A Battle Royale of alternative warriors

ItÆs a royal rumble. Grapplers from each of the main alternative asset classes square off to determine who will be the future champs.

In the rough and tumble of alternatives, the question of 'which one of us should get the new capital?' is not one that is often discussed publicly, because it is rare that representatives from each of the five separate disciplines climb into the ring together. A dollar that goes to a private equity fund means that a hedge fund manager's kids don't get to eat a meal. This is more than just business.

At AsianInvestor's fourth annual investment summit, a quintet of alternatives heavyweights went nose to nose in the big smackdown. Who is the greatest?

Distressed: the 'Superfly Jimmy Snuka' type

Andrew Ho

Distressed is nearly ready to rock and roll. Distressed managers are salivating over the upcoming bedlam of wrecked companies that they can reconfigure. They think the value there is possibly better than in the public markets.

"The onus is on hedge fund managers to prove that they can deliver more than an investor can receive from taking a passive stance," says Andrew Ho, distressed expert from Lakeville Capital Management. "There is some confidence returning in risk appetite, but a lot less than there used to be. The foreign and big international hedge funds have gone home, just leaving one man and a Bloomberg."

Some of the big international funds named might take issue with that. But they weren't there to apply a counter move.

Hedge funds: The 'Ultimate Warrior' type

Aaron Boesky

The gladiator storming out of the hedge fund corner is Aaron Boesky of A-share fund Marco Polo.

"The world is about to reward youth. The greying economies don't have a good prognosis, and higher returns and liquidity are going to be in markets that are demographically younger," he says, pointing out that Shanghai market turnover has been four times that of Hong Kong, and recently exceeded the Tokyo market for a spell. "My competition is more from ETFs, but they are so much more volatile than hedge fund investments, and prone to big swings in premiums and discounts. For the next cycle, I don't think private equity will pull in as much new capital as hedge funds."

He explained that private equity had been issuing capital calls to investors through the crisis, who had in turn used their hedge fund investments as their liquidity ATM in order to meet those calls. That being the case, investors might logically feel exhausted, private equitied-out, and keen to replenish their liquid portfolios.

Private equity: The 'Fabulous Moolah' type

Rebecca Xu

"Well it cuts both ways," rebuts Rebecca Xu, of Asia Alternatives in Hong Kong. "But yes, there was pressure from investors directed at private equity for them to cut back on requirements. Still, looking at our year end marks-to-market, the write-downs were low on the intrinsic value of our private equity portfolio. Asian private equity investments were not as burdened with leverage as elsewhere in the world."

Did private equity mark down its positions properly, and take the hit as listed equity funds did? Some observers feel that they ought to have done so squarely, and any excuses that 'our positions are different because', was unsporting.

Property: the 'Macho Man Randy Savage' type

Nicholas Wong

Real estate was keeping it real, and pointing out that their industry was still deleveraging, vacancy rates were going up, rentals were going down and, every quarter, negative revaluations landed on the desk. As with any asset, leverage magnifies the gains on property in the same way as it magnifies losses, but nobody was going to buy a property with 100% equity.

So, the armlock for property is, as ING Real Estate's Nicholas Wong explains, if you are in possession of the cash and can enter the market right now. "If you've got cash capital now, you can pick up a property portfolio at such a discount that by virtue of that purchase price, you still get a high yield"

Infrastructure: the 'Andre the Giant' type

David Russell 

Representing the infrastructure behemoth was Macquarie Capital. Infrastructure is blockier and bulkier in the alternatives world, compared to the nippier hedge fund types, and so it is a difficult match up and comparison. David Russell whaled on his listed infrastructure brethren.

"There's been trouble in the listed infrastructure area. Inexperienced managers, overleveraging and getting over-excited about potential margins," he observes, pointing out the collapse of Babcock and Brown among others. "I expect a move to the unlisted infrastructure side. There's going to be a lot of opportunities thanks to government spending and the China/India bling story."

So there are the contenders. No steel chair shots please. Our alternatives title belt will be up for grabs in the next few months as the credit crisis resolves.

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