Pockets of talent spied in China hedge fund evolution

While capable managers are evident in China and across Asia, raising capital remains their chief challenge, stress Salt Singapore panellists. And that after a night of partying.
Pockets of talent spied in China hedge fund evolution

"G'day! Let's try it again. G'day! You guys are all our mates now!"

That was the introduction by all-male band Human Nature, a self-described quartet of "white guys singing Motown", that greeted a ballroom full of hedge fund executives at the Salt Singapore gala on Wednesday night.

As such there were a few similarities between Wednesday night's entertainment and that of Salt Las Vegas in May, which featured Maroon 5, another boy band.

However, the crowd largely did not live up to their "mate" status, with the audience gradually thinning in ranks; some made a beeline for the Marina Bay Sands casino, others headed to drinking establishments in the city.

Among those who stayed were a table of hedge fund service providers whom, after downing four bottles of champagne, stood up to dance enthusiastically. They will remain unnamed.

Delegates who were able to shake off the rust for the morning panel sessions on Thursday were able to gain insight into the development of the mainland's hedge fund industry. Which, like the post-party movement of many delegates, could be described as slow, but purposeful.

"The domestic hedge fund industry is at an extreme early stage right now," says panellist Oliver Wiesberg, managing director of Citadel Asset Management.

Mainland authorities now allow investments in onshore hedge funds, although managers cannot use leverage or short-sell securities, notes Yifei Li, China country chair for Man Group.  

While it is a contradictory stance, "the regulators get it, if you will, but these things take time”, says Wiesberg. "There are restrictions now on the ability to short single stocks…[it's] very much in the pilot stage. So until the government actually allows stock borrowing and single-stock shorting, we'll still be in this current phase."

Another key turning point will come when the renminbi becomes fully convertible, he adds. "When you talk to regulators about anything involving the financial industry, the overarching theme is convertibility."

Despite its relative immaturity, investors are keen to invest in onshore China managers. Eliza Lau, chief investment officer of Synergy Fund Management, speaking in a separate panel on manager talent, notes there is a pocket of talent within the commodities trading adviser space that trades agricultural soft commodities on exchanges in the mainland and the US.

"This is the new talent that we are identifying. Some started out with less than $20 million, but they continuously have been turning out very good returns," says Lau.

Elsewhere in Asia, there is "a huge amount of talent", reckons fellow panellist Judith Posnikoff, managing director of Pacific Alternative Asset Management.  

"We continue to see good solid teams coming out of multi-strats, as well as off [proprietary trading] desks," says Posnikoff. However, they face "a horrible environment for fundraising" in the post-crisis era.  

She notes that when she used to advise hedge fund start-ups, she'd say they should be prepared to self-fund operations for at least a year. "Now it's much longer, I would say even up to five years."

Managers nowadays need an experienced and proven manager at the helm, or a seed investor partnership that would give other investors confidence.

"Unless you've got that, it can be a very long and tedious road to going out and raising capital," says Posnikoff. "That's why we're seeing new launches and yet a huge number of funds shutting down both here in Asia, and globally."

Lau assures that investor money is gradually returning to the hedge fund investor space. "A lot of them have come back. Not completely, but to a bare minimum of hedge fund holdings, particularly in Asia."

Family offices are particularly keen, she adds. "These families are now a lot more sophisticated. If you have a niche and talent, they do not mind allocating to new managers. They go for performance at the end of the day."

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