Absolute return funds: an absolute waste of time?

 17 September 2016

Funds that promise to shelter investors from volatile markets can charge high fees

Absolute Return funds have exploded in popularity over the past two years as retail investors have flocked to invest, drawn by the promise that these funds will provide returns in all market conditions.

However, investment analysts covering the sector are concerned that the funds are tricky to understand, promise the impossible and charge high fees.

The funds’ performance has also been less than stellar of late. According to data from Morningstar, two-thirds of UK-domiciled absolute return funds have posted negative returns in 2016, despite being on course to register a record year of net inflows.

All of this has attracted the attention of the Financial Conduct Authority, and the regulator told the Financial Times last month that it would scrutinise absolute return funds as part of its wide- ranging review of the asset management industry.

Here are the questions to ask if you are considering putting your cash into an absolute return fund:

What are absolute return funds, anyway?

Funds that fall into the “absolute return” category follow a very wide range of strategies, but they generally look to keep volatility low and deliver returns in all market conditions.

According to analysts at Morningstar, the funds can be broadly described as having strategies similar to those adopted by hedge funds - but with a few important differences. Like hedge funds, absolute return funds tend to take short positions and use derivatives to achieve returns. However, because they operate according to rules governing retail funds, they are not allowed to hold certain illiquid assets and they do not borrow money to make their trades.

Beyond these general similarities there are lots of different fund management strategies that all fall under the umbrella of “absolute return”. These range from relatively straightforward equity funds holding both long and short positions, right up to multi-strategy funds that run tens of different mini- strategies within them.

So what’s the problem, and why is the regulator concerned?

It is not clear at this point why the FCA is investigating, or exactly how concerned it is. The regulator has said that it will look at the sector as part of its wider review of the asset management industry this year, but has so far declined to provide any more detail.

Fund analysts, however, are worried that the funds promise too much. “I think it’s unrealistic to expect any fund to perform all of the time no matter what it does,” said Adrian Lowcock, managing director of Architas, a fund selection company. “It’s not realistic to have a higher-than-cash return without the volatility: it’s having your cake and eating it.”

Michelle McGrade, chief investment officer of TD Direct Investing, said investors had to take a gamble on whether absolute return funds would do what they claimed. “In this environment you’d like your absolute return funds to be doing as they say - some of them are and some of them aren’t,” she said. “There are very few that are.”

Another concern is whether investors really understand what they are buying. Hargreaves Lansdown, the UK’s biggest retail broker, stopped recommending Standard Life’s Global Absolute Return Strategies fund to its customers some years ago. Mark Dampier, senior analyst at the company, said the fund’s strategy had become so complicated that he did not feel comfortable recommending it to investors. “We don’t buy it because we can’t analyse it,” he said.

Mr Dampier said investors needed to look hard at any fund in the sector to make sure they understood it. “You’ve got a cocktail of different types of fund, and you’ve really got to get under the skin of them to understand what’s going on,” said Mr Dampier. “At least if you buy an equity income fund, you know what you’re getting.”

But if you know what you’re getting into, are these funds a good buy?

Yes and no. “It’s like any other sector - most of the funds aren’t that good,” said Mr Dampier of Hargreaves.

Performance across the sector has been poor this year, but Mr Lowcock of Architas says that some of the funds did a good job of protecting capital during the financial crisis, and that these are worth investing in as part of a larger portfolio.

TD Direct Investing recommends Newton Real Return to its investors, while Har­greaves has chosen New­ton, alongside Pyrford Global Total Return. Fid­elity International’s investing team,meanwhile, has put Henderson’s UK Absolute Return on their select list.

Bear in mind, though, that these funds can be expensive. Unlike most retail funds, absolute return funds tend to have performance fees and charge investors if the fund returns more than a set benchmark.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016


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