Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

Bankers’ pay

Posted by alifinmath on January 9, 2008

A truly well-written piece in the FT:

The typical manager of financial assets generates returns based on the systematic risk he takes – the so-called beta risk – and the value his abilities contribute to the investment process – his so-called alpha. Shareholders in asset management firms, such as commercial banks, investment banks and private equity or insurance companies are unlikely to pay the manager much for returns from beta risk. For example, if the shareholder wants exposure to large traded US stocks she can get the returns associated with that risk simply by investing in the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund, for which she pays a fraction of a per cent in fees. What the shareholder will really pay for is if the manager beats the S&P 500 index regularly, that is, generates excess returns while not taking more risks. Hence they will pay for alpha.

In reality, there are only a few sources of alpha for investment managers. One of them comes from having truly special abilities in identifying undervalued financial assets. Warren Buffett, the US billionaire investor, certainly has it, yet this special ability is, by definition, rare.

A second source of alpha is from what one might call activism. This means using financial resources to create, or obtain control over, real assets and to use that control to change the payout obtained on the financial investment. A venture capitalist who transforms an inventor, a garage and an idea into a fully fledged, profitable and professionally managed corporation creates alpha.

A third source of alpha is financial entrepreneurship or engineering – creating securities or cash flow streams that appeal to particular investors or tastes. As long as the investment manager does not create securities that exploit investor weaknesses or ignorance (and there is unfortunately too much of that), this sort of alpha is also beneficial, but it requires constant innovation.

Alpha is quite hard to generate since most ways of doing so depend on the investment manager possessing unique abilities – to pick stocks, identify weaknesses in management and remedy them, or undertake financial innovation. Such abilities are rare. How then can untalented investment managers justify their pay? Unfortunately, all too often it is by creating fake alpha – appearing to create excess returns but in fact taking on hidden tail risks, which produce a steady positive return most of the time as compensation for a rare, very negative, return.

For example, an investment manager who bought AAA-rated tranches of collateralised debt obligations (CDO) in the past generated a return of 50 to 60 basis points higher than a similar AAA-rated corporate bond. That “excess” return was in fact compens­ation for the “tail” risk that the CDO would default, a risk that was no doubt perceived as small when the housing market was rollicking along, but which was not zero. If all the manager had disclosed was the high rating of his investment portfolio he would have looked like a genius, making money without additional risk, even more so if he multiplied his “excess” return by leverage. Similarly, the management of Northern Rock followed the old strategy of taking on tail risk, borrowing short and lending long and praying that the unlikely event of a liquidity shortage never materialised. All these strategies essentially earn the manager a premium in normal times for taking on beta risk that materialises only infrequently. These premiums are not alpha, since they are wiped out when the risk materialises.

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