Saturday 6th February 2016
NEWS TICKER: Friday, February 5th: According to Reuters, Venezuela's central bank has begun negotiations with Deutsche Bank AG to carry out gold swaps to improve the liquidity of its foreign reserves as it faces debt payments of some $9.5bn this year. Around 64% of Venezuela's $15.4bn reserves are held in gold bars, which in this fluid market impedes the central bank's ability to mobilise hard currency for imports or debt service. We called the central bank to confirm the story, but press spokesmen would not comment - The Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) says official foreign currency reserves stood at $357bn (equivalent to seven times the currency in circulation or 48% of Hong Kong M3) as at the end of January, down compared with reserve assets of $358.8bn in December. There were no unsettled foreign exchange contracts at month end (end-December: $0.1bn) - BNP Paribas today set out plans to cut investment banking costs by 12% by 2019 to bolster profitability and reassure investors about the quality of its capital buffers. The bank is the latest in a line of leading financial institutions, including Credit Suisse, Barclays and Deutsche Bank which look to be moving away from capital intensive activities. BNP Paribas has been selling non-core assets and cutting back on operations including oil and gas financing for the last few years as it looks to achieve a target of 10% return on equity. Last year the bank announced a €900m write-down on its BNL unit in Italy, which pushed down Q4 net income down 51.7% to €665m - Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE)-listed tech company, Huge Group, will move its listing from the Alternative Exchange (AltX) to the JSE main board on March 1st - Moody's says it has assigned Aaa backed senior unsecured local-currency ratings to a drawdown under export credit provider Oesterreichische Kontrollbank's (OKB) (P)Aaa-rated backed senior unsecured MTN program. The outlook is negative in line with the negative outlook assigned to the Aaa ratings of the Republic of Austria, which guarantees OKB’s liabilities under the Austrian Export Financing Guarantees Act – As the first phase of talks between Greece and its creditors draws to an end, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde stressed to journalists in Greece that debt relief is as important as the reforms that creditors are demanding, notably of the pension system. "I have always said that the Greek program has to walk on two legs: one is significant reforms and one is debt relief. If the pension [system] cannot be as significantly and substantially reformed as needed, we could need more debt relief on the other side." Greece's pension system must become sustainable irrespective of any debt relief that creditors may decide to provide, Lagarde said, adding that 10% of gross domestic product into financing the pension system, compared to an average of 2.5% in the EU, is not sustainable. She called for "short-term measures that will make it sustainable in the long term,” but did not outline what those measures might be. According to Eurobank in Athens, IMF mission heads reportedly met this morning with the Minister of Labour, Social Insurance and Social Solidarity, Georgios Katrougalos, before the team is scheduled to leave Athens today. According to the local press, it appears that differences exist between the Greek government and official creditors on the planned overhaul of the social security pension system. Provided that things go as planned, the heads are reportedly expected to return by mid-February with a view to completing the review by month end, or at worst early March. In its Winter 2016 Economic Forecast published yesterday, the European Commission revised higher Greece’s GDP growth forecast for 2015 and 2016 to 0.0% and -0.7%, respectively, from -1.4% and 1.-3% previously - Fitch says that The Bank of Italy's (BoI) recent designation of three banks as 'other systemically important institutions' (O-SIIs) has no impact on its ratings of the relevant mortgage covered bond (Obbligazioni Bancarie Garantite or OBG) programmes. Last month, BoI identified UniCredit, Intesa Sanpaolo. and Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena as Italian O-SIIs. Banco Popolare and Mediobanca have not been designated O-SIIs. This status is the equivalent of domestic systemically important bank status under EU legislation. Fitch rates two OBG programmes issued by UC and one issued by BMPS, which incorporates a one-notch Issuer Default Rating (IDR) uplift above the banks' IDRs. The uplift can be assigned if covered bonds are exempt from bail-in, as is the case with OBG programmes under Italy's resolution regime and in this instance takes account of the issuers' importance in the Italian banking sector – Meantime, according to local press reports, Italian hotel group Bauer and special opportunity fund Blue Skye Investment Group report they have completed the rescheduling and refinancing of Bauer’s €110m debt through the issue of new bonds and the sale of non-core assets, such as the farming business Aziende Agricole Bennati, whose sale has already been agreed, the Palladio Hotel & Spa and a luxury residence Villa F in Venice’s Giudecca island – Meantime, Russian coal and steel producer Mechel has also agreed a restructuring of its debt with credits after two intense years of talks. The mining company, is controlled by businessman Igor Zyuzin - Asian markets had a mixed day, coming under pressure. Dollar strengthening worries investors in Asia; from today’s trading it looks like dollar weakening does as well. Actually, that’s not the issue, the dollar has appreciated steadily over the last year as buyers anticipated Fed tightening; but it has hurt US exports and that has contributed to investor nervousness over the past few weeks, which is why everyone is hanging on today’s The nonfarm payrolls report, a bellwether of change – good or bad in the American economic outlook. Back to Asia. The Nikkei 225 ended the day at 16819.15, down 225.40 points, or 1.32%; and as the stock market fell the yen continued to strengthen. The Nikkei has shed 5.85% this week. The dollar-yen pair fell to the 116-handle, at 116.82 in afternoon trade; earlier this week, the pair was trading above 120. It is a hard lesson for the central bank, whose efforts to take the heat out of the yen by introducing negative interest rates has done nothing of the sort. Australia's ASX 200 closed down 4.15 points, or 0.08% after something of a mixed week. The index closed at 4976.20, with the financial sector taking most of the heat today, with the sector down 0.7%. In contrast, energy and materials sectors finished in positive territory, buoyed by gains in commodities. The Hang Seng Index closed at 19288.17, up 105.08 points (or 0.55%) while the Shanghai Composite was down 0.61%. down 17.07 points to 2763.95. The Shenzhen composite dropped 20.36 points (1.15%) to 1750.70, while the Kospi rose marginally by 0.08% to 1917.79. Today is the last day of trading on the Chinese exchanges for a week.

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After the Deluge

Saturday, 01 January 2005
After the Deluge In late October the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) voted three to two in favour of hedge fund registration. SEC chairman William Donaldson had pushed hard for registration, arguing that as less well to do investors increasingly put their money into hedge funds, not enough is known about them. Even so, money has continued to flood into hedge funds during 2004, sometimes from surprising sources. By some estimates, industry assets now exceed $1trn. Neil O’Hara assesses the impact of tighter regulation and the general outlook for an industry that has promised much and yet this year, at least, has delivered only a lacklustre performance. http://www.ftseglobalmarkets.com/
In late October the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) voted three to two in favour of hedge fund registration. SEC chairman William Donaldson had pushed hard for registration, arguing that as less well to do investors increasingly put their money into hedge funds, not enough is known about them. Even so, money has continued to flood into hedge funds during 2004, sometimes from surprising sources. By some estimates, industry assets now exceed $1trn. Neil O’Hara assesses the impact of tighter regulation and the general outlook for an industry that has promised much and yet this year, at least, has delivered only a lacklustre performance.
The number of hedge fund start-ups continues to grow dramatically,” says James Hedges, founder, president and chief investment officer of LJH Global Investments, an advisory firm that helps clients select and invest in hedge funds, “The demand for hedge funds is unabated, the number of hedge fund managers bringing in substantial assets is unbelievable.” Hedges notes that investors are gravitating to “mega-funds” that manage $500m or more. “It is creating a very bar-belled industry. Some 90% of the industry’s assets are clustered around 10% of the number of funds out there, and the remaining 90% of funds hold 10%,” he says.  As a consequence smaller players face immense pressure to escape the competitive disadvantage of subscale operations.

Funds of hedge funds account for an increasing proportion of new money flows. “I estimate that 80% of funds coming into hedge funds go through funds of funds today, up from 50% two years ago,” says Hedges, “They are the conduit of choice because they have the capability to do professional due diligence and ongoing monitoring. You get diversification across strategy, across managers, you get risk mitigation. You make it somebody else’s problem.”



Even so, outsourcing of fiduciary responsibilities comes at a steep price. “The funds of funds business is going to be plagued by its mediocrity,” he says, “Most of them have terrible performance. It is all going to get out there at some point. It is two or three years out.”

“A typical fund of funds, if it is trying to hedge its bets all over the place and be totally diversified, becomes closer to an index fund,” expands Michael Tannenbaum, president of the Hedge Fund Association in New York. “The value added by the manager in picking the sub-funds diminishes.”

Funds of funds levy management fees up to 1% and performance fees up to 10% on top of the underlying funds’ 1%-1.5% management fees and 20% performance fees. “Some of the funds of funds are reasonable, some aren’t,” he says, “A number don’t charge performance fees, or charge performance fees that are very modest, or that are modest and in excess of a benchmark.”

As assets under management balloon, spreads have shrivelled for some popular strategies, such as merger and convertible arbitrage. Although merger activity has picked up, total transaction volume remains far short of the peak reached in 2000. Convertible bond issuance has not kept pace with hedge funds’ asset growth, either. “The market becomes more efficient as the amount of money and the number of players increases,” notes Tannenbaum.

The search for higher returns is leading hedge funds into commodities, exotic securities and even private equity, which increases the risk. “Illiquid investments are inconsistent with a strict hedge fund model,”  Tannenbaum explains.  “Hedge funds typically are open-ended products.  Private equity or venture capital investments are illiquid.  As a result there are valuation problems.” Hedge funds segregate private equity deals into “side pockets” that lock in participating investors until the underlying investment liquefies, fixing the value.

Government agencies in Washington are split over the merits of hedge funds. The Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States (US), more commonly known as the Fed, and the Treasury Department relish the liquidity they provide. On the other side, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) looks at them askance. “I sat down with Alan Greenspan and with (Treasury) Secretary Snow and his staff, and they are just so delighted that hedge funds are there in the illiquid markets,” says John Gaines, president of the Managed Funds Association (MFA), “Then you go to the SEC and they say we have valuation problems. It is like you have crossed a border.”

Valuation difficulties extend to over-the-counter swaps, derivatives and other securities for which no ready market exists. “There is no such thing as an independent valuation service,” scoffs Hedges at LJH, who believes the lack of valuation standards is the biggest threat to the hedge fund industry, “The administrators cannot do it; they do not understand the instruments.” In the absence of a market price, managers follow procedures described in their partnership agreements – which they drafted. “It is quite arbitrary,” he says, “Hedge fund managers are the ones that decide or define valuation – not a market maker, not a broker dealer, not an auditor, not an administrator.”

In its 2003 report Sound Practices for Hedge Fund Managers, the MFA recommends a fair value approach but recognises the limitations for illiquid securities. “The value of that money going into our capital market outweighs the difficulties that are associated with valuation,” says Gaines, “That’s not to say there’s a simple answer to valuation, but it is one of full disclosure and consent by the investor.”

Fraud based on bad valuations contributed to the SEC’s decision to force most US hedge fund advisers to register by February 1, 2006. The agency ignored intensive lobbying by the MFA, the US Chamber of Commerce (USCC) and others opposed to regulation. The rule captures advisers who manage more than $30m and have more than 14 US investors in funds with a lock-up period less than two years. Longer lock-ups let private equity and venture capital funds off the hook.

Tannenbaum worries the incremental cost may deter some younger players, who might otherwise bring new ideas and energy to the industry. He also fears registration is the thin end of a regulatory wedge. “I refer to it as the slippery slope problem,” he says, “Okay, we will file the form and we will adopt the rules, but where does that lead to?”

The SEC acknowledges it must “recognise the important role that hedge funds play in our markets” and denies any intent to dictate hedge fund strategies. Its assertions convince no one. “Of course there is more to come,” says LJH's Hedges. “It is unfortunate the US is starting to increase regulation at a time when the rest of the world is starting to liberalise their regulatory regime.” He believes the new rule is wasteful and misconceived. “I don’t believe It is going to protect the retail investor. I don’t believe it is going to protect any investors.”

Tannenbaum suggests that foreign hedge fund managers, many of whom already face regulation in their home country, may be reluctant to submit to multiple jurisdictions. “Maybe there should be some reciprocity,” he says, “I fully understand that there’s no reason the SEC should give a person registered with the Financial Services Authority in London a pass. They could sort that out.”

Foreign managers may prefer to evict enough US investors to escape the threshold rather than submit to SEC scrutiny. “I think some funds will jettison that number of US investors to get under 15 so that they can avoid duplicative and perhaps inconsistent regulation,” says Gaines. Sophisticated investors will have fewer choices if foreign managers forsake the US market.

The USCC believes the SEC lacks authority to impose the new rules and has threatened to file suit. In 1985, the SEC defined a “client” under the Investment Advisers Act to include a limited partnership but not individual limited partners because they do not receive independent advice. A letter commenting on the SEC's proposals from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP argued that legislative history back to 1940 supports this approach.

When Congress amended the Act in 1970, it altered the registration requirement but not the way advisers count clients. “If Congress has met, tinkered with the statute, made changes, and not seen fit to change or override an interpretation, there’s a presumption that the interpretation is correct and has the approval of Congress. Therefore, to change that interpretation requires an Act of Congress,” Tannenbaum explains, “That is the argument. I do not know if it has legs.”

Although the MFA has fought hard against registration, it has no plans to challenge the rule. “That is history. We lost and we are going forward,” Gaines says, “We look forward to working with the SEC. If they need to develop information and knowledge about the hedge fund industry, we are in a unique position to provide it to them.”

Gains points out that registration brings other rules into play. Registered advisers must adopt a written code of ethics and appoint a chief compliance officer. “It is not just putting a postage stamp on a form and sending it in,” he says.

The SEC argues the rule does not impose a significant burden because many hedge fund advisers have already registered. Mindful of their fiduciary responsibilities, most institutions allocate money only to registered hedge fund advisers. “Quite apart from the Commission’s actions, any major player in this business, or any wannabe (sic), would have had to register anyway,”  Tannenbaum says, “I think the industry needs to be realistic about that.”

As more pension plans invest in hedge funds, the pressure to register increases. Any fund that has more than 25% of its assets from the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) plans, which covers a wide range of employee benefit plans, becomes subject to the “plan asset” rule.

“The application of the plan asset rule is inconsistent with operating a hedge fund,” Tannenbaum says, “It interferes with performance fees, interferes with soft dollar arrangements.” A hedge fund manager can avoid the plan asset rule by becoming a Qualified Professional Asset Manager if it meets three tests, including $750,000 net worth in the management company and at least $50m under management. “Guess what the third is?” asks Tannenbaum rhetorically. “You have to be registered as an investment adviser.”

Hedges distinguishes SEC registration (that he vehemently opposes) from the Treasury’s proposed anti-money laundering rules for investment advisers. “Regulation that protects our national interest so that unregulated vehicles don’t become conduits for people who gained their capital illegally, or use it illegally, that’s a different deal,” he says.

MFA members share that view, according to Gaines, because anti-money laundering has a demonstrable benefit. Hedge funds have no desire to shelter money derived from criminal enterprises, political corruption or terrorists. “I didn’t have one member object to what the Treasury proposes to do,” he says, “In fact, they were extremely supportive with their talent and their money and their time to develop guidance to Treasury to get it right.”

Tannenbaum hopes the Treasury Department issues final money-laundering rules soon. “The worst thing about rules is not knowing what they are,” he says, “You might have people doing it one way, and then all of a sudden you have another evolutionary scheme out there, and as time goes by they continue to diverge.” He describes the final rules as “regulatory vapourware”. The Treasury published the proposed rules in April 2003. Hedge fund managers won’t have to wait for new rules governing deferred compensation to take effect. Many US-based offshore fund managers defer their share of the performance allocation, which allows them to avoid paying tax until a later date. They did not change the creditor relationship; they just made it harder for the creditors,” Tannenbaum explains, “Offshore rabbi trusts are outlawed by the new rule.”

Offshore rabbi trusts are trusts set up in foreign jurisdictions to fund non-qualified deferred compensation programme. Generally speaking a rabbi trust is nothing more than a promise to pay compensation at a later date.  Rabbi trusts have commonly been used as top-hat deferred compensation plans for high ranking executives. Under these plans a beneficiary can put stocks, insurance policies or other assets in trust.  As a result, a number of hedge fund managers have used offshore rabbi trusts as a means to defer income from current taxation. US regulators have been concerned however that offshore rabbi trusts are set aside often out of reach of a corporation’s creditors – which actually defeats the original purpose of the US Inland Revenue Service allowing them in the first place. Under recent legislation, managers can still defer compensation, but must accept tighter restrictions as well as greater exposure to credit risk – although few managers will have to worry about large deferrals in 2004.

For 2005, the MFA has its work cut out to prepare members for registration. “It is education, seminars, compliance guidance; all kinds of things go into the implications of that rule. It is huge,” says Gaines.

Will performance rebound? Perhaps – but the deluge of money may make it harder for managers to deliver excess returns.

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