LOS ANGELES – "Remember the late 1990s, when all those twenty-five-year-olds were starting dot-coms and getting rich?" asks Dave Barry in his newest book, "Money Secrets." That's like "the boom going on with hedge funds now. Everybody is starting them. This is the hot thing to do in the investment world."
Yes, and it's not funny. We all know hedge funds have doubled since 2000, to $1.1 trillion. Hedge funds are popular because the market's a loser. We lost $8 trillion during the 2000-2002 bear market and we're still below the 2000 peak.
That's bad. But when a humorist like Barry offers investors advice on starting hedge fund you'd better worry about the future: "There's a McDonald's employee somewhere saying: 'I'm tired of asking four-year-olds, which toy they want with their Happy Meal! I'm going to start a hedge fund' ... You don't want to be the last person in your car pool to start a hedge fund."
Yikes, it's really that bad? Yes. But Barry's strategy needs tweaking: Hedge funds aren't for beginners. You got to pay your dues, earn your stripes, get a track record. Most hedge managers get experience as mutual fund managers first.
So, here's how to set up your own mutual fund; how you can get the credentials to become a hedge fund manager. This strategy is inspired by humorists like Barry, Jay Leno, Billy Crystal and Jon Stewart — fun people who get us to laugh at the dangerous truths hidden in our financial world.
So we invented a checklist of seven rules that you'd receive from an imaginary "Fund Managers Benevolent Protective Union" (FMBPU). Secret steps you need to start a fund of your very own. (Actually, this is exactly how funds do in fact work today).
First, the context: There are 95 million Main Street investors. Wall Street and other financial services employ maybe one million. There are less than 100,000 portfolio managers in America. Here's their big incentive: the average compensation of fund managers exceeds $400,000 annually, more than 10 times the average American. And they get paid big bucks even though 75% of them fail to beat their market benchmarks.
The FMBPU is designed to protect your income, which vastly exceeds the returns you'll pay to naïve, gullible shareholders. So join the union, follow the rules, never break the code of silence, and you'll be on Easy Street playing with other people's retirement money. Plus, you'll get experience to move up to the big league of hedge fund managers and make upwards of $200 million a year later. So here's the FMBPU's secret memo to prospective members:
First, call yourself an active manager, but track an index
Most mutual funds are index funds in disguise, and cheap to run. But never admit that you're an indexer. That way you charge huge front-end loads and excessive expenses like other active managers. And quietly pocket the difference. You'll beat 75% of your competition and become a "successful" manager by secretly indexing! Pretend you're a hot-shot stock-picker, but index. Cable news anchors will tout you as a genius.
Second: Spend big bucks on marketing
Most investors are naïve, believing anything in "the news." Back in the 1990s Bogle said funds spend 20% on "marketing their wares." With $8.9 trillion invested today, that's $18 billion on selling, creating an illusion that funds are a great investment, although the market's still below its 2000 peak. But don't worry, existing shareholders are forced to pay your marketing costs out of 12b-1 fees.
Third. Pretend high expenses mean higher quality
Hire a PR agent. Promote yourself as a stock-picking genius. Naïve investors actually believe the best funds charge high expenses. Morningstar tells us the 25 worst funds had expense ratios of 3.2% to 14.8%! The average actively managed fund charges 1.5% versus as low as a mere 0.09% for index mutuals and ETFs. You pocket the difference. On $1 billion assets, that's $14 million more than an index fund. The media won't blow your cover, they want your ads. And buy a corporate jet. Tell shareholders it saves time when you're doing due diligence inspecting potential asset purchases. Have fun. Like P.T. Barnum said, there's a sucker born every minute.
Fourth. Pay hustlers big commissions, grow fast
Wanna grow fast? Charge high loads. Load funds rake assets faster than no-load index funds. Brokers will do anything to make a fast buck, so give hustlers a 5-8% front end commission. Greed is a great motivator. On a $1 billion fund, a 5% load costs you $50 million. But that's a one-shot expense. You still have $950 million of your shareholders' money to play with. And you get to siphon off annual expenses forever.
Fifth. Hire a lobbyist to schmooze Beltway insiders
Forget Abramoff. Congress and the SEC aren't interested in Main Street investors. SEC staffers favor the industry. And there are more than 10 times as many lobbyists as elected officials. Lobbyists are our secret weapon, guaranteeing the union's "benevolent protection." They counteract bad press when guys like Sen. Peter Fitzgerald say: "The mutual fund industry is now the world's largest skimming operation, a $8 trillion trough from which fund managers, brokers and other insiders are steadily siphoning off an excessive slice of the nation's household, college and retirement savings." Lobbyists control the rest of Congress, thanks to lunches, cocktails and campaign donations.
Sixth. Give your fund a patriotic name
In marketing, jazzy brands sell hype. You spin bad performance. One of the worst-ever funds has "American" in the title, has lost an average of almost 20% a year the past decade, and is still breathing. So pick an emotional heart-tugger with a patriotic ring, like the First American Integrity Fund. Or the American Dream-Come-True Fund. Or the All-American Guaranteed Retirement Fund. The SEC has restrictions, but lobbyists can help.
Seventh. Dress for success
You'll be making $400,000 annually, so look the part. Buy custom made suits. Your PR team should get you in the GQ and W magazines, as well as BusinessWeek. Get a regular spot on cable news. Get photo ops next to your jet with celebrities and royalty. Get your teeth whitened. Get a NASCAR sponsorship. You deserve it, hotshot!
Everyone in America's fund industry knows they must play this clandestine game, in order to secretly pocket big fees and commissions even though they under-perform market indexes 75% of the time. Funds get away with this because investors never see the scam run behind the Mafia-like code of silence protected by Washington insiders: Your elected Senators, Representatives, SEC staffers and special interest lobbyists.
Sounds great, huh? Come join the FMBPU. You'll make lots more money than you'll ever make just investing in any American fund ... and you'll be getting valuable experience for later, when you move up and become a real famous hedge fund manager!
Copyright (c) 2006 MarketWatch, Inc.