Hedgies all in on stocks; here's how to play it

After years of underperforming the market, hedge funds have gotten hot on stocks.

Allocations in the $3 trillion industry have turned to their most bullish positions ever, with a net-long exposure of 57 percent entering 2015, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis.

Jumping on the equities bandwagon hasn't helped turn around the group's waning fortunes, however. The average fund has returned just one percent in 2015, lagging major indexes like the S&P 500, which is up 2.4 percent so far, and the Russell 3000, which has risen 2.6 percent. The reason is a "poorly timed" move that came as the index slid 3 percent in January, the analysis said.

Goldman did deem the returns "respectable" given that the Sharpe ratio, which measures returns when adjusted for risk, is 0.2 for hedge funds and 0.1 for the S&P 500. That's some consolation for an industry that has underperformed the S&P 500 for six years running—essentially, since the end of the financial crisis—and brought home just a 3 percent return in 2014 when the broader market gauge jumped nearly 14 percent.

"Market timing and popular positions have worked against hedge fund returns YTD while a rise in volatility and commitment to energy stocks have supported returns," Goldman said in a report for clients.

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Goldman said it has found the most luck from an investing standpoint by tracking the highest "concentration" level of companies owned by hedge funds. The firm defines the term as examining ownership as a share of market capitalization—as opposed to the most-owned stocks by total shares—and said the strategy has beaten the S&P 500 69 percent of the time.

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The top five stocks in concentration are Endo, Family Dollar, Allergan, Dollar General and Air Products and Chemicals.

More broadly, hedge funds again are hitching their hopes to Apple after cutting allocations to the tech bellwether. Close to one in five of the funds in Goldman's hedge universe own Apple, while 12 percent have it as a top 10 position. That's a good thing, with shares exploding 19.4 percent in 2015, Apple ownership has helped conceal some other less-fortuitous moves in the industry.

Energy also has been a winning bet. The sector as a portion of the S&P 500 is flat year to date but up a solid 5.2 percent in February thanks to a 19.5 percent gain in the refining and marketing sector.

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There also has been indication that hedge funds are heading toward tech. Bank of America Merrill Lynch said fund managers have increased bullish positions on the Nasdaq index at the "strongest pace in more than a year."

The index, which tracks mostly technology issues, is leading its major competitors with a 4.6 percent return.