Absolute Returns
A hedge fund must be evaluated based on absolute returns, but those returns also need to be consistent with the fund's strategy. There are funds that employ strategies that generate very consistent returns over time with limited volatility. An example of this type of fund is an asset-backed lending fund that makes loans and collects payments that are predictable and consistent over time. These funds can generate anywhere from 8 to 12% per year and are often used as a substitute for fixed income, when fixed income is not attractive.

There are other fund strategies that should have similar returns and there are also strategies that should generate higher returns, albeit with much higher volatility. In either case, a hedge fund that describes its strategy as pursuing absolute returns should always have positive returns over 12-month periods, for example. Most hedge funds fall short of these expectations, but in a perfect world, absolute returns should be positive and consistent.

The Sharpe Ratio
One metric that is widely used in the hedge fund world is the Sharpe ratio. The Sharpe ratio measures the amount of return adjusted for each level of risk taken. It is calculated by subtracting the risk-free rate from annualized returns and dividing the result by the standard deviation of the returns. This metric can be applied across hedge funds with different levels of returns and volatility to determine whether the hedge fund is generating any alpha (excess return) by taking on additional risk. A good Sharpe ratio will vary by strategy and anything above 1 tends to be an attractive return. As with other measures, however, the following analysis should be conducted using Sharpe ratio, as well as pure returns metrics.

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