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What Are Characteristics of Hedge Funds?

A hedge fund differs from so-called “real money” — traditional investment accounts like mutual funds, pensions, and endowments — because it has more freedom to pursue different investment strategies.

In some cases, these unique strategies can lead to huge gains while the traditional market measures languish. The amount of potential return makes hedge funds more than worthwhile in the minds of many accredited and qualified investors.

Here, are some of the basic characteristics of hedge funds.

Hedge funds are illiquid

One key characteristic of hedge funds is that they’re illiquid. Most hedge fund managers limit how often investors can take their money out; a fund may lock in investors for two years or more. In other words, investing in a hedge fund is a long-term proposition because the money you invest may be locked up for years.

Hedge funds have little to no regulatory oversight

Hedge funds don’t have to register with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Most funds and their managers also aren’t required to register with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the major self-regulatory bodies in the investment business.

However, many funds register with these bodies anyway, choosing to give investors peace of mind and many protections otherwise not afforded to them (not including protection from losing money, of course). Whether registered or not, hedge funds can’t commit fraud, engage in insider trading, or otherwise violate the laws of the land.

Hedges use aggressive investment strategies

In order to post a higher return for a given level of risk than otherwise expected, a hedge fund manager does things differently than a traditional money manager. This fact is where a hedge fund’s relative lack of regulatory oversight becomes important: A hedge fund manager has a broad array of investment techniques at his disposal that aren’t feasible for a tightly regulated investor, such as short selling and leveraging.

Managers receive bonuses for fund performance

Another factor that distinguishes a hedge fund from a mutual fund, individual account, or other type of investment portfolio is the fund manager’s compensation in the form of a performance fee. (SEC regulations forbid mutual funds, for example, from charging performance fees.)

Many hedge funds are structured under the so-called 2 and 20 arrangement, meaning that the fund manager receives an annual fee equal to 2 percent of the assets in the fund and an additional bonus equal to 20 percent of the year’s profits. You may find that the percentages differ from the 2 and 20 formula when you start investigating prospective funds, but the management fee plus bonus structure rarely changes.

Hedge funds use biased performance data

What gets investors excited about hedge funds is that the funds seem to have fabulous performances at every turn, no matter what the market does. But the great numbers you see in the papers can be misleading because hedge fund managers don’t have to report performance numbers to anyone other than their fund investors.

Those that do report their numbers to different analytical, consulting, and index firms do so voluntarily, and they’re often the ones most likely to have good performance numbers to report. Add to that the fact that hedge fund managers can easily close shop when things aren’t going well; after it shuts down it doesn’t report its data anymore (if it ever did), and poorly performing funds are most likely to close. What all this means is that measures of hedge fund performance have a bias toward good numbers.

Hedges are secretive about performance and strategies

Some hedge funds are very secretive, and for good reason: If other players in the market know how a fund is making its money, they’ll try to use the same techniques, and the unique opportunity for the front-running hedge fund may disappear. Hedge funds aren’t required to report their performance, disclose their holdings, or take questions from shareholders.