Black Swan Free World (4)
On April 7 2009, the Financial Times published an article written by Nassim Taleb called Ten Principles for a Black Swan Free World. Let’s look at them one at a time…
4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks. Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show “profits” while claiming to be “conservative”. Bonuses do not accommodate the hidden risks of blow-ups. It is the asymmetry of the bonus system that got us here. No incentives without disincentives: capitalism is about rewards and punishments, not just rewards.
For many years, money managers were paid out of the revenue from a small management fee charged on assets. The good performing funds attracted more funds and therefore had more gross revenue. Retail mutual funds usually charged a flat rate. Institutional funds charged a sliding scale that went down as a percentage of assets as the amount of assets went up. Since mutual fund expenses were relatively flat, that meant that the larger funds could generate quite substantial profits.
Then hedge funds came along fifty years ago and established the pattern of incentive compensation of 20% of profits fairly early. In addition, the idea of the fund using leverage was an early innovation of hedge funds.
Another innovation was the custom that the hedge fund manager’s gains would stay in the fund so that the incentives were aligned. But think about how that works. The investor puts up $1 million. The fund gains 20%, the manager gets $400k and the investor gets $160k. Then the fund drops 50%, the investor’s account is now worth $580k – he is down $420k. The manager is down to $80k, but still up by that $80k. The investor is creamed but the manager is well ahead. Seems like that incentives need realignment.
Taleb may be thinking of a major issue with hedge funds – valuation of illiquid investments. Hedge funds often make purchases of totally illiquid investments. Each quarter, the manager makes an estimate of what they are worth. The manager gets paid based upon those estimates. However, with the recent downturn, even in funds that have not shown significant losses have had significant redemptions. When these funds have redemptions, the liquid assets are sold to pay off the departing investors. Their shares are determined using the estimated values of the illiquid assets and the remaining fund becomes more and more concentrated in illiquid assets.
If the fund manager had been optimistic about the value of the illiquid assets or simply did not anticipate the shift in demand that has ocurred with the financial crisis, there may well be a major problem brewing for the last investors out the door. The double whammy of depressed prices for the illiquid assets as well as the distribution based upon values for those assets that are now known to be optimistic.
And over payment of the one sided performance bonuses to the manager were supported by the optimistic valuations.
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