taking huge risks, and just a few months into 2006 his positions collapsed. Investors lost more than half of their money, and the firm promptly closed, but Brian Hunter kept his millions.
The industry is ripe for an evolution in incentive structures: It is obvious that this needs to involve delayed vesting of performance fees. Performance fees should be kept in escrow with a vesting period much longer than one calendar year. Just as the exact performance share varies from fund to fund, the vesting period could vary; a reasonable period might be at least five years.
So long as investor money is at risk, performance fees should be at risk. Granted, fund managers have to feed their families, so they would lock in their fees gradually over the vesting period. But delayed vesting will keep their skin in the game even if they have a big drawdown.
To see how this would ameliorate all of the moral hazard inherent in the current incentive standard, imagine a hedge fund named Zamaranth funded by two equal investors, A and B. During 2005 Zamaranth doubles its investors’ money, and the manager gets $100 million in incentive fees escrowed, vesting over five years. Beginning 2006 the manager is earning $1.67 million each month from escrow – an ample payout from his stellar performance. Soon investor A cashes out, and since that investor’s money is no longer at risk, the manager immediately banks $50 million from escrow. A few months later, Zamaranth’s remaining positions collapse, losing all of the value they accumulated during 2005. Investor B, having lost all his gains, recoups all of the performance money remaining in escrow. The Zamaranth manager took a big risk, and he shared in the consequences. But he is still incentivized to work for his investor, because he is not “below water,” so any profits he earns will immediately accumulate in his escrow account.