|$100 bills. Photo: Adam Kuban. Used under Creative Commons license
Hedge funds, a publicity-shy sector of the financial industry where the super wealthy invest their money in the hope of making above-average profits, were just handed an opportunity to make even more money under a new law signed by President Barack Obama. Consumer advocates say that unsophisticated investors may be at risk as a result.
Most U.S. investment funds are regulated under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Investment Company Act of 1940 which restrict how much the fund managers are paid and what they do in order to protect naïve investors. Many hedge funds are designed to get around these restrictions by raising money from a select few sophisticated investors.
For example, big hedge funds seek “qualified purchasers” – who have at least $5 million in money – who are exempt from these restrictions under section 3(c)(7) of the 1940 Securities Exchange Act. Smaller hedge funds seek as many as 100 “accredited investors” - those with a net worth of over $1 million (not including their houses) or a minimum annual income of $200,000 (or $300,000 for married couples) – under the 3(c)(1) of the Investment Company Act of 1940.
Like any other exclusive club for the wealthy, hedge funds tend to be very secretive. Some of this is the law: “private placements” of securities are banned from advertising publicly but also because companies with less than 500 shareholders are exempt from publishing annual reports under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
In “More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite” Sebastian Mallaby estimates that the hedge funds make some 11 percent profit, more than double other investment vehicles. This allows fund managers to ask for higher fees than regular bankers – typically they take between one and four percent of the investment every year as well as between 10 and 50 percent of profits in return for attempting to beat the stock market.
Some hedge fund managers mint money: Raymond Dalio of Bridgewater Associates was paid an estimated $3 billion in 2011, Carl Icahn of Icahn Capital Management earned $2 billion. The top European hedge fund manager in 2011 was Alan Howard of Brevan Howard Asset Management, who earned $400 million last year. All told, the 40 highest paid hedge fund managers were paid a combined $13.2 billion in 2011, according to a Forbes magazine survey.
Under the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, signed into law by Obama on April 5, 2012, the threshold for publishing annual reports has been raised to 2,000. It also allows hedge funds to conduct “general advertising” although specifics will have to be spelt out by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) within 90 days.
Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at Consumer Federation of America told Reuters that she was worried that hedge funds might exploit unwary people. “Accredited investors are not necessarily sophisticated investors,” she said. “It will do more harm than good.”
Writing in the Financial Times Robert Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and Theresa Hamacher, president of the National Investment Company Service Association, recommend that the SEC should take two specific steps to protect these smaller investors. “First, it should update the definition of accredited investor, which was established 30 years ago, in 1982. To be a realistic proxy for sophistication in the present age, accredited investors should have an annual income of $600,000 and net worth of at least $3m, again excluding their home.
“Second, the SEC should establish uniform standards for reporting performance by hedge funds. Because reporting hedge fund returns is voluntary, managers can hide the performance of a poorly performing fund—either by not reporting it or by closing down the fund. As a result, the average reported return of hedge funds is overstated by more than three percentage points per year, according to several studies.”
The SEC, for its part, says it is intent on cleaning up the industry with the help of data that hedge funds have to provide under new disclosure rules enacted into law by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. "Pick your fraud of the day and the question is, 'Can we extract information from this data system together with the other databases we have access to and home in on problems before they do damage?'" Robert Plaze, deputy director in the division of investment management for the Securities and Exchange Commission, told the Wall Street Journal.