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When too many fees mean you’re last to get fed

Photo of Lars Kroijer hedge fund manager turned passive index investing author

This article on the high cost of fund of funds fees is from former hedge fund manager turned author Lars Kroijer, an occasional contributor to Monevator. His book, Investing Demystified, makes the strong case for index funds.

Back in early 2006, I was at the wedding of a good friend in the bride’s hometown near Chicago.

At the reception I sat next to her charming aunt, Mrs Straw.

Mrs Straw had lived in the same small town all her life and her husband was a couple of years from retirement at a local sub-supplier for one of the Detroit auto companies. She herself had not been working for a decade.

Soon the conversation turned to what I did for a living.

“I work at an investment management company,” I said.

“Oh, interesting. Like a mutual fund?” Mrs Straw asked.

“Sort of. It’s called a hedge fund but it’s quite similar in many ways.”

“I know what a hedge fund is,” she said, slightly offended that I had assumed she did not. “We’re invested in them through my husband’s pension plan at the plant. They’re great. He is close to retiring and the pension manager told the folks that hedge funds were like a guarantee against markets going down.”

“Sort of like a sure thing,” I ventured. “Which funds are you invested with?”

“I think they invest in a couple of what are called funds of funds,” she said. “They are able to pick the best hedge funds.”

“That’s great,” I said, before moving the conversation on to other things.

The brother of the groom – who had given up investment banking earlier that year – had observed our conversation from across the table.

“Dude,” he said later, “everyone’s in hedge funds these days. It’s the way of saying ‘I am a sophisticated investor’ even if many people don’t have a clue what hedge funds actually do.”

This conversation stuck with me.

Fund of fund fees add up fast

The following morning, as I was waiting for my wife to get ready for the post-wedding brunch, I jotted down some figures on the notepad by the bed.

These were numbers I had known about for a long time, but I’d never really focused on or added them up from the perspective of the ultimate end investor.

They went like this:

  • Pension fund advisor 0.25%
  • Pension-fund fees and expenses 0.75%
  • Fund of funds management fee 1%

… and so on.

“There are a lot of people who need to get paid here before Mr and Mrs Straw see a penny,” I thought, increasingly mindful of the rapid aggregation of fees.

I even found myself crossing out some of my estimates and making them lower, so that the aggregate fees would look more reasonable.

“Surely external pension fund advisors only charge 0.15% per year,” I muttered to myself.

Even after such tinkering, the conclusions were troubling, especially for investors in fund of funds.

I began to think the only way the numbers made sense for Mr and Mrs Straw would be if hedge funds all performed brilliantly every year – which clearly doesn’t happen in the real world.

Already underwater

Typically, Mr Straw’s pension fund would have its own set of expenses and fees. It would also usually hire an external advisor to assess what to do with its hedge fund allocation.

With the help of this advisor, Mr Straw’s pension fund might make an allocation to one or perhaps a couple of the larger fund of funds, depending on its risk appetite and its views on which fund of funds showed the greatest promise.

The fund of funds selected would then go about its work and decide which hedge funds to invest in – such as the hedge fund I ran back then, Holte Capital.

The end result is a lot of mouths to feed, particularly when you consider that in addition to their typical fees, hedge funds have trading and administration expenses to pay, too.

Here is an estimate of the annual fees and expenses Mr Straw might incur before seeing a return from his hedge fund investment:

Pension fund (PF)
PF external advisor 0.15%
PF fees and expenses 0.75%
Fund of funds (FoF)
FoF expenses  0.15% Admin, legal, audit
FoF management fee 1.00%
FoF performance fee 10.00%
Hedge funds (HF)
HF trading expenses 1.64% See below
HF fund expenses 0.20% Admin, legal, audit
HF management fees 1.50%
HF performance fees 20.00%
5.39% Variable

Source: Author’s research.

Notice that Mr Straw is already down more than 5% on his investment every year on fixed costs alone (that is, before performance fees1).

Mr Straw would do well to question if the hedge fund business can consistently provide the returns to make up for these huge costs.

How trading costs cut hedge fund returns

What about the trading expenses racked up by a hedge fund that I mentioned?

In the example above I have estimated these at 1.64%. The precise number will depend on the type of hedge fund that the fund of funds invests in.

For my back of a napkin estimates, I assume a typical long/short2 equity fund with 150% long and 75% short exposure. This was somewhat different to my own hedge fund at the time, which aimed to be more equally long and short, but the sums are fairly similar for most types of funds.

In order to generate its returns, the typical hedge fund will incur trading expenses as follows:

Market exposure
Long market value 150.00% Long £150 per £100 in assets
Short market value 75.00% Short £75 per £100 in assets
Gross market value £225 per £100 in assets
Costs incurred
Borrow fee (to short) 0.5% Can be higher with some names
Annual churn 2.5x Number times portfolio traded yearly
Bid/offer spread 0.25% Bigger for smaller companies
Commissions .10% In US done in cents per share
Softing 0.00% Assume none (see below)
Margin costs 0.00% Assume zero as below 100% net long

Source: Author’s research.

Using these assumptions, we can calculate a typical hedge fund’s annual trading expenses as something like the following:

Borrow fee 0.38%
Commissions 0.56% Gross market value x churn x commissions
Bid/offer spread  0.70% Gross market value x churn x bid/offer x 0.5
Total  1.64%

Source: Author’s estimates and calculations.

In the first table I also included an estimate of administrative expenses close to those incurred at my hedge fund at the time – which were less than 0.2% per year. For smaller funds these could easily be several percent annually.

Even adding the lowball 0.2% estimate to the trading expenses we just calculated, we see the typical hedge fund will spend nearly 2% (0.2% + 1.64%) of its assets every year. And that’s before the hedge-fund manager gets his or her explicit management fee.

The list can go on. Until a few years ago, for example, hedge fund managers typically engaged in ‘softing’. This sees a broker charge the manager more than the going rate for a trade (say 0.2% instead of 0.1%) and in exchange gives part of this difference back to the manager in the form of products and services, such as a Bloomberg terminal, computers, research and so on.

Softing effectively causes the hedge fund to charge its investors higher fees.

In line with my own fund at the time, I’ve assumed there is no ‘softing’ going on with our example. We don’t exactly need it to make the numbers look bad!

What about the end investor?

Let’s get back to Mr Straw’s pension.

We’ll assume for simplicity’s sake that all the hedge fund managers that his fund of fund manager invests in achieve a return of 10% a year.

This 10% is before any fees and trading and other expenses.

So how much does Mr Straw get to bring home to Mrs Straw, to help the couple enjoy their golden years?

Not a lot, it turns out.

As shown in the table below, in this simple example Mr Straw will see around 3% return per year, even when the hedge fund managers achieve a quite respectable 10% gross return.

Let me repeat that: Mr Straw’s money generated a return of $10. Mr Straw gets to keep less than $3.

Here’s the maths:

Gross ‘gross’ performance* 10.00%
Hedge fund (HF) Fee Net of3
Trading expenses  1.64% 8.36%
Standard ‘gross’ performance
HF fund expenses 0.20% 8.16%
HF management fee 1.50% 6.66%
HF incentive fee4 20.00% 5.33%
Fund of funds (FoF)
FoF expenses 0.15% 5.18%
FoF management fee 1.00% 4.18%
FoF incentive fee5  10.00% 3.76%
Pension fund (PF)
PF external advisor 0.15% 3.61%
PF fees and expenses 0.75% 2.86%
Net return 2.86%

Source: Author’s research. *Normally gross performance is quoted after trading expenses.

Heaven forbid that Mr Straw should have to pay tax on his gains!

Instead of enriching these many layers of financial advisors and principals – and taking risks with his money to earn 10%, only to see it dwindle to a 2.86% return to him – Mr Straw could have just put his money in government bonds for a smaller but far less risky return, and slept more easily at night (particularly as his retirement date was fast approaching).

Luxury pricing for everyday performance

There is one more piece of the puzzle that’s worth thinking about.

Namely, how did the example hedge fund generate its 10% return?

If the fund was just long the S&P500 index and the index was up 10% for the year, Mr Straw paid his large fees for very little additional value. He could have bought a cheap index fund and paid say 0.2% in total fees, not 7% (though he might not have been able to avoid some pension fund costs in order to gain tax advantages).

Long-only funds charge high hedge fund fees, but they do not add as much value (because they just own something that goes up) compared to those who generate 10% pure alpha (i.e. non market-related gains), perhaps by being market neutral in their mix of long and short exposure.

The events of the fall of 2008 proved a large number of hedge funds were indeed simply long the markets – and the value they generated was thus lower.

Investors in such hedge funds were paying for beta. They paid a high cost for simply being long the market.

It is no coincidence that the surge in hedge fund assets under management occurred at the same time as a 30-year bull market in equities and other asset classes.

In this environment, a lot of beta was sold as alpha, yet just how much is perhaps not readily apparent to the end investor until the market starts going down. Even then there are ways to disguise it.

Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you it is incredibly hard to generate 10% gross ‘alpha’ every year.

If you do, funds of funds will love you, invest lots of money with you, and simply leverage up their investment in your fund to fit their risk profile.

The holy grail of funds of funds is to create a portfolio of hedge funds with no correlation to markets or to each other. This would almost guarantee continued positive performance.

Unfortunately there is very little doubt that in sum the hedge fund industry does not create an average of 10% alpha per year. We create far less and hedge funds correlate quite highly with each other, particularly in bad markets.

In the good years, rising markets disguise the fact that it is not 10% alpha, but rather 3% alpha and 7% being long the market, that generated the returns. Mr Straw may not know the difference and happily pays his fees.

That said, while the likes of Mr Straw may not be much wiser today than they were a few years ago, I do think institutional investors are a bit savvier about what they’re getting when they put money into a hedge fund these days.

While the total assets management by the hedge fund industry has climbed to a new all-time high, I believe average fees are far lower than before the financial crisis, so it seems some of these lessons have been learned.

I also think that today’s investors are wiser about what they’re paying for than they were before the 2008 crash revealed how many hedge funds were essentially leveraged long-only bets on the market. More people now understand they need to look for true alpha to justify paying high fees – although whether they find it would be the subject for another article.

Let’s try this in real life

At the end of the day, just how big a difference does all this siphoning off via fees have on Mr Straw’s money?

Let’s imagine Mr Straw invested $100 in the type of fund of funds we’ve walked through above, while Mrs Straw takes $100 from her savings and puts them in an averagely cheap index fund.

Suppose that both Mr and Mrs Straw’s investments return 10% per year before any fees over ten years. After that Mr and Mrs Straw are ready for retirement.

How much have they got?

The result may not surprise you by this point, but it’s still staggering:

 Year 0 Year 10
Mr Straw in ‘Hot Hedge’ $100.00 $132.57
Mrs Straw in index fund $100.00 $254.70
Cumulative fees to ‘Hot Hedge’ $35.48
Cumulative fees to Fund of Funds $17.76
Cumulative fees to index fund company* $4.68

Source: Author’s research. * I’ve assumed the index fund costs 0.2% a year.

Mrs Straw simple investing strategy leaves her with a pension fund that dwarfs her husband’s.

The table makes it easy to see where the difference went. The fees paid to the hedge fund and fund of funds are ten times larger than to the index fund company – and this is before the pension fund’s charges and expenses.

Wake up to the huge cost of high fees

None of this is to say that investing in a hedge fund never makes sense for anyone.

I’ve assumed in the example above that both the index fund and the hedge fund returns 10% a year. Some people may be optimistic that their chosen hedge fund will do far better than the market.

Maybe so, but clearly the bar that Mr Straw’s fund has to clear for it to make sense for him to stick with hedge funds compared to switching to using index funds is very high indeed.

Back in Chicago, I was still working through this maths when my wife was finally ready to head out for the wedding brunch.

As we took the short walk there, I tried to explain my re-discovered revelation about the multiple fee structure and how it did not make sense for Mr and Mrs Straw – or even pension funds generally – to be invested in hedge funds.

My wife was oddly casual about it.

“Don’t you think the rest of the world knows that finance guys are not worth what they are getting paid?” she said with a smile.

I gave her the usual song and dance about uncorrelated risk-adjusted returns at my own hedge fund, but her mind was already elsewhere.

As was mine.

Lars Kroijer’s book Investing Demystified is available from Amazon. He is donating all his profits from his book to medical research. He also wrote Confessions of a Hedge Fund Manager.

  1. Also known as incentive fees. []
  2. Long means you own the assets and look for them to go up. Short means you have sold the assets, betting they will get cheaper in the future. []
  3. i.e. ‘Minus’ the fee in left column. []
  4. aka performance fee []
  5. aka performance fee []
{ 9 comments… add one }
  • 1 Andrew Williams November 20, 2014, 1:44 pm

    This is a superbly clear article, Lars, thank you.

  • 2 rajkanwarbatra November 20, 2014, 1:45 pm

    Wow. Love the blog.

  • 3 Chris November 20, 2014, 2:43 pm

    Thanks for reminding us (and we need reminding, over and over again) of the scariest words in finance:
    “Give me your money, I’ll look after it….”

  • 4 dearieme November 20, 2014, 3:13 pm

    I remain grateful to whoever taught me that “hedge funds were essentially leveraged long-only bets on the market”. Your arithmetic on costs is very helpful. I saw a discussion on MSE the other day, where someone was balking at paying a 4% initial charge for something, but was entirely relaxed about an annual charge of (from memory) 2.3%. Bonkers!

  • 5 Under The Money Tree November 21, 2014, 11:35 am

    Great article. In these post crisis times of low rates, attacking the fees you’re paying has become one of the most effective ways to boost your returns. I’m still amazed by the amount of people I encounter that don’t do this!

  • 6 grey gym sock November 21, 2014, 3:21 pm

    you say ‘softing’ is no longer typical for hedge funds; but what about for (ordinary) funds in the UK? this recent article suggests it’s still going on:

    “Meanwhile, the FCA has raised concerns over the ‘dealing commissions’ paid by fund groups to brokers. It has estimated investment groups pay around £3 billion a year from their investors’ funds to brokers, with £1.5 billion of this used to pay for investment research, a market the regulator has labelled ‘largely unpriced and opaque’.” – http://citywire.co.uk/money/consumer-panel-calls-for-higher-all-in-fund-charges/a784026

    it would be worth running similar calculations of total costs for typical UK (non-hedge) funds-of-funds (and also for plain UK retail funds). for funds investing in UK shares, the trading costs will also include 0.5% stamp duty.

  • 7 Eagleeye November 22, 2014, 9:58 am

    I am thankful to Monevator for highlighting the dark side of funds market.

    I have become an investor due to Movevator articles as financial advisor fees ,bad reputation in the newspapers regarding pensions used to scare me.

    None of the commercial websites explain in detail about index trackers and fees. All of them are promoting heavy fees funds/etf when one can get the same or best from low cost trackers. The short term performance may be high for high cost funds but in long term most of them are flop.

  • 8 Lars Kroijer November 25, 2014, 5:06 pm

    thanks for the nice words. The numbers get even scarier if you consider the numbers for multiple years – even Buffett woould look mediocre with the multiple fees. To be fair the hedge fund industry has gotten a lot better at not charging for alpha and cutting out the middle men in the years since 2008. Still I wish more investors would ask themselves if they really have the edge to pick one manager/stock/etc. over another – chances are they would answer in the negative and be better off with index trackers…

  • 9 kean November 27, 2014, 11:36 am

    Very revealing article! And, absolutely shocking too.

    Had an inkling that the charges were about double but having read this I am now thinking anything in the 7-10% range is more likely.

    Pushed hard I can just about accept that there is a degree of very specific expertise (or may be black art!) involved in a hedge fund & therefore hedge f-of-fs may justify these charges. (Or may be not cause I would not touch it!). However, for “ordinary” f-of-fs which are most likely not far off this sort of charges, it feels like a PPI type scandal – certainly here in the UK.

    For ordinary f-of-fs, purely based on my personal experience of two providers, I believe f-of-fs (sometimes disguised as Portfolio Mgmt Service) management team is set up as a separate profit centre. If so, this means that f-of-fs team not only cover costs BUT have to generate profits for the provider.

    Having said all of that, I understand that for some investors it may be an option but do think the providers should be made to be TOTALLY transparent with regard to their slice of the pie.

    Thanks you for revealing the inherent costs.

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