Inflation remains a major concern in 2022. It is also crucial to watch the central banks’ responses to deal with it. In particular, the inflation numbers in the coming months should be watched closely, as they likely determine the extent to which central banks intervene. As seen in May 2022, when the CPI was higher than expected, markets lost substantially. With current market expectation of US interest rates being close to 2% later this year, it is vital that the 50bps hike last month, as well as the upcoming hike (likely another 50bps) show effectiveness. If that should not hold, there will be a bumpy road ahead. Especially, as the Fed is starting to reduce its balance sheet, which puts further pressure on markets. A similar observation can be made for the UK. For the EU, this is likely occur a couple of months later, as they have not raised interest rates yet, but are expected to do very soon. This development, alongside the war and supply chain issues, has led to a more and more pessimistic view of GDP growth in most countries. The World Bank expects that most countries will in fact experience a recession. They further emphasize that stagflation is looming. The possibility of a stagflation environment is certainly not unlikely and many factors speak for it. For example, the very high inflation, frequently downward-adjusted GDP projections, and the pressure put on companies with significant supply chain problems among others. Although employment looks healthy in most countries, if this should worsen, the treat of stagflation becomes very urgent. A more detailed view on the macroeconomic situation is provided by Macro Eagle further below. Hedge funds are in a good position to mitigate much of this market volatility. Many hedge funds pursuing equity and fixed income strategies have experienced rough times but they have the capabilities to reduce risk in such a market environment, despite a rather unimpressive performance. Hedge funds that use different strategies than the previously mentioned ones, mostly had a great year. This is in particular true for global macro funds. A substantial number of funds managed to deliver a YTD in 2022 in excess of 100% already. Another strategy that stands out are funds of hedge funds that could truly show their risk mitigation potential. Although private equity and venture capital could not maintain their trend from 2021, the asset class still remains an attractive opportunity. Valuations are down since early 2022. However, the industry is still in a healthy state, despite the slump of public equities. Inflows in the industry are likely to be smaller than in 2021, but there is still significant investor interest as most investors report that their private equity investment substantially outperformed their public equity investments over the long-term. The industry also still sits on a large cash pile amassed over the past year that needs to be deployed. This pressure further mitigates the decline in valuations resulting from the bear market.
Although financial markets are struggling in general, cryptocurrencies are suffering most. After the collapse of the Terra stablecoin in mid-May 2022, cryptocurrencies barely recovered their losses. Even before this crash, the market was down substantially. This development may indicate another ‘crypto winter’ as it was the case in late 2017 and early 2018. After this crash, Bitcoin needed until 2020 and other cryptocurrencies until 2021 to recover. Although the current ecosystem is certainly not favourable, the situation is not equivalent to 2017. There are numerous reasons for this. Firstly, the investor base has changed massively with many more institutional investors in the market. This is likely to reduce the volatility of the asset slightly, as the majority of capital in the market is still retail-based. Secondly, the principle of blockchain and the applications are a lot better understood than back in 2017 when most people held coins for the profit only. Nowadays, assets are also held out of conviction which should further limit the downside potential. Thirdly, cryptocurrencies tend to crash the hardest at the beginning of a crisis but also tend to recover ahead of other asset classes. One of the best examples of this occurred at the beginning of Covid-19 when Bitcoin recovered quickly and soon rose to a new record high. Currently, Bitcoin is trading relatively stable at the $30k mark. The development of Bitcoin during 2022 is shown in Figure 1. Ethereum is trading consistently trading below the $2k mark since the crash.
Markets are continuing to struggle in 2022. Equity markets have suffered substantial losses after their stellar 2021 caused by a combination of inflation, (expected) interest rate hikes and the Russia-Ukraine war. After the strong selloff at the end of April 2022 which closed the worst monthly performance since the financial crisis, equity indices are down substantially. The S&P500 is down almost 14% YTD while the tech-driven Nasdaq index is down more than 21%. The development of the S&P500 since January 2021 is shown in Figure 1 below. After its record high from the end of 2021, the index is as low as one year ago. Although equities are still high from a historical perspective, the anticipated, and very likely, interest rate hikes from the Fed are on the horizon. It is anticipated that the Fed will increase rates by 0.5% in May and possibly another 0.5% in June. This has a substantial impact on still highly valued stocks which will put further pressure on equities. Central banks are feeling the consequences of their extensive interventions during Covid-19. It led to record inflation levels (at least of the last 40 years), and the imminent treat of recession if interest rates are increased. Nonetheless, if interest rates are not increased, inflation could spiral out of control, if it has not already. Given that inflation has reached 8.5% in the US and 7.4% in Europe, the necessity to intervene is obvious. These difficult times are another opportunity for hedge funds to prove their worth, as they have since Covid-19. Despite losses of the industry collectively during Q1 2022, the industry still sees continued inflows. The difficulties from the uncertainties at the current moment make hedge fund selection more important, as the gap between good and bad hedge funds widened. Given the current market situation, equity-neutral, global macro and commodity-based strategies achieved great results. In particular our Discretionary Global Macro strategy had a phenomenal month with a gain of more than 50% in March and a gain of almost 150% in Q1 2022. Our crypto- and equity strategies did well in March 2022 and could partially offset their loss from earlier in the year. Nonetheless, this is unlikely to continue in April, due to the selloff in both markets at the end of the month. Another great alternative to be partially shielded to current market volatility is private equity and venture capital. Although both markets benefitted greatly from the overheated public markets in the past two years, valuations have declined slightly. Regardless of the decline in valuations, there is still a huge interest in the space as money keeps flowing in and the deal activity is very high in the space. The large amount of capital in the space alongside the competition are also likely to prevent such large decreases as the public equity markets see currently. Both of these markets, hedge funds and private equity, are large drivers of alternative markets. According to research from Goldman Sachs and Preqin, the AuM will significantly increase, even in a suboptimal ecosystem. In a grey-sky scenario, they expect the industry to grow to $14tn in 2026, up from $10tn in 2021. In a more favourable blue-sky scenario, they expect the AuM to rise to $31tn in the same time frame. Figures 2 and 3 show their findings.
Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine certainly did not work as planned by Russia. They vastly underestimated the resilience of the Ukrainian people and the worldwide support they have received which included money, weapons, ammunition and even soldiers among others. The sanctions imposed by most countries also have hit Russia hard which supposedly is on the brink of defaulting. Russia has suffered substantial losses in the war and Putin had to impose severe measures to shield the Russian people from worldwide news coverage. The Russian government imposed a new law for news broadcasting which made nearly all international news stations leave the country. Moreover, Russia banned many Western internet companies similarly to China. Russians are facing the dire consequences of the war, as the country is starting to run out of certain goods as well as seeing significant price increases. Nonetheless, for Ukrainians the situation is even worse, as there have been more than 1,500 civilian casualties and more than three million already left the country. Due to the resilience of the Ukrainians and the sanctions from the West, it is questionable for how long the war can continue, as Putin is likely to face more pressure from the citizens of Russia. This leads to a dangerous situation, as Putin and Russia are likely to lose substantially even if they manage to take control of Ukraine. Putin threatened the use of nuclear warheads if the worldwide interventions should continue or the NATO would step in. This threat is especially concerning, if Russia’s defeat should become apparent, even from Russia’s perspective in which case Putin has “nothing to lose”. Amplified by the war, inflation is continuing to rise. In the US, inflation rose to 7.9% in February 2022, while Europe’s inflation increased to 5.8% and 5.5% in the United Kingdom. In order to combat this development, central banks started to raise interest rates this year. The Bank of England announced its second interest raise, while the Fed announced its first interest rate hike of 2022. Both banks are expected to increase interest rate several times in 2022. Oppositely, the ECB announced that there is still space before an interest rate hike is necessary and first interest rate hikes are expected in the latter part of 2022. Figure 1 shows a summary of several assets and their performance in 2022 which strongly differs across the assets. Top performers are commodities. Crude oil is up 35% in 2022 after being up more 65% earlier in March. Crude oil topped $130 per barrel at one point in March 2022 but substantially declined in value, as it was announced that supply will be increased. Since then, crude oil is hovering between $95 and $110 per barrel. Agriculture funds also gained substantially. Wheat was a major contributor to this development, as wheat doubled from the prices one year ago. Since its peak in March 2022, the asset lost around 10-15% in value. Gold is another asset that surged and regained its losses from the past year and is close to its previous all-time high from August 2020. Figure 2 shows a summary of the performance of selected commodities. Most profitable were the commodities that are reliant on the Ukraine and Russia. Russia is a key player in oil, gas and palladium, while the Ukraine is a large supplier of wheat. These assets have skyrocketed, while other commodities still increased but only slightly. Although the increases in gold and copper seem underwhelming, both assets are trading at record or close to record highs. Equities are a lot more volatile and the broad markets suffered a substantial loss once the war started and keep declining at a relatively stable pace. Nonetheless, the success is largely dependent on the industry. Unsurprisingly, energy stocks are doing incredibly well, as they are up 32% in 2022. Tech stocks face substantially more issues and are down almost 20% in 2022 so far. This development stems from the correction of the huge gains in 2020 and 2021 and their high upside potential which is great if the economy is stable. If the economy faces a lot of uncertainty, these stocks suffer most, as is evident in the current situation. Lastly, Bitcoin (BTC) that is frequently referred to as digital gold could not maintain this status, as it is down significantly since the start of the war. It experienced substantially more volatility than most other assets during this time. Since the first few days in 2022, BTC is continuously trading between -5% to -25% compared to the value at the beginning of 2022. The industry gained a couple of percentages following the EU parliament’s approval of a crypto legislation but quickly lost this gain again. Nonetheless, the asset class is well positioned in the current ecosystem, as inflation is still rising and institutional adoption has increased a lot. Currently, 99% of transactions in BTC are from institutions. The performance of cryptocurrencies currently largely favours the big and well-known cryptocurrencies. BTC and Ethereum (ETH) have lost relatively little over this time period, whereas many other smaller cryptocurrencies, e.g. Solana (SOL), dropped by more than 50% since the beginning of the year. This highly uncertain ecosystem also favours hedge funds. The AuM of the industry soared to a record $4.8tn at the end of 2021 and it is unlikely that interest will decline. In particular, macro hedge funds are posting huge gains and attract further capital. Additionally, due to volatility, more investors deciding to put money in hedge funds rather than stocks and bonds.
Hedge funds had a great 2021 and managed to set a record high in its AuM. As of the third quarter in 2021, the AuM of the industry is expected to be between $4.3tn and $4.6tn depending on the sources. According to BarclayHedge, the industry’s AuM just surpassed the $4.5tn mark at the end of the third quarter. This is a steep increase from just $3.8tn in 2020, as shown in Figure 6. This is a gain of more than 18% in less than a year. It is expected that the number will rise slightly, once the Q4 2021 numbers are out, as October and November 2021 were rather positive. Nonetheless, December 2021 will have dampened the results of Q4 2021. Generally, the industry has gained substantially over the past ten years, despite a rather inferior view from market participants during most of that period. The AuM soared thanks to two reasons. Firstly, the industry saw substantial capital net inflows. During the first three quarters, the industry received $41bn in fresh capital after having received another $19bn in the second half of 2020. Since then, the industry saw net inflows in every quarter, which is stark break from previous years when the industry experienced net outflows in most quarters. In Q4 2021, net inflows rose to $81bn in 2021, according to Eurekahedge. Figure 7 also shows the severe initial impact of Covid-19 in 2020, when accounting for the significantly positive inflows in the latter half of the year. The second reason for the steep increase in AuM is due to the performance of the hedge fund industry in 2021. Hedge funds in 2021 returned slightly more than 10%, making it the third best year in history after 2020 and 2009 according to HFR. This is remarkable, as the year has not been easy with the constant uncertainty and high volatility in the market. In particular event-driven, equity and commodity strategies have performed very well and the high beta strategies within their respective sector. Figure 8 summarizes the performances of several strategies during 2021 by Eurekahedge. Distressed debt and event-driven strategies performed best with barely any negative performances during the year. Macro and fixed income strategies struggled the most throughout the year, due to the harsh economic conditions. When looking at the highlighted percentiles, it is evident that the high volatility in the market also caused high volatility in hedge fund returns, independent of the strategy. This is most relevant for long short equity strategies whose returns vary between +30% (upper percentile) and -10% (lower percentile) in 2021. Figures 9 to 13 highlight the SMC Strategy Indices in 2021 compared to their benchmarks. The SMC Credit Strategy Index gained slightly more than 5% in 2021, although the variation across strategies is substantial. Two strategies, Trade Finance Crypto and European High Yield L/S Credit did very well in the economic environment, as they reached returns above 12% and 19% in 2021. The Trade Finance Strategy is in particular remarkable, as the strategy has not experienced a negative month since its inception in 2017. The SMC Equity Strategy Index gained closely less than 10%, which is around as much as the average equity strategy in 2021. Within the sector, there was also considerable volatility, due to the sub-strategies. Unsurprisingly, the Equities US Activist Event-Driven performed best with a return exceeding 33%. More tech-focused strategies faced more issues but returned closely below 10% after an extremely successful 2020. Global macro strategies had a tough year and closed only slightly positive for the year. The SMC Global Macro Strategy Index is up almost 37% in 2021, which is largely due to the Discretionary Global Macro Strategy achieving a return of almost 70%. To nobody’s surprise, cryptocurrency strategies performed best in 2021. The SMC Cryptocurrency Strategy Index gained more than 212% in 2021. In the space, it was most important to hold a diversified account of cryptocurrencies to achieve such a great return, as Bitcoin (BTC) gained only 60%. The most successful strategies in the space focused on riskier tokens. The Token and Token Liquid strategies gained 295% and 385% respectively. Despite the great results of 2021, the gains are still inferior to the 342% in 2020. The developments in the crypto space will be discussed in a further paragraph. Lastly, another indicator that the industry is in a healthy state is the fact that the number of launches substantially exceed the liquidations and the number of active funds has reached an all-time high of 22,081.
Alternative Markets Outlook 2022
2021 was firmly in the grasp of Covid-19 through the Delta and Omicron strain. Although Covid-19 was managed solidly, the imposed restrictions and the economic interventions have severely impacted the economy and society. Not only has inflation skyrocketed but it is also likely to persist for quite some time. In January 2021, the US CPI was at 1.4% and rose to 6.8% in November 2021. In Europe, the situation looks similar, although the initial surge started earlier in the US and currently Europe’s inflation is lower with 4.9% in November 2021. In 2022, inflation will prevail with even higher levels in early 2022 with a realistic chance to subside towards the latter part of 2022. This rather grim outlook is largely in line with the observation during 2021, when inflation targets were mostly too low and the estimated time period were too short. The US will probably experience slightly higher levels, due to the larger extent of money printing to fight Covid-19 originally. Central bank intervention will be reduced to normal levels in the latter part of 2022. It has been already announced that they will scale back their asset buying programs but not entirely. Depending on how Covid-19 is evolving, it seems reasonable that towards the end of 2022, these programs will be discontinued. Aside from these monetary interventions, there were also substantial fiscal interventions, as shown in Figure 1. Figure 1 depicts the US national debt and the increase of additional trillion of debt. Since Covid-19 emerged, six additional trillions were spent to fight the immediate impact. In particular, the speed at which the money was spent is remarkable. While it took between 30 and 300 days for an additional trillion during Covid-19, it took between 170 and 320 days during the global financial crisis in 2008. The measure undertaken to fight Covid-19 are massive but they have helped the economy to bounce back. Among others, the development of the employment is largely desirable. For example, in the US, the unemployment rate was reduced to 4.2% from its peak of more than 14% in 2020. Equity markets, which have contributed in a major fashion to the overall success of 2021, will be largely impacted by Covid-19 in 2022. This was once again observable in November 2021 when Omicron emerged. Assuming a positive development, it is likely that equity markets will keep rising, although at a normal pace below unlike 2020 and 2021. Figure 2 and 3 show the S&P 500 and the Euronext 100 indices over the past two years. Since January 2020, the S&P 500 gained 47.5%, while the Euronext 100 gained 18.9%. The gains since their bottom in March 2020 are 118.4% for the S&P 500 and 86.0% for the Euronext 100. One potential reason for the strong growth in 2020 and 2021 may be due to expected inflation ahead, which is compensated by higher nominal gains. This effect is likely to fade given the enormous growth numbers in 2021 which have given rise to doubts about the sustainability of these profits alongside fears of another financial bubble. This is in particular true for industries that have benefited from Covid-19, such as technology. One example of seemingly unhealthy gain is Tesla, which is up more than 1,000% since Covid-19 emerged. The companies benefiting from Covid-19 should be viewed with caution, while companies that were negatively affected by Covid-19 certainly involve less risk. A negative development with the handling of Covid-19 could turn the situation upside down again and trigger similar effects as in March 2020. This may occur, for example, if a new strain emerges with a substantially increased fatality rate, is spread relatively easily and vaccinations are of only mediocre effectiveness against the new strain. Yet, this scenario is rather unlikely given that with each wave, the number of infections remains at a relatively similar level, while hospitalizations and fatalities decline. Furthermore, virus strains that spread more easily, such as Omicron, frequently are less deadly. These two observations favour the good scenario going forward. In an environment of high volatility and many opportunities, alternative assets are well positioned. Figure 4 highlights the volatility in the market measured by the VIX. Since the occurrence of Covid-19, the volatility in markets has never reached levels prior to Covid-19, although there has been a massive improvement. From the peak in March 2020 and a level of more than 80, markets have stabilized between 15 and 25 in quiet times with occasional spikes. With regards to alternative assets, 2020 and 2021 were highly beneficial for several reasons. Firstly, in crises, actively managed vehicles are of increased interest as they try to mitigate the negative impact of the crisis. Secondly, due to the nature of being a healthcare crisis, this brings many opportunities with it. Thirdly, the substantial uncertainty in markets also favour alternative assets, as for example, private equity funds are less sensitive to significant short-term volatility. 2021 was especially profitable for the private equity and hedge fund industry, which make up the largest part of alternative assets. In the following sections, hedge funds, private equity, private debt and crypto assets are discussed in a more detailed fashion.