The Life Cycle of a Hedge Fund
When people tell me they are interested in working at a hedge fund, I always tell them a few things. First I talk about the atmosphere and culture, to make sure they would feel comfortable with it. Then I talk to them about which hedge fund they’re thinking about, because I think it makes a huge difference, especially how old a hedge fund is.
Here’s the way I explain it. When a hedge fund is new, a baby, it either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you never even hear about it, a kind of survivorship bias. So the ones you hear about work well, and their founders do extremely well for themselves.
Then the hedge fund hires a bunch of people, and this first round of people also does well, and they start filling up the ranks of MD’s (managing directors). Maybe at this point you’d say the hedge fund is an adolescent. Once you have a bunch of MD’s that are rich and smart, though, they become pretty protective of the pot of money they generate each year, especially if the pot isn’t as big as it once was, because of competition from other hedge funds.
However, this doesn’t always mean they stop hiring. In fact, they often hire people at this stage, young, smart, incredibly hard working people, who are generally screwed in the sense that they have very little chance of being successful or ever becoming MD. This is what I’d term an adult hedge fund. They have complicated rules which make sense for the existing MD’s but which keep new people from ever succeeding.
For example, when you get to a hedge fund, you start being assigned models to work on. You learn the techniques and follow the rules of the hedge fund, like making sure you don’t bet on the market, etc. If your model starts to look promising, they make sure you are not “remaking” an existing model that is currently being used. That is to say, they make sure, either by telling you what to do or asking you to do it yourself, that your bets are essentially orthogonal (in a statistical sense) to the current models. This often has the effect of removing the signal that your model had, or at least removing enough of it that your model no longer is statistically significant to go into production.
In other words, if the existing models are a relatively large collection, that perhaps spans the space of “current models that seem to work in the way we measure models” (I know this is a vague concept but I do think it means something), then you are kind of up shit’s creek to find a new model. By contrast, if you happened to start at a young hedge fund, or start your own hedge fund, then your model couldn’t be redundant, since there wouldn’t be anything to compete with it.
The older hedge funds have lots of working models, so there are lots of ways for your new, good-looking model to be swatted down before it has a chance to make money. And the way things work, you don’t ever get credit for a model that would have worked if there had been fewer models in production. In fact you only get credit if you came up with a new model which made shit tons of money.
Which is to say, under this system, the founders and the guys brought in during the first round of hiring are the most likely to get credit. Even if an MD retires, their working models don’t die, since they are algorithmic and they still work. But the money they generate goes into the company-wide pot, which is to say mostly goes to MD’s. So the MD’s have no incentive to change the system.
It also has another consequence, which is that the people hired in the second or further rounds slowly realize that their models are perfectly good but unused, and that they’ll never get promoted. So they end up leaving and starting their own funds or joining young funds, just so they can run the same models. So another consequence of adult hedge funds is that they spawn their own competition.
The only way I know of for a hedge fund to avoid this aging process is to never hire anyone after the first round. Or maybe to hire very few people, slowly, as the MD’s retire and as the models stop working and you need new ones, to be sure that the people they hire have a chance to succeed.