Markets

Stephen Gandel is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering equity markets. He was previously a deputy digital editor for Fortune and an economics blogger at Time. He has also covered finance and the housing market.

Hedge funds are having just as bad a year as ever, but that doesn't seem to stop people from plowing money into the overpriced and underperforming investment vehicles or some hedge fund cheerleaders from saying, erroneously, that the industry's performance has improved.

Last year, investors pulled $70 billion out of hedge funds, according to industry tracker HFR. That seemed to indicate that those who invested in the funds, after nine years of what can charitably be called lackluster performance, had finally realized their mistake. Not quite. This year, $1.2 billion has flowed back into hedge funds. The Wall Street Journal on Monday attributed the reversal in part to a rebound in performance. That's wishful thinking.

Reversal of Fortune
Money is flowing back into hedge funds even though performance has not improved
Souce: HFR

The average hedge fund, according to HFR, was up 5.4 percent this year through August, the latest month for which figures are available. That performance, by investment managers who are often collectively called Wall Street's smart money, is 3.5 percentage points worse than if investors had blindly put 60 percent of their money into a broad stock market index fund and the rest into bonds on Dec. 31, 2016, and then gone on vacation for eight months. Equity-only hedge funds have done better, up 8.3 percent through August, nearly matching the return of the 60/40 mix. But the S&P 500 Index, which was up 11.9 percent through August, or 3.6 percentage points better than equity-only hedge funds, is the right benchmark for that group.

And even those performance numbers may be too generous. The 5.4 percent is an average return for all hedge funds, regardless of size. Larger hedge funds, where most of the money is, have done worse this year. Bill Ackman's $10 billion Pershing Square Holdings fund, for instance, was down nearly 8 percent through August. Hedge fund superstar David Einhorn has struggled as well. Weight performance by size, and hedge fund returns drop another percentage point to 4.4 percent. By that measure, hedge funds are trailing the S&P 500 by 7.5 percentage points in 2017, making this a worse than average year, not better. On average, hedge funds have trailed the S&P 500 by slightly more than 6.5 percentage points since the beginning of 2008. That terrible performance is perhaps why a 5 percent return elicits cheers from hedge fund investors. The bar at this point is very low.

Performance Drag
Investors who put $10,000 in hedge funds at the end of 2007 would have less than $14,000 today, compared with nearly $21,000 if they had put that money into an S&P 500 fund
Source: HFR
Hedge fund returns are based on the HFR Asset Weighted Composite Index

Worse is how hedge fund are achieving their middling performance. According to a report in mid-August from Goldman Sachs, four of the top five stocks held by hedge funds were Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Alibaba Group Holdings and Google parent Alphabet Inc., the same stocks that everyone from my mother to 10-year boys are snapping up. Other hedge funds, according to the Journal, are benefiting from a bet against retailers. These are not investment ideas that you need to pay 2 and 20 for.

What's truly driving money into hedge funds is not a rebound in performance but a shift in the industry to diversified portfolios and less trading. Recently, a number of large fund have cut their outrageous fees. That's helping, too. These are all things that make hedge funds look as if they will be better investments when consultants run their analysis for big-money pension fund clients. So far it's still just smoke and mirrors.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen Gandel in New York at sgandel2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net