Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

In the hedge fund world, bigger is still better

Bill Ackman: Benefits of short sellers
Bill Ackman: Benefits of short sellers

Stock market tumult has delivered a stinging hit to a number of areas, notable among them the hedge fund industry, which has seen a promising year turn south in a hurry.

Total hedge assets are back lingering near the $3 trillion mark, after a brutal August sucked out $78.4 billion. Investors on their own added $10.5 billion, but that wasn't nearly enough to offset the losses due to poor performance, according to recent data from industry tracker eVestment.

The culprit was a brutal month that left major stock market averages down 6 percent or more and sent many individual investors scurrying to the sidelines.

Hedge funds actually outperformed the market for the month, with an aggregate loss of 2.31 percent compared to the 6.03 percent drop in the .

The best strategies this year include one mainstay: Going big.

Dave Greenwood | Getty Images

Large funds, with more than $1 billion in assets, have been outperforming their smaller competitors for years, with five-year annualized returns of 8.52 percent, according to Preqin. The trend held in August, with large funds down 1.68 percent, medium (more than $250 million and less than $1 billion) off 1.57 percent and small funds losing 2.4 percent, according to eVestment.

The trend didn't hold up completely: Nelson Peltz's Trian fund dropped 4.8 percent in August (though still outperforming the broader market) while Bill Ackman's Pershing Square plunged 7.7 percent for the month, according to a recent Reuters report.

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The bigger players "have consistently generated outperformance in both the short and long term when compared to smaller-sized hedge funds. Furthermore, these funds have posted superior average returns while also maintaining lower volatility and higher Sharpe ratios over multiple time horizons," Amy Bensted, head of hedge fund products at Preqin, said in a statement. (The Sharpe ratio measures returns adjusted for risk.)

One other notable winner is a surprise: Russia.

In a year when every other emerging market strategy has failed, research firm HFR said its Russia/Eastern Europe Index returned 6.71 percent through August. By comparison, the index lost nearly 26 percent in 2014 and gained just 4.4 percent in 2013, a year that saw the S&P 500 climb some 32 percent.

As the broader market has struggled this year, shorting, or betting against stocks, also has been a winner. The HFRI Short Bias Index gained 5.3 percent in August and was one of only four winning strategies for the month.

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Peter Laurelli, eVestment's head of research, said overall hedge funds are likely to see the money flow dry up, though multistrategy funds could stand above the crowd.

"For the industry in general, flows for the rest of the year are going to be relatively flat," he said in an interview. "We'll see inflows remain very muted, with some redemptions at the end."

Hedge fund investors remain most interested in global macro strategies, with 46 percent of the group saying it's their preferred strategy, according to a Credit Suisse survey cited by brokerage Convergex. Event-driven was next at 44 percent, followed by long-short in the equity markets.

The good news for the industry is the survey found 93 percent saying they would be increasing allocations this year. Laurelli said that "in a wonderful world" total assets could pass $4 trillion in 2016.