- Waking up to hedge funds : is U.S. regulation taking a new direction? (2003)
- In response to recent developments in the financial markets and the stunning growth of the hedge fund industry in the United States, policy makers, most notably the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), are turning their attention to the regulation, or lack thereof, of hedge funds. U.S. regulators have scrutinized the hedge fund industry on several occasions in the recent past without imposing substantial regulatory constraints. Will this time be any different? The focus of the regulators’ interest has shifted. Traditionally, they approached the hedge fund industry by focusing on systemic risk to and integrity of the financial markets. The current inquiry is almost exclusively driven by investor protection concerns. What has changed? First, since 2000, new kinds of investors have poured capital into hedge funds in the United States, facilitated by the “retailization” of hedge funds through the development of funds of hedge funds and the dismal performance of the stock market. Second, in a post-Enron era, regulators and policy makers are increasingly sensitive to investor protection concerns. On May 14 and 15, 2003, the SEC held for the first time a public roundtable discussion on the single topic of hedge funds. Among the investor protection concerns highlighted were: an increase in incidents of fraud, inadequate suitability determinations by brokers who market hedge fund interests to individual investors, conflicts of interest of managers who manage mutual funds and hedge funds side-by-side, a lack of transparency that hinders investors from making informed investment decisions, layering of fees, and unbounded discretion by managers in pricing private hedge fund securities. Although there has been discussion about imposing wide-ranging restrictions onhedge funds, such as reining in short selling, requiring disclosure of long/short positions and limiting leverage, such a response would be heavy-handed and probably unnecessary. The existing regulatory regime is largely adequate to address the most flagrant abuses. Moreover, as the hedge fund market further matures, it is likely that institutional investors will continue to weed out weak performers and mediocre or dishonest hedge fund managers. What is likely to emerge from the newest regulatory focus on investor protection is a measured response that would enhance the SEC’s enforcement and inspection authority, while leaving hedge funds’ inherent investment flexibility largely unfettered. A likely scenario, for example, might be a requirement that some, or possibly all, hedge fund sponsors register with the SEC as investment advisers. Today, most are exempt from registration, although more and more are registering to provide advice to public hedge funds and attract institutions. Registration would make it easier for the SEC to ferret out potential fraudsters in advance by reviewing the professional history of hedge fund operators, allow the SEC to bring administrative proceedings against hedge fund advisers for statutory violations and give the agency access to books and records that it does not have today. Other possible initiatives, including additional disclosure requirements for publicly offered hedge funds, are discussed below. This article addresses the question whether U.S. regulation of hedge funds is really taking a new direction. It (i) provides a brief overview of the current U.S. regulatory scheme, from which hedge funds are generally exempt, (ii) describes recent events in the United States that have contributed to regulators’ anxiety, (iii) examines the investor protection rationale for hedge fund regulation and considers whether these concerns do, in fact, merit increased regulation of hedge funds at this time, and (iv) considers the likelihood and possible scope of a potential regulatory response, principally by the SEC.