Hedge fund cuts China stock exposure to zero seeing worse year than 2008

Unpredictable events like the conflict in Ukraine and the surge in Covid-19 cases have blindsided China's money managers. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - As China's markets gyrate following Covid-19 outbreaks and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, one of the nation's best-performing macro hedge funds is bracing for more pain.

Shanghai Banxia Investment Management Centre, which topped local rankings in 2020, has cut its stock exposure to zero in anticipation of a worsening economy and further declines in equities, founder Li Bei said. The fund, which manages more than five billion yuan (S$1.06 billion), has also closed almost all short positions in commodities after rising prices led to losses.

This year "could be even worse for fund managers than 2008", when, even during the global financial crisis, holding government bonds could still be a winning strategy, Ms Li said in an interview this month. "It's now very difficult to find a place where they can make money."

Unpredictable events like the war in Ukraine and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant have blindsided China's money managers best trained to capture opportunities across asset classes. Macro funds, which often trade in equity, bond and commodity markets, averaged a 7.4 per cent loss in the first quarter, the worst performance among eight hedge fund strategies, according to Shenzhen PaiPaiWang Investment & Management.

DH Fund Management, a macro fund managing more than 10 billion yuan, apologised to investors and cut management fees this month after steep losses.

Ms Li's low-volatility Banxia Macro Fund, which jumped 60 per cent last year, lost about 7 per cent in the first quarter. It made a 258 per cent gain in 2020 after ditching a strategy similar to that of Bridgewater Associates. Bridgewater's onshore China funds gained 4.8 per cent in the last quarter, according to PaiPaiWang.

While Ms Li said zero stock exposure is nothing unprecedented in her career as a macro manager, such a stance contrasts with peers that have been buying stocks, especially after Vice-Premier Liu He's pledge of support spurred a rally in March that is now losing steam. Top quantitative funds also said their stock positions remained full during the declines, with some buying the dip.

"People are a bit too optimistic," Ms Li said by phone during a citywide lockdown.

The highly contagious Omicron means that China's Covid-19-zero stance requires Shanghai citizens "to make sacrifices, the economy to experience a bigger impact, and more listed companies to also suffer certain losses", she wrote in a recent WeChat article. Fund managers in the city, who have to worry about economic fluctuations while coping with Covid-19 tests and searching for food, "are indeed exhausted", she added.

Shanghai hosts 2,245 hedge funds, about a quarter of the nation's total, according to PaiPaiWang data.

While the possibility of more, and prolonged, lockdowns threatens to slow the economy further, room to stimulate growth is constrained by high commodity prices and a shrinking interest rate spread with the United States as the Federal Reserve speeds up hikes, Ms Li said.

Adding leverage is hardly a feasible option because local governments' debts are already high and households' desire to borrow mortgages has weakened, she said.

Investors have resumed selling Chinese stocks after last month's vow to stabilise markets yielded few concrete measures. The People's Bank of China this month lowered the amount of cash that lenders set aside as reserves but refrained from cutting interest rates.

The benchmark CSI 300 Index slumped as much as 2.7 per cent on Monday, erasing the rally since mid-March as news that lockdowns were spreading to Beijing sent stocks, commodities and the renminbi tumbling. 

Ms Li is betting the central bank will have to start cutting rates later in the year - probably after commodity prices subside - boosting bonds. "Otherwise, there is no way out," she said, adding that she has put most of Banxia's money in government notes, especially those with tenures not longer than five years.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.