Best Practice Series: Team Work at Hedge Funds

April 29th, 2011
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Contributed by: Simon Kerr
There is no such thing as a perfect hedge fund – we are all trying. So in my role as a consultant to hedge fund portfolio managers (PMs), I am usually carrying out remedial work in some dimension. Sometimes it can be about the positioning of hedge funds commercially, but usually it is about what the portfolio managers are doing. I'm going to write a series of articles about my consulting work – this is the first.

One of the key elements I have to investigate in my consulting work is the relationship between team members. I'm going to discuss one project I did with two joint-portfolio managers of an long/short equity hedge fund. This discussion is to raise issues and to describe ways of working. The team in this case comprised two members, PM "A" and PM "B", and they ran reasonably successful long-only products. There are three topics in this snapshot – the ground rules were not well established in this example, there were some important differences in style (personal and investment style) that got in the way of successful team working, and one of the portfolio managers had an unusual trait which had a bearing on his money management style. Finally I have included some of the solutions I gave to the portfolio managers and their boss.

Ground Rules

It is not unusual for a team to move from running long-only money together to managing a hedge fund. In doing so there will, of necessity, have to be new rules of engagement. Clarity of the decision making process is very important, for internal purposes (for accountability and reward), and for external parties like potential investors. It is important that there is agreement about the specific roles to be taken, and that there is a buy-in from the off of the structure adopted. A successful agreement or understanding will have a level of detail in it that may surprise some.

One of the most basic areas not made explicit in this case was the fund's objectives and the consequences that follow from that. The two portfolio managers did not have a common, agreed understanding of what returns would make the fund they both ran commercially attractive. Therefore they did not feel the need to measure their portfolio level risk and monitor it - where they taking too much or too little risk? They just didn't know.

Another consequence of this lack of commerciality in terms of return profile is that they had no notion of what was a the worst monthly loss they could sustain without putting themselves out of active consideration by investors. The worst monthly loss is a key metric both internally and externally. Internally the metric gives an implication of where portfolio level stops should kick in. Externally it is one of a number of measures that give investors an idea of what the whole risk profile should be like – number of winning-to-losing months, drawdown, recovery period, and what is a good and bad month for the style of investment.

One of the issues which provoked some tension in the relationship between the managers was how they split between them the sectors of the equity market they worked on. It was fine, and indeed seen commonly elsewhere, that the market was split into two – one half invested in by one portfolio manager. The tension, such as it was, arose because PM B did not want to be excluded from investing in some of the sectors covered by PM A. It was never satisfactorily covered in discussion at inception in the mind of manager B, and that oversight hung over discussions in the ensuing two or three years.

It is quite usual for a PM in a team of portfolio managers to be able to initiate positions without reference to their partners. But how the team will react to change for the positions (in size or price) does need to be covered in the ground rules. Is there any right of veto, is there a different scale of decision made when the partners don't agree? Once a position is owned is it subject to hard or soft stops – do both partners have to adhere to review and exit levels? For the fund and team under discussion one of the partners was much more engaged in challenging the positions initiated by the other partner. Whilst the partners whose positions were under discussion saw this as a personal style point (one partner was just more vocal/forthright than the other), the other partner saw such challenging discussions as part of the investment process. This difference in perception and therefore activity could easily undermine a relationship under pressure because of returns.

Differences Between the Portfolio Managers

Having had some preliminary discussions for an overview, and discussed at some length how the two portfolio managers spent their time and what structure they had in place in their investment process, some clear points of difference came through. To explore these further I conducted separate structured interviews – asking the same questions to each portfolio manager gave a chance to compare attitudes, preferences, and perceptions of the two team members. To put the following list of differences into context I quote from my written report on the managers: "The managers have fantastically complementary philosophies on the market. They get on very well on a personal basis. In fact they have worked incredibly well together with some quite significant differences in tactical approaches (strategy being broadly agreed)."

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