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September has brought a much-needed reprieve for the global hedge fund industry following a year of mounting criticism and investor agitation over its high fees and disappointing performance.
Aggregate hedge funds gained 0.91 percent in September,according to data provider Preqin, compared to 0.02 percent for the benchmark S&P 500 equity index and 0.59 percent for a composite equity/bond benchmark composed of the MSCI World Index and the Citi World Government Bond index.
However, given the disparate nature of the hedge fund universe in terms of size and investment strategy, a clearer picture can be gained from analysing the performance of various strategies to draw conclusions about where managers have been delivering.
The key message from September has been the value of oft-questioned active management with the two outperforming strategies being equity hedge and event-driven.
According to Preqin, equity strategies delivered 1.16 percent returns in September while event-driven managers returned 0.88 percent.
Although computer-driven systematic trading can feature in these strategies, active managers using fundamental research and sourcing discrete opportunities often play a more important role.
On the equity side, characteristics defining the outperformers were smaller managers, long bias managers and those with a focus on emerging markets.
Within the event-driven space, distressed debt continued to outperform, leading the hedge fund universe for 2016. Energy assets which had fallen into distress during the recent years of weakened oil prices have been a prime target for these managers, who saw a significant boost from the widely unanticipated OPEC deal.
Also performing well during September on the back of one-off events were those managers seeking to arbitrage between acquirer and target market securities during mergers and acquisition deals. Notable combinations included German chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer's $66 billion acquisition of the American agrochemical firm Monsanto and Japanese telco Softbank's $24.3 billion takeover of British technology firm ARM Holdings.
At the other end of the scale, aggregate macro returns were the weakest but it pays to remember that this bucket contains a wide divergence of themes and often opposed bets from different managers on binary events.
Two key events which were influential in determining the performance of macro funds during the month were the Fed's decision to hold tight on a rates rise and OPEC's announcement of an agreement to cap production– a deal which in the words of the cartel itself, "caught the market off-guard".
The improvement in performance this month is welcome news for an industry struggling with ongoing issues of investor disgruntlement over fees, the continued migration of investor funds from active to passive management and a dearth of investment opportunities in a world of rock-bottom yields, among other headwinds.
One other notable feature of September was the regulatory focus with Och-Ziff's payment of a whopping $412 million settlement over bribery allegations in five African countries and Leon Cooperman's repudiation of SEC allegations that his Omega Advisors fund took part in insider trading.
The SEC has said that the most recent 2015-2016 period has been its most active ever in terms of pursuing cases against asset managers and the appetite to continue with its investigations shows no signs of abating.
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