Hedge funds entered 2019 coming off their ninth straight year of trailing U.S. stocks (as measured by the S&P 500 Index) by significant margins.
And for the 10 year period ending 2017 — one that included the worst bear market in the post Depression era — the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index produced a negative return (0.4%), underperforming every single major equity and bond asset class.
So how did hedge funds fare in 2018? The following table shows the returns for various equity and fixed income indexes. The HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index returned 6.7%.
As you can see, the hedge fund index outperformed eight equity asset classes, but underperformed all fixed income indexes. We can take our analysis a step further and determine how hedge funds performed against a globally diversified portfolio.
An all equity portfolio allocated 50% internationally and 50% domestically, equally weighted among the indexes from the table within those broader categories, would have lost 11.9% over the year, underperforming the hedge fund index by 5.2%.
Another comparison we can make is to a typical balanced portfolio of 60% equities and 40% bonds. Using the same weighting methodology as above for the equity allocation, the portfolio would have lost 6.4% using one year Treasuries (outperforming the hedge fund index by 0.03%), lost 6.7% using five year Treasuries (performing in line with the hedge fund index), and lost 7.4% using long term Treasuries (underperforming the hedge fund index by 0.70%).
As mentioned earlier, hedge funds outperformed most equity asset classes we reviewed in 2018. However, they performed roughly in line with a 60/40 portfolio with five year Treasuries. Thus, in a down market, hedge funds didn’t offer any protection compared to a standard diversified portfolio.
If we look back over the 10 year period ending December 2018, the HFRX index earned 1.5% per year on average, compared with 10.2% per year for the equal weighted equity index and 6.9% for the same 60/40 portfolio with five year Treasuries. Five year Treasuries earned 2% per year. Here’s the full breakdown of each asset class over the 10 years:
Market Efficiency The Foe
Despite attracting some of the brightest minds in finance, hedge funds continue to struggle to outperform broader market indexes. The problem is that the efficiency of the market, as well as the cost of the effort, can turn a supposed advantage into a handicap. Given the evidence on hedge funds’ underwhelming results, it’s a puzzle why they are still managing about $3 trillion in assets.