By JOSEPH NOCERA
Published: June 5, 2005
Clifford Asness is probably going to be annoyed when he sees that this article begins with a discussion about how much money he makes, but there's no way around it. Asness is a very successful hedge-fund manager, and very successful hedge-fund managers make stupendous amounts of money, even by Wall Street's extravagant standards. And in the public mind, their staggering compensation tends to overshadow pretty much everything else. ''Filthy Stinking Rich'' was New York magazine's unambiguous take on the hedge-fund phenomenon some months ago. Last month, in its survey of the best-paid hedge-fund managers, Institutional Investor's Alpha magazine reported that the average pay for the top 25 hedge-fund managers was an astounding $251 million in 2004. Asness himself has written, in one of his better lines, that hedge funds ''are generally run for rich people in Geneva, Switzerland, by rich people in Greenwich, Conn.''
Asness likes to point out that he wrote that sentence before he moved his own hedge fund, AQR Capital Management, to Greenwich, Conn. He started AQR, with three partners, in the spring of 1998, when he was 31 and had just walked away from a high-paying job at Goldman Sachs, where he was one of the firm's brightest young stars. During AQR's first three years, Asness and his partners didn't make much money. But by 2002, the firm was doing well, investors were clamoring to get in and AQR was managing about $3 billion in assets. (It's up to around $13.5 billion today.) And the partners were getting rich. Asness cracked the Alpha list for 2002, taking down a reported $37 million. The next year, the magazine reported, he made $50 million. Asness won't discuss the specifics of his pay, but if you ask him what it's like to have that kind of money, he won't duck the question the way most hedge-fund managers do. Instead, he'll lean back on his couch, scratch his neatly trimmed beard for a minute and then offer a sheepish smile and an endearing, exaggerated shrug. ''To quote Dudley Moore in the movie 'Arthur,' '' he'll reply finally, ''it doesn't suck.''
Cliff Asness says things like that. It is one of the qualities that make him different from his brethren in the hedge-fund community, who tend to shroud themselves in secrecy, as if they're trying to protect some special formula they've devised for making investors -- and themselves -- money. They don't just shy away from talking about their pay; they shy away from talking about just about anything. Have you ever heard of Stephen Mandel Jr., or Daniel Och, or James Simons? Among hedge fundies, they are three of the most respected names in the business. Yet they studiously avoid having their names in the paper.
Cliff Asness, on the other hand, is an outspoken, exuberant Ph.D. in financial economics who has built a public reputation for his willingness to write and say what's on his mind. In academia, he's known for the witty, biting papers he writes for such publications as The Financial Analysts Journal. (One recent title: ''Stock Options and the Lying Liars Who Don't Want to Expense Them.'') Among financial journalists, he is known as a cogent and articulate bear -- someone who can make a compelling case that stock-market returns over the next few decades will almost certainly be lower than the double-digit returns investors have come to expect as their birthright. And among the hedge-fund cognoscenti, Asness has become known as someone who has been thinking hard thoughts about the future of hedge funds. A hedge fund is nothing more than a private, largely unregulated pool of capital that can buy stocks, sell stocks or do just about anything else. It is Asness's essential belief that hedge funds -- or, rather, some hedge funds -- are doing things that are genuinely useful for investors, especially sophisticated institutional investors like pension funds and university endowments. You will not be surprised to learn that Asness includes AQR among the useful hedge funds.
These are strange times for hedge funds. They are, right now, at the absolute forefront of the collective financial psyche. Every day, it seems, a half-dozen more young Wall Street hotshots abandon the millions they're making at the big firms like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley and start hedge funds. There are now 8,000 of them, about 40 percent of which have been opened in the last four years, and money is absolutely pouring into them -- they're at $1 trillion and counting -- as institutions search for ways to generate positive returns in this difficult market. Just as business-school graduates once gravitated to venture capital or private equity or dot-coms, now they all want to work for hedge funds.
Hedge funds have also become a huge force in the market. When hedge funds are enthusiastic about a stock, they have the collective buying power to drive up the price, at least for a while. When they turn on a stock, they can drive the price down. Some hedge-fund managers have become activists, buying up stakes in companies and then demanding change from management. One hedge fund -- Eddie Lampert's ESL Investments -- engineered a merger between Kmart and Sears.
There are plenty of people, even in the hedge-fund world, who are convinced that we have entered bubble territory. Their secrecy, their power, the incredible amount of money flowing into them, the sense that everybody on Wall Street is trying to start a hedge fund and of course the staggering riches: it all seems a little crazy and out of control. Hedge funds right now feel a little like mutual funds in the late 1960's, or junk bonds in the 1980's, or dot-coms in the late 1990's. You just assume they are going to get their comeuppance eventually. Isn't that what always happens?
But do you remember what happened after the mutual-fund boom burst? Or after the junk-bond craze? Or even after the dot-com insanity? It turned out, in every case, that underneath the craziness, something enduring was being created. The modern mutual-fund industry emerged in the wake of the early 1970's mutual-fund crash. Junk bonds today are a critical part of the world's financial scene. Amazon and eBay and lots of other real, profitable companies emerged from the dot-com mania, after all the pretenders were swept away in the rubble of the collapse.
And so it is with hedge funds. There are hedge funds today -- big ones, run by serious people -- that are creating portfolios that are less risky than either the typical mutual-fund portfolio or the market itself. Certain hedge funds are becoming important tools for institutions that want to diversify their portfolios and become less dependent on the ups and downs of the overall stock market. Hedge-fund managers are convincing institutional investors that they are far better served not seeking outsize returns, because those returns entail taking too much risk.
Cliff Asness uses a highly complex, computer-driven investing strategy. You
and I will never be able to invest the way he does. And yes, he's become immoderately
wealthy as a result. But if you can get past how much money he makes, you'll
find he has something worth listening to. Boiled down, what Asness really does
is try to understand the relationship between risk and reward. And in that
broad and important sense, there are lessons in what he does for anyone in
Asness is hardly the first hedge-fund manager to employ techniques for managing investment risk; in fact, that concept goes back to the very origins of hedge funds. The man generally credited with coming up with the first such fund was a former Fortune magazine writer named Alfred Winslow Jones, who hung out his shingle in 1949 with $100,000 in capital and a new idea about making money in the market. He wanted to invest aggressively while still trying to protect investors' capital. These would seem to be contradictory goals, but here's how he went about it: Instead of simply buying stocks and hoping the wind was at his back, Jones also had a certain percentage of his portfolio on the ''short'' side -- that is, he was betting those stocks would go down. In doing so, he was limiting his fund's exposure the market, or as they say today, he was limiting his ''market risk.'' Since his shorts were likely to make money in a down market, they acted as protection -- a hedge! -- when his ''longs'' weren't doing well. Yet because Jones also borrowed money to buy more shares -- that was the aggressive part of his strategy -- when his stocks went up (as they usually did, for he was a very good stock picker), his returns were much higher than they might otherwise have been, despite having those shorts hedging his portfolio.
Jones was enormously successful; between May 1955 and May 1965, his fund returned 670 percent, according to Fortune magazine, nearly twice as much as the best-performing mutual fund. But Jones was also an innovator in other ways. Because he wanted complete freedom to invest as he pleased -- and didn't want to deal with regulatory restrictions -- he never let more than 100 wealthy investors into any of his funds at any one time; under the rules, this allowed him to avoid registering with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulated mutual funds. And he used a fee structure that called for him to get a whopping 20 percent of the profits if he made money. Mutual funds, by contrast, collected fees based on the size of the fund: the more assets under management, the more the fund company made, no matter how well (or poorly) the fund performed.
As hedge funds evolved, Jones's essential structure stuck. Hedge-fund managers made sure their investors were both wealthy and few in number; these days, the rules allow them to have up to 500 ''qualified'' investors and still avoid most S.E.C. regulation. (The theory is that wealthy investors should be able to look out for themselves and don't need as much government protection as the rest of us.) Of course they all adopted performance fees -- usually 20 percent, just like Jones. Hedge funds also became hooked on asset fees, just like their mutual-fund brethren. Today, when a hedge-fund manager says he charges ''2 and 20'' -- and many of them do -- he means he is taking a 2 percent asset fee as well as his 20 percent performance fee. To the extent that hedge funds remain the most Darwinian of investment vehicles, it is because most hedge funds simply can't afford to lose money for even a single year: if they do, investors and employees head for the exits, and the funds shut down. But that fee structure of ''2 and 20'' is what makes the business so potentially lucrative. A $4 billion hedge fund that gains 10 percent in a year and charges 2 and 20 has generated $160 million for itself. A $4 billion hedge fund that charges 2 and 20 and makes no money for investors still pockets $80 million thanks to its asset fees.
What got lost over time was the idea that hedge funds were supposed to hedge. That was primarily because of the powerful bull market that began in August 1982 and ended in March 2000. Investors took outsize risks and invariably wound up being rewarded, because the market was going straight up. The bull market forgave a lot of investing mistakes. Hedging seemed unnecessary -- even a little silly.
In fact, during the bull market, hedge funds became synonymous not with hedging but with the most extreme forms of investment risk-taking. Think for a moment about the hedge-fund giants who captured the public imagination in the 1980's and early 1990's -- George Soros, Julian Robertson, Michael Steinhardt and a handful of others. Those men were all swashbucklers who didn't want to control risk -- they wanted to embrace it. They ran billions of dollars, and their fame and fortune was based on their willingness to make stunning bets on markets, currencies, stocks, even on entire economies. When they bet right, they made hundreds of millions of dollars; Soros netted more than $1 billion when he made his legendary bet in 1992 against the British pound. And when they bet wrong? On Valentine's Day in 1994, Soros got caught on the wrong side of the yen and lost $600 million in one day. ''Making money took courage,'' says Steinhardt, who is now retired, with no small satisfaction.
Today most people still think of the Soros-Steinhardt-Robertson model when they think of hedge funds. And indeed, there are still hedge funds that make the kind of big ''macro'' bets the grand old men were so justly famous for. But there are all kinds of other hedge funds as well. There are hedge funds that deal in distressed securities. Others are dedicated to short-selling. Still others deal in the various derivative markets. The main thing hedge funds have in common today is not the way they invest, but their structure -- including, of course, those lucrative fees.
Since the end of the bull market, though, the idea of using hedge funds to
actually hedge has been making a comeback. Some of the best hedge funds, like
Maverick Capital and Lone Pine Capital (the latter is run by the aforementioned
Stephen Mandel) use the classic A.W. Jones technique of having a certain percentage
of their portfolios on the short side -- betting stocks will go down -- to
limit their market risk. Others search for small inefficiencies in discrete
segments of the financial world to eke out small but steady returns. All of
them are offering institutional investors ways to generate returns that are
less connected to the rise and fall of the market itself than, say, a mutual
fund is. And then there's Cliff Asness, who runs something called a ''market
neutral'' fund. Which means that although he's buying and selling stocks, the
returns he generates aren't connected to the overall market at all.
One crisp day this past April, Cliff Asness was sitting on a sofa at one end of his large corner office in a nondescript low-rise building in Greenwich. ''Sitting,'' however, doesn't quite do justice to what he was doing. One second he was scrunching into the sofa, the next he was leaning forward intensely, and the second after that, he was gesturing excitedly, as some new, interesting thought entered his head that he had to convey right that instant. He was like an exuberant, well-dressed, overgrown kid, so overflowing with enthusiasms that he couldn't contain himself. Except that the enthusiasm in question at that particular moment was the research that had led to one of his earliest published papers, ''OAS Models, Expected Returns and a Steep Yield Curve'' -- which, frankly, made it a little bewildering to be on the receiving end of his monologue. Realizing that I was pretty much lost, Asness finally stopped talking and let out a loud, self-aware cackle. ''This is so geeky!'' he said finally. Well, yes, it was.
Asness did not emerge from the womb a fully formed geek. Growing up in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., he was an underachiever who played soccer and didn't spend a lot of time engrossed in his studies. Much to everyone's surprise -- including his own -- he did well on his SAT's, which got him into the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with degrees in engineering and economics. It was the mid-1980's by then, and the bull market had begun, but Asness wasn't exactly walking around campus with The Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm. ''I tacitly assumed I would be applying to law school,'' he said, following in the footsteps of his father, a trial lawyer. When his father heard of his plans, however, he told his son: ''Why do you want to go to law school? You're good at this math stuff. You should do that.'' It was good advice.
''I think it's a little weird for a 20-year-old to be interested in finance,'' Asness said, but the academic, ''portfolio theory'' side of finance -- the geeky side -- had captured his imagination. By the late 1980's, the field of portfolio theory was undergoing enormous ferment. The long-accepted academic dogma, the so-called efficient-market hypothesis -- which states that the stock market is entirely efficient, with all available information already built into stock prices, and thus can't be beaten on any consistent basis -- was coming under at least mild assault. Accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago's business school, Asness found himself right in the middle of the ferment.
The dominant figure in the University of Chicago's finance department -- indeed, one of the dominant figures in all of academic finance -- is Eugene Fama. Fama is often described as the father of the efficient-market hypothesis, because in the 1960's and 1970's he wrote a series of elegant papers that laid out the theory with more clarity than anyone else had before, gave it its name and said, in effect, that it seemed to make a lot of sense. He also said, however, that it needed to be tested. To test it properly -- by going back and looking at the historic performance of stock prices -- you had to grapple with a series of issues that had yet to be worked out: how should a stock's riskiness be measured? What kind of risk-adjusted returns should a stock have if it were, in fact, acting ''efficiently''? And so on. Still, a series of early, crude tests seemed to bear out the theory, and in time, the central idea behind the efficient-market hypothesis even filtered down to the rest of us. Although Wall Street still makes most of its money convincing people that they can beat the market, it also peddles index funds, which have become popular precisely because people want to be in the market but don't believe they can beat it.
By the time Asness got to Chicago in 1988, academics had begun to come to a better understanding of risk. Most of us think of risk as being related to the volatility of an individual stock -- that is, how much it bounces around from Point A to Point B. But new research was measuring how the risk characteristics of an individual stock changes the overall riskiness of an entire portfolio. Fama, along with a younger colleague named Kenneth French, was among those conducting a newer and deeper series of tests. In particular, they were working on a paper comparing the risk-adjusted historic returns of two different types of stocks -- value stocks versus growth stocks. (Growth stocks are typically those of companies whose investors are optimistic about their futures. Their stock prices are high relative to their actual corporate earnings and other measures. Value stocks are the opposite -- their stock prices are low compared with their earnings because the market is either pessimistic or nervous about their prospects.) A draft of that paper began circulating soon after Asness arrived on campus, and when it was finally published in 1992, under the unassuming title of ''The Cross Section of Expected Stock Returns,'' it created something of a sensation. It essentially showed that if you took a large, diverse portfolio of value stocks, which are cheap, and put it next to an equally large, equally diverse portfolio of growth stocks, which are expensive, the value stocks would outperform the growth stocks more than the efficient-market hypothesis suggested they should. Asness describes the results of that paper: ''Cheap beats expensive more than it should.''
Using a large universe of stocks, going back to 1927, Fama and French showed that if you divided the stocks into thirds, put the cheapest third in the ''value basket'' and the most expensive third into the ''growth basket,'' the value stocks outperformed the growth stocks in more than two-thirds of the years. This, of course, did not mean you couldn't lose money betting on value over growth -- no investment strategy is risk-free. It did mean that if you took this approach, history strongly suggested that the odds would be on your side. What's more, it seemed to make no difference whether the market had a good year or a bad year. The pattern stood up. There were years when the market was down, and cheap beat expensive -- and other years when the market was up, and cheap still beat expensive. In other words, this method didn't just reduce market risk, the way A.W. Jones did when he was devising the first hedge fund. It eliminated it entirely. To use hedge-fund lingo, the pattern was uncorrelated to the market.
By his second year in the Ph.D. program, Asness had become Fama's teaching assistant and had enlisted both Fama and French as his thesis advisers. For his dissertation, Asness had his own idea about testing the efficient market: he would take a look at a popular short-term strategy called momentum investing, in which an investor buys a stock for the simple reason that it is going up. In an early draft, he called it the ''fool's strategy.'' (Most day traders during the Internet bubble were momentum investors, for instance.) ''I was nervous telling Fama that I wanted to investigate momentum investing,'' Asness says now. ''But his reply was the best thing he ever said to me: 'Sure you can write it. If the data shows something interesting, then write it.' What Gene really believes in is empirical testing. Go where the data takes you.''
And wouldn't you know it? Asness (along with other academics doing similar work) discovered that a large, diverse portfolio of momentum stocks also ''worked'' more than it should under the efficient-market hypothesis. Nobody can say with any assurance why these things worked. Asness guesses that in both cases, investors, as he puts it, ''overextrapolate.'' There is usually some bad news associated with value stocks -- and investors assume there will always be bad news, so they avoid these stocks more than they should. As for momentum, people often get too optimistic about growth stocks and pay too much for them. In the short term, that enthusiasm will often drive the prices higher. But eventually the enthusiasm will wane, and the stocks will come crashing down.
Academics still argue about what these discoveries mean. Fama remains a committed efficient-market man. He says he thinks these findings don't overturn the hypothesis but suggest instead that academic finance needs a better model for measuring risk. Asness, however, came to the view that the market was not perfectly efficient: that human beings thought and acted in ways that created market anomalies. There is now an entire branch of economics that tries to explain the market in terms of the way humans behave -- both rationally and not. Asness does not classify himself as a strict behavioralist; ''I think the market is reasonably close to efficient,'' he says, ''but there are a lot of little inefficiencies.'' And in exploiting these inefficiencies a business could be built.
After grad school, Asness landed at Goldman Sachs, where he spent a year and a half trading mortgage-backed securities on the fixed-income desk while finishing his dissertation. Then Goldman asked him to set up a ''quantitative research desk.'' The firm wanted Asness to somehow use the wealth of new research coming out of university finance departments to help it make money. Asness quickly hired two friends, Robert Krail and John Liew, both of whom he knew at the University of Chicago, and they began building a model that would combine both Fama and French's value insight with Asness's momentum insight.
The computer model they developed -- and which, after many refinements, they still use today -- grabs a wealth of up-to-the-minute data to identify the cheapest value stocks (Fama and French), but only value stocks that seemed to have started on an upward swing (Asness). They buy a large block -- about 200 to 300 -- of those stocks. Then the model identifies stocks with the opposite characteristics: growth stocks whose rise is stalling. They sell an equally weighted amount of those stocks short. Unlike A.W. Jones, who had only a percentage of his portfolio on the short side, the Asness portfolio is perfectly balanced between longs and shorts. That is what makes his fund ''market neutral.'' It doesn't matter to him whether the market goes up or down. AQR makes money if its basket of value stocks beats its equally weighted basket of growth stocks -- the way the history suggests it should two-thirds of the time.
Asness and his colleagues soon discovered that the strategy they had come up with worked not only with stocks but with currencies, commodities and even entire economies. (Yes, economies. Asness and his team use economic data to sort out ''overvalued'' versus ''undervalued'' countries, and then buy -- or short -- those countries' market indexes, their S.&P. 500 equivalents.) In time, they developed models that sorted out cheap versus expensive in all kinds of different investments.
In 1995, Asness's group started an internal hedge fund for Goldman partners and a few clients, using the new model. The fund did so well that the firm rolled it out and began to market it. Within two years, Asness and his crew had $7 billion under management. Their run was amazing -- barely a down month, and some spectacularly good years. Like A.W. Jones, they borrowed money, using leverage as their way to take on more risk and boost returns; one year they returned more than 100 percent before fees. ''Intellectually,'' Asness says, ''I knew we couldn't sustain that kind of performance. It was a lucky period. But I was young and I was arrogant.''
And in his youth and his arrogance, he looked around him and saw that other Goldman hands were leaving to start hedge funds and that they were putting themselves in a position to make geometrically more money than he was making. For much of his time at Chicago, his working assumption was that he'd be an academic and make maybe $100,000 a year. At Goldman, by 1997, he was making millions, and he was unhappy. The firm wouldn't leave him alone to do his research and run money; it was always asking him to fly to Tokyo, or to make a presentation to clients, or to help some in-house portfolio manager whose performance was down. One member of his original group quit to open a hedge fund. ''That bugged me,'' Asness said. ''He was doing what we had all invented together.'' His colleagues kept pushing him to quit and kept meeting secretly to map out plans. Finally, in November 1997, he decided to break from Goldman. He gave notice two days after receiving a big bonus.
The four founders of AQR -- Asness, Liew, Krail and an ex-Goldman hand named
David Kabiller -- set up shop in New York City in March 1998. They immediately
set out to rebuild their computer model and to raise money. By August 1998,
they had $1 billion committed, which at the time was thought to be the largest
sum ever raised for a hedge-fund startup. (Last year, a young former Goldman
partner, Eric Mindich, started a hedge fund and raised the current record:
more than $3 billion.) That first month, AQR made money. Then came a market
event that all of Asness's historical stock research, and all his complex models,
hadn't prepared him for -- a market that was not just a little bit inefficient,
but that was insanely inefficient. The Internet bubble had begun.
Remember earlier in this article, when I quoted Asness's funny line about hedge funds being ''run for rich people from Geneva, Switzerland, by rich people from Greenwich, Conn.''? There was a time when that was true -- when the vast majority of hedge-fund investors were, indeed, rich people trying to get richer. By the time Asness set up AQR, however, that was all changing. Although AQR had a few individuals among its investors -- some friends and relatives, mainly -- the fund was primarily marketed to large institutions, especially university endowments. The best of the institutional investors were sophisticated, they were demanding and they insisted on understanding the underlying strategy and having regular conversations with the fund managers.
If an investor had asked George Soros or Michael Steinhardt for that kind of access, he would been given the back of the hedge-fund manager's hand. But the new breed of hedge-fund manager had a different mind-set. From Cliff Asness's point of view, sophisticated investors who understood his complex, quantitative approach were exactly the people he wanted as clients. They would understand how his approach fit into their overall portfolios. If he hit a bad patch, he had a far better chance of holding on to a big institution's money than that of a panicky rich person. Most of all, Asness and the other partners at AQR understood that the most forward-thinking of the endowments had themselves become influenced by what was going on inside academic finance and were trying to incorporate some of those ideas into the way they managed their own money. Indeed, in setting up his ''market neutral'' hedge fund, Asness was reacting to the changing demands of the marketplace.
Even in the middle of a roaring bull market, these institutions had come to believe, first of all, that they shouldn't be completely reliant on a rising stock market for their returns. After all, someday the market was going to go down. Thus, having a diversified portfolio didn't just mean having a broad mix of stocks and bonds. It also meant going beyond the market and adding ''alternative'' asset classes. Timber, energy, real estate -- these were all assets that could help institutions diversify. And so could hedge funds, so long as they were the right kind of hedge funds. These hedge funds weren't set up to make the kind of huge gains Michael Steinhardt and George Soros made, but that was O.K. They had a different goal. They were trying to manage risk and produce a return that was commensurate with the risks they were taking. Just as important, by adding hedge funds that were uncorrelated to the market -- even ones that were moderately risky -- they were lowering the risk characteristics of their overall investments.
The institutional money manager who led the way into hedge funds was David Swensen, who took over the Yale endowment in 1985. A former investment banker himself, Swensen had a deep understanding of both portfolio theory and the hedge-fund industry. He and his endowment colleagues got to know which were the best of the lot and sank money into a diverse range of hedge funds. Simultaneously, he cut way down on stocks, despite the bull market. The results are undeniable: over the past decade, Yale has generated annualized returns of 16.8 percent. (The S.&P. 500, by comparison, generated annualized returns of 10.8 percent during that period.) Seeing these results, other institutions -- Notre Dame, Stanford, Princeton among them -- began emulating Swensen's hedge-fund strategy.
Which, it turns out, was a good thing for Cliff Asness and AQR. Had he been operating in the old days, when the clients were all wealthy individuals, his firm would never have survived the Internet bubble. His investors would have all cut and run and put their money in some fund that was investing in dot-coms. But the institutions understood what Asness was doing, and even though his fund shrank from that original $1 billion to $400 million over the next 20 months, a surprising number of them stuck by him. What he was doing made intellectual sense, and it would work again so long as the bubble eventually ended. Which had to happen, didn't it?
Not that Asness was sanguine during the bubble. AQR's first year and a half in business was a time when investors completely lost their heads, when dot-coms with neither profits nor revenues had triple-digit stock prices and when millions of investors actually believed that the rules of investing had changed. It was a period of such utter insanity that it seemed to repudiate the essential mathematics that had always guided the market. That drove Asness completely crazy. He had never lost money for investors over any significant period; indeed, he'd never in his adult life been anything but a superstar. Now his new hedge fund was like a dripping faucet he couldn't turn off: every month, it seemed, it was down another 2 percent. The fundamental insight that drove his model -- cheap beats expensive more than it should -- simply didn't work during the Internet bubble. Expensive wasn't just beating cheap. It was crushing cheap. Outrageously expensive tech stocks just kept getting more expensive. During the height of the dot-com era, the fund fell about 20 percent.
''I snapped during the bubble,'' Asness concedes today. His partner John Liew looked at the bubble the way a statistician might -- it was a hundred-year flood, and there was nothing you could do but wait for it to recede. Intellectually, Asness agreed, but emotionally he could not distance himself from the awful downward slide. He had much of his own money in the fund; many of his investors were people he had known for years; even his father had put a good portion of his retirement money in the fund. The pressure was nearly unbearable. He railed about the stupidity of investors who were driving up the stock prices of tech stocks. One night in the middle of one such diatribe, his wife, Laurel, said, ''But Cliff, you always told me you made money when people acted stupidly.'' Asness stopped talking and looked up at her. He knew she was right. ''Now you're whining about it,'' she continued. ''I guess you just want them to be a little stupid.''
What Asness didn't do, however, was capitulate to the bubble. ''Our belief in the process never wavered,'' Liew said. ''The evidence was that the models we had devised had worked going back to the 1920's.'' In fact, the bubble gave Asness a cause. ''We try to make money by making a lot of little venal trades,'' Asness said. But fighting the bubble seemed to imbue him with some larger purpose. He began to see himself as on the side of good fighting evil. Bubbles, after all, put investment capital into the hands of company founders who know nothing about how to build companies. They finance lots of terrible ideas. And they hurt investors, who wind up losing money once the giddy ride ends.
Mostly, though, it offended Asness that so many investors were willing to blindly toss aside decades of accumulated market history and data. By early 2000, he began to write a lengthy article exposing what he saw as the fallacies being used to justify crazy stock prices. It was unlike anything Asness had ever written. It was biting, sarcastic, tough-minded and occasionally even funny. He laid out the math for why even the stock prices of strong companies like Cisco Systems were not sustainable. He called the paper ''Bubble Logic.''
The draft of ''Bubble Logic'' that Asness showed me is dated June 1, 2000.
As we all now know, the bubble had ended by then; the air began leaking out
of it three months earlier. That March was the low point for Asness and his
partners at AQR. Feeling that his father had too much money in the fund, Asness
-- against his father's wishes -- tossed him out. (''If I was going to go down,''
he says now, ''I didn't want to take him with me.'') But in April, the fund
made money, and it gained again in May, and when the year ended, AQR had made
back a substantial chunk of its losses. It would be another year before the
partners started making hedge-fund-like compensation themselves -- that's because
it is standard practice for hedge funds to make back all their investors' money
before they start tacking on that 20 percent performance fee again -- but the
ship had righted itself. For months, an early draft of ''Bubble Logic'' had
been circulating among Asness's friends in academia; it was discussed in online
forums; it was even quoted here and there in business publications. But it
was never published. There was no need to publish it. Asness says that if the
bubble had lasted six more months, he would have been out of business. But
it didn't. He had outlasted it.
Once the bubble ended, the AQR model went back to working just the way the data say it is supposed to. Over the last five years, the firm's primary hedge fund is up an average of 13.2 percent a year after fees. Those are not George Soros-like numbers, of course, but AQR generates those returns with a little less risk than the overall market. More to the point, when it is added to an institutional portfolio of stocks and bonds, it reduces the overall riskiness of that portfolio. And though it does not seek out new investors, big institutions are banging down the door trying to get in. Why? Because once the Internet bubble ended, the market did go down, a lot. And the institutions that had loaded up on stocks for the past 18 years were suddenly losing money. So they all decided, en masse, to load up on hedge funds, to replicate what Yale was doing.
Hedge funds, it turns out, had a fabulous run during the downturn; while the mutual-fund industry was losing more than $1 trillion, the hedge-fund community was essentially breaking even. The best of the hedge funds made money during the bust. Even CalPERS, the giant California state pension fund, began dabbling in hedge funds a few years ago. The real reason so many new hedge funds are being started these days is that the demand is insatiable. And that demand is coming from institutions. Every big institutional investor in the country -- if not the world -- wants what Yale has: a truly diversified portfolio that generates decent, positive returns with less risk than the market itself offers. And really, who wouldn't want that?
''David Swensen was so successful, and so eloquent in explaining what he did that he convinced folks that he had it figured out,'' says James Chanos, who runs Kynikos Associates, a short-selling hedge fund with more than $2 billion under management. ''It looked like he had found the Holy Grail.''
But here's the problem: there is no Holy Grail, not when it comes to investing. Or, more precisely, investing Holy Grails are, at best, temporary phenomena. As hedge funds proliferate, for instance, the quality of fund managers is bound go down, and that will hurt the performance of hedge funds. That's what happened when mutual funds became wildly popular, and it is already happening in hedge-fund land as well. (Hedge-fund returns are down slightly this year, for instance.) Let's face it: even though there are 8,000 hedge funds, are there really 8,000 great hedge-fund managers? Of course not.
There is a second issue as well. You know those little inefficiencies that so many hedge-fund managers are trying to capture? Those strategies work well when there are only a handful of people employing them. But once there are hundreds of fund managers all trying to exploit the same inefficiencies, the anomalies tend to go away. The very fact that all these people are trying to do the same thing makes the market more efficient. As Chanos puts it, ''Success breeds imitation, and imitation breeds mediocrity.'' He adds: ''I think a lot of the institutions that are just getting into hedge funds now are going to be extremely disappointed. And there is going to be a gradual recognition that the fees aren't worth it.''
Most people I talked to in the hedge-fund world don't believe that the hedge-fund bubble will end in some giant cataclysm that threatens the foundations of the financial system. It is far more likely that the air will gradually come out of the bubble in ways that most of us will barely notice. Hedge funds with mediocre returns will go out of business. A lot of the power hedge funds now have in moving the markets will dissipate. Some scam artists -- who always emerge during bubbles of any sort -- will be exposed. Some hedge funds that have taken too much risk will crash and burn. New regulations will be put in place (indeed, next year the S.E.C. will require hedge funds to register with the agency.) Business-school grads will find the next hot thing to gravitate toward.
And what will be left? There are those, like Chanos, who say they believe that hedge funds will contract over time and that what will be left is a cottage industry of successful funds that don't outlast their founders. But there are others who believe that the hedge funds that are left standing -- the funds run by grown-ups who understand how to manage risk, and who position their funds as an alternative asset class for institutions -- have a shot at becoming permanent institutions and a normal part of the investing landscape. There is, after all, something powerful in these ideas of managing market risk and generating returns that are uncorrelated to the market.
This is not, however, a case in which a big idea eventually filters down to the rest of us. Theoretically, mutual funds could develop market-neutral funds like the one Asness runs; the regulations that limited how much short-selling a mutual fund could engage in were repealed years ago. But the fund industry has historically shied away from shorting stocks. For one thing, there's a strong psychological aversion to short-selling in the investing world. Rather than pumping money into companies to help them grow and prosper, the short-seller is rooting for a company's defeat. It seems somehow un-American, or at least not very nice. But other things once viewed as unseemly or un-American, like buying on credit, were quickly adopted by the masses once some smart guy figured out how to sell the idea in an appealing way. The real obstacle to the massification of hedging is that it is hard. What Cliff Asness does requires an immense amount of skill. There just aren't that many people who can do it well. And that's not going to change any time soon.
Of course, if the mutual-fund industry did start rolling out such funds, it would further degrade the ability to make decent returns, because it would mean there would be yet more people trying to execute the same strategies. Around and around it goes.
Asness, of course, is in the camp of those who would like to see hedge funds become a more permanent part of institutional portfolios. But he can see the impediments as well. Last year, he published a lengthy paper on the subject of hedge funds in The Journal of Portfolio Management. Titled ''An Alternative Future,'' it was written as a two-part series. In the first part, he laid out all the reasons that hedge funds could wind up achieving the same kind of permanence as mutual funds: the power of the ideas behind them, the attractiveness of using them to diversify institutional portfolios and so on. In the second part, he laid out all the reasons that it might not happen -- at least any time soon -- including the real possibility of lower returns in the near term, as well as ''those pesky fees,'' as he put it.
In our various discussions, I pushed him often on the subject, but I could
never get him to commit one way or the other. ''I'm very schizophrenic on the
subject,'' he said toward the end of one of our talks. ''To me, the real question
is whether these institutions are rationally going to accept lower returns.
Or are they secretly hoping that even if everybody else is getting lower returns,
their hedge funds will still be getting the big returns? If it's the latter,
we'll have problems.'' Some things even Cliff Asness doesn't have the data
Joseph Nocera is a business columnist for The New York Times and, beginning with this article, a staff writer for the magazine.