4 min read

What Are Alternative Investments?

Carmine Meoli

May 01, 2019

This post is the primer in a series that sheds light on what the investment community commonly refers to as Alternative Investments. We’ll start with defining the term, and why any investor should make an informed decision, ideally with their financial advisor, how to add Alternatives to their existing investment portfolio.  

Subsequent posts will dive a little deeper into the performance and risks characteristics of Alternative Investments. In yet another post, we’ll look at how Alternative Investments can be combined with existing traditional investments to achieve the financial goals of an investor.  

Please visit this post to read up on why you should care about Alternative Investments in this environment at all.  

By their name, Alternative Investments are labeled as an alternative to traditional mutual fund types of investments, or mainstream asset classes such as listed equities or bonds.  

Venture Capital, Private Equity, Hedge Funds, and Real Assets – segments as heterogeneous as they come  

Alternative Investments are not a homogenous asset class like stocks and bonds. Venture Capital, Private Equity, Hedge Funds, and so-called Real Assets (such as Commodities, Real Estate, Agriculture, Timber, and even Art) are often referred to as Alternatives in literature.  

As if this were not confusing enough, the classification within each sector is also fluid. Some regard Venture Capital as part of Private Equity, since it is one of the early stages of a company life-cycle (others being Growth Capital, Buyouts, and Turnarounds/Distressed).  

Classification might not just be difficult, but arbitrary, and most importantly, not relevant to an investor  

There can also be some potential overlap between an active Buyout (Private Equity) fund and an activist special situations, a.k.a. Event-Driven Hedge Fund. There are more such grey areas, which only shows that the classification might not just be complicated, but arbitrary, and most importantly, not that relevant to an investor.  

What should be relevant to investors are other properties that separate Alternative Investments from traditional investments, i.e., mutual funds or exchange-traded funds.  

Alternative Investments are about skill, regardless of where markets go  

To avoid losses, and ensure predictable, sustainable performance, the best Alternative Investment managers are employing a specific mindset.  

As opposed to amateur investors, they don’t mistake their success for skill. They try to eliminate the concept of luck, be it bad or good luck, from their toolset. This approach includes understanding any factors that drive performance and isolating those they can influence from those they cannot (like market risk, i.e., markets behaving unexpectedly).  

Alternative Investment managers may want to reduce the impact of market risks, such as those of fluctuating stock markets and interest rates. This approach to risk reduction is in stark contrast to traditional asset managers who expose their capital (and with that, their investors) to these risks for their returns.  

After reducing their exposure to market risks, Alternative Investment managers pursue price inefficiencies and other dislocations to their superior understanding of every investment case.  

Alternative Investments enjoy a wider playing field  

A key characteristic of Alternative Investments is the freedom to look beyond traditional assets into areas such as alternative equity, market-neutral strategies, managed futures, volatility, tail-hedge, alternative lending, value-added real estate, and selected startups to a broader audience.  

This, for example, means looking beyond investing in publicly listed blue-chip companies that everyone is tracking, and where, due to the scrutiny of millions of eyes trained at them, opportunities are infinitesimally harder to uncover.  

Alternative Investments need flexibility  

To be able to apply their skill-set to an investment transaction and remove any unwanted (i.e., not manageable) risk, Alternative Investment managers often rely on a flexible toolset. While traditional asset managers can either hold an asset or not (stay in cash), Alternative Investment managers can also “short” an asset, i.e., sell a security to repurchase it at a lower price. They might not do this to purely speculate on lower prices as is often alleged in the media, but to neutralize, for example, market, sector, or interest-rate risk they already hold through their other assets. With those risks reduced or eliminated, Alternative Investment managers may also employ some leverage, resulting in long and short assets temporarily exceeding overall fund assets.

However, this type of leverage-taking can actually lower the overall risk compared to traditional asset managers. While we will deal with the risk profile of Alternative Investments in a subsequent post, let us remark that most of us have more leverage in our home mortgage than the average hedge fund employs in their daily work. In terms of the toolset, some have used a golf analogy to explain Alternatives vs. traditional investments. While the former can play with a full set, the latter is restricted to only a few clubs. We would argue that having more tools at one’s disposal increases the chances of being successful, provided one is versed in using them.

Stableton’s approach to Alternative Investments We agree with US comedian Will Rogers who famously stated that he was more concerned about the return of his money than with the return on his money. The proper implementation of an absolute return strategy does not only entail a significantly lower risk of a significant capital loss – as there is no rigid link to a benchmark – but usually also considerably more calculable investment results.  

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    *Disclaimer: The above article is for educational purposes only and does neither constitute investment advice nor should it be considered to be an invitation or recommendation to buy securities or any other investment products. Please consult your financial advisor about the risks and opportunities prior to making investment decisions. 

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