“Hard To Obtain Liquidity” – South Korea’s Largest Hedge Fund Halts Redemptions

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“Hard To Obtain Liquidity” – South Korea’s Largest Hedge Fund Halts Redemptions

First it was the shocking junk bond fiasco at Third Avenue which led to a premature end for the asset manager, then the three largest UK property funds suddenly froze over $12 billion in assets in the aftermath of the Brexit vote; two years later the Swiss multi-billion fund manager GAM blocked redemptions, followed by iconic UK investor Neil Woodford also suddenly gating investors despite representations of solid returns and liquid assets, and most recently the ill-named, Nataxis-owned H20 Asset Management decided to freeze redemptions. Most recently, Arrowgrass Capital Partners shuttered when it slashed the valuation of its stake in Britain’s oldest surviving amusement park, piling further losses on investors in Nick Niell’s closed hedge fund.

By this point, a pattern had emerged, one which Bank of England Governor Mark Carney described best when he said that investment funds that promise to allow customers to withdraw their money on a daily basis are “built on a lie.” At roughly the same time, the chief investment officer of Europe’s biggest independent asset manager agreed with him, because while for much of 2019 the biggest risk bogeymen were corporate credit, leveraged loans, and trillions in negative yielding debt, gradually consensus emerged that investment funds themselves – and specifically their illiquid investments- gradually emerged as the basis for the next financial crisis.

“There is no point denying we are faced with a looming liquidity mismatch problem,” said Pascal Blanque, who oversees more than 1.4 trillion euros ($1.6 trillion) as the CIO of Amundi SA, adding that the prospect of melting liquidity is one of “various things keeping me awake at night.”

Fast forward to today and South Korea’s largest hedge fund the latest reminder to investors just how toxic the threat of illiquid securities is.

As Bloomberg reports, Lime Asset Management, South Korea’s largest hedge fund with about $4 billion of assets, suspended withdrawals from more funds on Monday, freezing a total of $710 million of its portfolio, after the firm said last week it couldn’t sell assets fast enough to meet redemption demands.

The hedge fund halted an additional 243.6 billion won ($210 million) today after freezing funds worth 603 billion won on Oct. 10, Won Jong-Jun, chief executive officer at the Seoul-based firm, said in a press briefing this afternoon.

“Due to the recent drop in the Kosdaq market and also declines in stocks of companies we’ve invested in, it became hard to obtain liquidity by converting the bonds into the stocks as we planned,” Won said at the briefing.

A further 489 billion won of funds may also be restricted from withdrawals, he said.

“Because of the issues at Lime, other hedge funds that had no problem with their convertibles may face doubts from investors who may be reluctant to keep investing in CBs,” said Kim Pil-kyu, senior research fellow at Korea Capital Market Institute. “Maybe we need to make this bond market more transparent, but it won’t be that easy.”

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Incidentally, for those wondering if liquidity remains an illusion – a test that can only be confirmed when there is a crash and the market is indefinitely halted, an outcome that is now virtually inevitable – Deutsche Bank has a simple test: it all has to do with the sequence of events unleashed by widening spreads, where redemptions and first movers rush to sell, collapsing the market’s liquidity, freezing refinancings, and resulting in a surge in defaults and firesales, which in turn leads to even wider spreads and so on, until central banks have to step in to short circuit this toxic loop.

This also explains why GAM, Woodford, H20, Arrowgrass and many more funds (in the near future), will be similarly gated once their investors discover there is no liquidity to sell into and the only “real time” liquidity is offered to those who have a “first seller mover advantage”, to wit:

  • If investors anticipate severe losses on the fund’s investments, they could be incentivised to “run for the exit” to be the first to redeem their shares.
  • The first-mover advantage in open-ended funds arises because losses on asset sales to meet redemptions are incurred by investors which remain in the fund.
  • As in a ‘bank run’, the asset manager is, in principle, forced to sell assets in a fire sale in order to meet its short-dated liabilities

This dramatic imbalance of asset holdings at market making banks and buyside “bagholders” of illiquid securities, is now posing a major problem for regulators, something the Bank of England acknowledged in a working paper published earlier this month, and highlighted by Mark Gilbert, to wit: “as the funds industry has supplanted banks as a source of credit in the past decade, households and companies have benefited from a useful alternative source of financing. But, the report warned, we don’t know how this market-based system will respond under stress.”

Modelling such a scenario “can generate an adverse feedback loop in which lower asset prices cause solvency/liquidity constraints to bind, pushing asset prices lower still,” the BOE found. In other words, the new market structure may be worse than the old.

And, as recent notable fund “gates” and/or collapses have shown, the difficulty for asset managers in such an eventuality is finding sufficient cash to repay exiting investors while preserving the structure of the portfolio without distorting market prices, according to Amundi’s Blanque.

According to Bloomberg, part of Amundi’s response to this seemingly intractable issue is to include liquidity buffers in its portfolios, which may mean holding securities such as German bunds and U.S. Treasuries, which should always trade freely. But the industry needs to come up with a common definition so that liquidity is included along with risk and return when assessing a portfolio’s robustness, Blanque says. Additionally, this band aid only works for modest redemptions. A wholesale liquidation would crush even the most “buffered” up fund.

For now, asset managers have to cope with what Blanque called “the sacred cow” – although a better phrase would be “constant risk” of allowing clients to withdraw funds on a daily basis.

“It is a bomb, given the risks of liquidity mismatch,” he warns.

“We don’t know if what is sellable today will be sellable in six months’ time.”

That’s not the only we don’t know. As Blanque concluded, “we don’t know the channels of transmission, we don’t know how the actors will act. It is uncharted territory.”

And that, precisely, is why central banks can never again allow risk asset prices to drop: the alternative means gating not one, or two, or a hundred funds, but halting the entire market, because once everyone start selling and price discovery finally returns to a market that has been dominated by central banks for the past decade, several generations of traders and investors who have grown up without price discovery will be shocked to discover just where “fair” market prices reside.

Tyler Durden

Mon, 10/14/2019 – 19:30

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