A fund manager might beat the market because of luck or recklessness,rather than skill, for example. Suppose he packed his portfolio with oil stocks. When the crude price rises that would pay off, but it wouldbe a pretty risky portfolio. More generally, alpha sceptics often attribute eye-catching returns to "style bias", such as favouring stocks with a high dividend yield. But should they be biased against style bias? After all, the only portfolio utterly free of bias would be one that included the entiremarket. Were a Britain portfolio to exclude just one stock, such as BP, it would have a small-cap bias, a sector bias and a currency bias (most of BP's revenue is in dollars). Hence any excess return must stem froms ome element of style.
Academics have entered this debate, trying to pin down the factors that drive a fund's performance. These might include the difference inr eturns between small-cap and large-cap stocks (fund managers tend tofavour the former) or the level of credit spreads and so on. Bill Fungand Narayan Naik of London Business School have come up with a seven-factor model which, they say, can explain the bulk of hedge-fundp erformance. After allowing for these factors, the average fund of hedge funds has not produced any alpha in the past decade, except during the dotcom bubble.
This approach suggests the whole idea of alpha might be an illusion.A cademics can explain most of it, and the only reason they cannot explain all of it is because they are not clever enough to think of themissing factors. However, it is also possible to take the opposite tack. This type of analysis gives managers no credit for choosing the systematic factors--the betas--that drive their portfolios. Yes, these betas could often have been bought for very low fees. But would an investor have been able to put them together in the right combination?
It is as if a diner in Gordon Ramsay's restaurants were brave enough to tell the irascible chef: "This meal was delicious. But chemical analysis shows it is 65% chicken, 20% carrot, 10% flour and 5% milk. I could have bought those ingredients for GBP1.50. Why should I payGBP20?" The chef's reply, shorn of its expletives, might be: "The secret is in the mixing."
This debate matters because people are now trying to replicate the performance of hedge funds with cloned portfolios. Indeed Messrs Fungand Naik have shown that their model would have produced an annual return over the past four years of 11.6%, well ahead of the averagefund of hedge funds. Their performance was purely theoretical. But Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch have launched cloned hedge funds on the market.
There are two potential criticisms of the cloned approach. One is that it will simply reproduce all the systematic returns that hedge funds generate and none of their idiosyncratic magic. However, this "magic"is hard to pin down. Even if it does exist, Messrs Fung and Naiksuggest it may be worth no more than the fees hedge funds charge, so the managers are the only ones to benefit from their skills. The second criticism is that the clones will always be a step behind the smart money. You cannot clone a hedge fund until you know where it has been. But by then it may have moved on. As a result, the clones maypile into assets that the hedge funds are selling, making the classicmistake of buying at the top. This may not be a fatal flaw, however. It is possible to imagine some clones taking contrary bets, buying the betas that seem temporarily out of favour, in the hope that they willbe purchasing what the hedge funds are about to buy.There are some nice ironies at work here.
Hedge-fund managers often rely on secretive "black box" models: the investor puts his money in a tone end and sees the returns spat out at the other, but no more thanthat. Now, armed with just that information, academics are coming upwith their own models, which almost match the hedge funds' performance. Mozart might have sympathised. His operas were more than the sum of hisnotes. But even if the great composer had no peers, he has had plenty of imitators.