The Mystique of Hedge Funds

Hedge funds are controversial these days. Though it’s unlikely that the average citizen or the average congressman could say just what hedge funds do, many are certain they must be reined in by additional regulation because they can—and do—cause widespread damage to our financial system. Almost everyone takes it for granted that regulation of some sort is the solution, ignoring the possibility that at least some of the problems are actually caused by regulation.

What is a hedge fund? The name implies hedging, a strategy that reduces risk. If you bet on several horses in a race, you are hedging your bets—spreading your risk. You can buy gold to hedge against inflation. You can sell interest-rate futures to hedge the risk that rising interest rates would pose to your bond portfolio.

The first hedge fund was created in 1949 by Alfred Jones. He believed he could pick stocks that would outperform and those that would underperform the overall market. But Jones didn’t know where the overall market was going, so he would buy his expected outperformers and sell short the expected underperformers. He thereby insulated his portfolio from general market moves, which would affect about half his holding positively and half negatively.

Most present-day hedge funds don’t do much hedging, but the name persists. Instead, they engage in a bewildering variety of trading methods, including buying on margin (using borrowed funds) and selling short (selling borrowed assets so as to profit from a price drop). They trade stocks, bonds, options, currencies, commodity futures, and sophisticated derivatives thereof. Some try to anticipate global political or economic events, while others seek opportunities in specific industries or companies. Continue reading