Liquid Alternatives: Alternative Enough?

by: CFA Institute Contributors

Disrupting the Hedge Fund Industry

Liquid alternatives have been heralded as hedge funds for Main Street as these investment vehicles offer typical hedge fund strategies in mutual fund format with daily liquidity. While they have higher management fees than plain vanilla mutual funds, liquid alternatives charge less than hedge funds and don't charge performance fees.

Given their lower fees and greater transparency, liquid alternatives were expected to disrupt the hedge fund industry in much the same way that exchange-traded funds (ETFs) disrupted the mutual fund space. However, ETFs have enjoyed continuous growth in assets under management (AUM), while liquid alternatives have stalled at around $350 billion in AUM since 2013, according to data from Wilshire.

Hedge funds have experienced a similar stall, hovering at around $3 trillion in AUM over the last five years. Given strong equity markets, investors likely were less inclined to hedge their portfolios. Moreover, hedge funds also failed to generate meaningful alpha.

So how do liquid alternatives perform from a risk-and-return perspective in the context of an equity portfolio, particularly the three largest groups in the liquid alternative mutual fund space - absolute return, long-short, and market-neutral strategies?

Liquid Alternatives Performance

Long-short and long-only strategies are not comparable, so hedge funds and liquid alternatives shouldn't be benchmarked to the S&P 500. But the S&P 500 can illustrate the different phases of the market cycle.

The chart below highlights the similarity between the S&P 500 and an equal-weighted index of long-short liquid alternative mutual funds. This is to be expected since long-short funds essentially offer equity exposure with lower volatility. In contrast, market-neutral funds are typically fully hedged and absolute return funds allocate across asset classes, which results in much lower return profiles.


Liquid Alternatives vs. The S&P 500

Liquid Alternatives vs. The S&P 500

Source: FactorResearch


When it comes to risk-adjusted returns, long-short and market-neutral funds perform well. Absolute return funds generated less attractive risk-return ratios, which is surprising since absolute return portfolio managers have the flexibility to create well-diversified portfolios. Perhaps this reflects the challenges of tactically timing allocations to different asset classes like equities, bonds, or commodities.


Liquid Alternatives: Risk-Return Ratios, 2002-2018

Source: FactorResearch


Uncorrelated Returns?

As their name implies, hedge funds short stocks in order to preserve capital. Similarly, liquid alternatives aim to provide returns that don't correlate to traditional asset classes. However, the analysis below shows that liquid absolute return and long-short funds are highly correlated to the S&P 500. That means they offer little protection in a potential stock market crash. Market-neutral funds should have close to zero correlation to the S&P 500, but frequently have correlations above 0.5.


Liquid Alternatives: Correlations to the S&P 500

Liquid Alternatives: Correlations to the S&P 500

Source: FactorResearch (Geeks might recognize the Quant Crash in August 2007.)


This high correlation to the S&P 500 resulted in significant drawdowns in liquid alternatives during the global financial crisis in 2008-2009. Although the maximum drawdowns were less than those of the S&P 500, an investor in an absolute return fund would hardly have been pleased with a 42% drawdown. Market-neutral funds had a significantly lower drawdown, making them slightly more interesting for diversification purposes.


Liquid Alternatives: Max Drawdowns, 2002-2018

Liquid Alternatives: Max Drawdowns, 2002-2018

Source: FactorResearch


Liquid Alternatives from a Portfolio Perspective

An investor currently concerned about high valuations, record levels of debt, and geopolitical instability might consider adding liquid alternatives to protect their portfolio. We can simulate this on a historical basis by adding a 20% allocation of liquid alternatives to a portfolio consisting exclusively of the S&P 500 with quarterly rebalancing.

In this case, the risk-return ratios would have improved in all three scenarios compared to the S&P 500 on a stand-alone basis, demonstrating the benefits of diversification. However, adding an equivalent allocation to 10-year US Treasury bonds would have meant better risk-adjusted returns.


S&P 500 (80%) + Liquid Alternative (20%): Risk-Returns, 2002-2018

S&P 500 (80%) + Liquid Alternative (20%): Risk-Returns, 2002-2018

Source: FactorResearch


Similarly, the maximum drawdowns of the combined portfolios would have fallen only slightly and less than they would have with exposure to bonds. That means liquid alternatives do not generate returns sufficiently uncorrelated to an equity portfolio. Put another way: They are not alternative enough.


S&P 500 (80%) + Liquid Alternative (20%): Max Drawdowns, 2002-2018

S&P 500 (80%) + Liquid Alternative (20%): Max Drawdowns, 2002-2018

Source: FactorResearch


Further Thoughts

Liquid alternatives are useful investment products that give all sorts of investors access to typical hedge fund strategies and exert pressure on the hedge fund industry to reduce its fees. But investors should be wary of liquid alternative funds that offer equity exposure at high fees and effectively represent fake alternatives.

Disclaimer: Please note that the content of this site should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute.