Neil Woodford's Fall From Grace "Could Be Systemic Moment" For Fund Management Industry

As we reported on Monday, redemptions from Woodford's flagship fund were suspended to allow the manager "time to reposition the element of the fund's portfolio invested in unquoted and less liquid stocks, in to more liquid investments."

Then it got worse, as the shocking blocking of redemptions from Neil Woodford's, £3.7bn Woodford Equity Income Fund - after serial underperformance led to an investor exodus - continued sending shockwaves across the US asset management arena two days after it  was first reported.

"I can’t remember anything quite like this" said Peter Walls, veteran manager of the Unicorn Mastertrust fund, after trading in Woodford's fund was suspended. "I mean going back over decades really, there were quite a few funds that just didn’t pick up the telephone and suspended dealing in the dark days of the crash of '87 and black Monday and all that but this is quite big stuff," he said in an interview with CityWire.

And now, the fallout and post-mortem (perhaps premature as this is far from over) begins as Shard Capital's Bill Blain reflects on Neil Woodford's fall from grace:

It’s a tad cruel, but a few months ago I was at a meeting at the University Investment Management advisory group, and we were reviewing post-grad research proposals. One of them was a semi-serious proposal to analyse Neil Woodford’s performance a fund manager; the aim would be to rate Woodford buy investments as reliable sell signals. Oh… how we giggled...

Woodford’s tumble from grace may prove to be a systemic moment for the fund management industry. Other funds, set up to mimic Woodford, have also gated themselves. I would not like to be Hargreaves Lansdown or St James when customers start to question fee arrangements and their roles directing them into Woodford funds. The Investment Association is concerned about the reputational damage Woodford’s done to the retail investment sector. (No Sh*t Award on its way…) The FCA wants to know if Woodford broke rules capping investments in unlisted assets… Maybe not, but he clearly arbed them.

It’s worth remembering it was the gating of ABS funds that presaged the last big crisis… just saying…

The crisis at Woodford was one of liquidity – the pace of withdrawals exceeded his ability to liquidate assets. Much the same thing happened to GAM last year when investor withdrawals following the dismissal of a fund manager effectively crushed its’ liquidity and removed GAM as a player.

Both Gam and Woodford effectively made the same mistake: dressing up wholly illiquid assets as liquid ones, and that investments theoretically compliant with Ucits are liquid. Both of them were caught. Woodford had the extra issue that his investments were just plain bad. The liquidity illusion is a particularly dangerous one – listing a stock in Guernsey, or a bond on an obscure Danish exchange does not make it liquid. But it might be enough to get the investor buying it to tick the box saying Ucits compliant.

There are no liquidity guarantees - assets becomes impossible to sell under 2 scenarios: i) a general market shutdown, or ii) a whiff of scandal around the holder’s name.. For the last few months folk have been waiting for Woodford to crash… It became inevitable.

There is serious regulatory danger here – regulators are going to sniff around the Woodford wreckage and conclude current rules on investing in “illiquid” assets need to be tightened. They will congratulate themselves mightily when new rules effectively ban investments in anything except FTSE 100 stocks and bonds that can prove they are actively traded. They will hi-five themselves on a job-well-dome making investment safer.

Of course, they will also be closing financial markets to any but the largest borrowers, thus effectively killing growth across the economy. The over-hasty post crisis regulation in 2009 did much the same thing – new bank capital rules forced banks to stop taking risk in their lending, which crushed property and development lending. Eventually we’ve seen new lenders emerge (and look how successful direct lending by crowd funding has been (US readers: sarcasm alert) – Lendy went into Admin last week.

SME lending is developing in some very interesting directions (including Shards own SME lending fund, Shard Capital Partners), but removing banks from the lending markets was… unhelpful a few years back. Even less safe has been moving risk from banks to the investment management community. While banks were prepared and able to deal with default through all its stages, I doubt the fund management side is.

When do you buy illiquid assets and how should you manage them? The second part of that question is honestly: explain exactly why you are buying illiquid assets, and be honest about your expectations they are buy and hold to maturity conviction purchases. The “why buy illiquid assets” question is far easier – you buy them because of the investment characteristics they exhibit: for instance being de-correlated from financial assets (stocks and shares), because the yield on real assets greatly exceeds the miserable QE distorted returns on liquid assets, etc. The regulators aren’t so keen on that kind of thing….

The bottom line is that investors can’t live (actually, plan their retirements) on “liquid assets” when bonds are retuning nothing and stocks are generally so overpriced. That’s why I’m focused on real decorrelated assets in the Alternatives Space. Sure, it’s tough when most investors dismiss them because they are illiquid, aren’t rated, are complex, etc, etc, but the smart ones.. well they are the smart ones… Unfortunately, the regulations demand otherwise.

Out of time, and back to the day job, which is selling an 8%+ aviation asset today!

As we said yesterday, the only question is when this next fund will itself be permanently gated, as will Woodford's career in the asset management industry.

Meanwhile, as we first said on Monday, what is most bizarre about this latest hedge fund fiasco is that the gating takes place with global markets still just shy of all time highs. One can only imagine what will happen to the rest of the hedge fund sector if the current swoon accelerates and drops another 5%, 10% or more, sending other hedge funds scrambling to liquidate their own holdings of the most crowded stocks. Those who succeed to sell first, they just may survive to fight another day.