“The constant assertion of belief is an indication of fear.”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti, 20th Century Indian Philosopher
When traditional investments seem indefensible (like recently), traditional advisors lash out by the asset classes they feel threatened by. Unfortunately, sometimes that looks like a blind-folded child trying to crack open a metal pinata with a roll of wrapping paper. The latest attempt, much to our disappointment, was actually posted on Morningstar.
The article, ironically entitled, “Common Misconceptions about Managed Futures,” seemed to be a rambling list of the author’s own misconceptions about the investment. In some ways, the author, Jason Whitby, did us a favor, as we were thinking about putting together a piece on some of the worst arguments circulated against the asset class anyway. While we had intended to simply comment on the piece, we thought our readers might benefit from the succinct breakdown of just how misguided some of these criticisms are.
We’ve actually been meaning to to post a rebuttal to this for a week or so now, but current events have gotten in the way. But with stock market investors licking their wounds right now and likely looking around the internet for information on alternative investments, we figured it was better to address these points before some unsuspecting investor was led astray by Whitby’s own numerous misconceptions, so here they are:
The core issue with this misconception is that Managed Futures is actually a motley mix of eclectic investment strategies, not an asset class, and that is a very important distinction.
Managed futures IS an asset class based on current financial definitions of the term (see here: http://bit.ly/q6YxVL).
If attractive returns are relative, I suppose Managed Futures (RYMFX) were very attractive in 2008 relative to the S&P500 (SPY) but no more attractive than the 1-3 year Treasury (SHY) and compared to the 20+ Treasury (TLT), Managed Futures were not so attractive. Since 2008 the relative attraction amongst the group continues to change, but the point here is that in relative perspective to more traditional and much lower cost options, Managed Futures really haven’t been all that attractive.
While dismissing managed futures as an eclectic mix of strategies in point #1, Whitby then selects just a single strategy (RYMFX) to prove managed futures as a whole has not performed. Dig a little deeper into RYMFX and you’ll find it does a very poor job of tracking managed futures. (see here: http://bit.ly/iDCfiR).
If the temperature variations in Lake Michigan are negatively correlated to stocks, would you be interested in buying a “Lake Michigan Temperature Volatility Fund?” Besides, an investment should provide a positive expected return, not just reduce risk. Yet Managed Futures is a “zero-sum game” which means there will be an equal number of winners as loser, i.e. there is no expected positive return in Managed Futures.
Whitby has the classic misunderstanding between non correlation and negative correlation here- not uncommon. Managed futures is NON-correlated to stocks, not negatively correlated (see here: http://bit.ly/mTSpzO). More importantly, managed futures has a long history of positive returns, so we were a little confused by this blanket dismissal of its value (here for starters). (Disclaimer: Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.) Finally, his understanding of managed futures in the context of the zero sum game is incomplete (see here: http://bit.ly/r9ad7c).
There isn’t enough verifiable data to support the claim that an investment in Managed Futures helps hedge against inflation.
The reasoning behind the claim that managed futures can provide a hedge to inflation is that they can ride price trends higher in commodities. The lack of data supporting this neither proves or disproves it.
[In response to crisis performance benefits] Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps if the exact same things all happen again as they happened in 2008, exactly the same way, in the same sequence and the same severity, then maybe. But history doesn’t repeat itself exactly nor will investors behave exactly the same way. The truth is managed futures, including RYMFX, have very little verifiable performance data, so no one really know how they will perform for investors.
Managed futures didn’t just perform well during the 2008 crisis, they have posted gains in each of the recent major financial crises, such as the Internet Bubble, 9/11, LTCM blowup, Asian crisis, and surprise rate hike (see here: http://bit.ly/p4zTRG). (Disclaimer: Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. Futures trading is complex and carries a risk of losses, meaning it may not be suitable for all investors.) As for there being little verifiable performance data, we’re happy to showcase 20+years of data on a wide range of managed futures investments to clear up that misconception.
CTA’s do provide disclosures, no argument. Yet remember, CTAs are allowed to assess incentive fees only on “net profits” and 20% is pretty compelling. So if a CTA has a bad year, they must recoup that loss for those clients and get up over the “high watermark” before they can take incentive fees. Which is good for investors, right? After all, if the CTA lost 20% in year 1, then they shouldn’t get any bonus until they break even, right? So what do you expect CTAs do if they are under the water mark? They close shop, start a new shop and get a new disclosure. After all, the CTA has a really strong incentive to start over. If the CTA makes 20% the next year trying to get an old client back to even: no bonus. However, if they make a new client 20%: big bonus. This is why many managed futures firms have multiple CTAs under their umbrella which gives the picture of history yet allows them to disclose the attractive CTAs and to close CTAs that are too far underwater.
This is a nice scare tactic, and it is true that CTAs can stop programs and start new ones. There’s just one integral component missing in this conspiracy theory, though – which is the fact that registered CTAs are not just required to list the performance of the program you’re investing in, but of any other programs they have been involved in at any time during the past 5 years. This regulation is in place to thwart exactly the type of behavior cited here. As an aside, do you really think the near $300 Billion invested in managed futures has been duped by this simple parlor trick? We were left wondering if the author had ever done due diligence on an investment, interviewed managers, searched old databases… anything…
CTAs do register with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, so what? CTAs are required to get an FBI background check, so what? CTAs are required to provide disclosures, so what? CTAs have independent audits of financial statements every year, so what? So what to all of this? None of it provides any investor protection, reduces conflict of interests or increases transparency.
Whitby is merely stating that annual audits, FBI background checks, and registration with the CFTC does not provide any investor protection without any evidence to back him- and we’re not sure such an assertion, without warrant, even qualifies as an argument. Still, we’re pretty sure the CFTC and NFA would disagree with you, after all – the CFTC mission statement on their website reads: The mission of the CFTC is to protect investors and the public from fraud in the commodity futures and options markets.
The SEC requires most mutual funds that invest in other managers to disclose those fees. Yet the managed futures mutual funds have an exemption because they can invest through off-shore subsidiaries. Even our granddaddy, RYMFX may invest up to 25% of total assets in a wholly-owned and controlled Cayman Islands subsidiary.
We’ll agree with on this point. Managed futures mutual funds are, for the most part, overpriced, poorly disclosed in terms of fees and risks, and do a poor job of tracking managed futures as a whole. But the problems of managed futures mutual funds do not carry over to managed futures managed accounts. Quite the contrary- managed accounts alleviate these problems by making everything more transparent.
There is a lot of money in managed futures. But how much is for “business applications” versus investments? The futures market was created for business risk reduction, not investing. Aluminum producers, airlines, chemical companies, farmers and so on are why the futures industry evolved and why there are CTAs and futures in the first place.
Looks like Whitby was running out of steam by the time he got to this item, as this is completely out of left field. To answer the question of how much of the money in managed futures is for investing, the answer is all of it. The end users mentioned – Aluminum producers, airlines, chemical companies, etc., are not investing in managed futures- they’re purchasing and selling futures directly on the exchange themselves. You can see a breakdown of how many contracts are traded by commercial entities such as those you mention and speculators (investments) on the CFTC website.
We’re not necessarily trying to pick on Whitby here, as some of the mistakes he makes in the article are common ones. However, it’s incredibly important, especially in this volatile investing climate, that people understand the mechanics, risks and benefits associated with any opportunity they consider.
David Hume once said, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”
If it boils down to evidence on the viability of managed futures for investors seeking a non-correlated addition to their portfolio- case closed.