What Is a High-Water Mark?

A high-water mark is the highest peak in value that an investment fund or account has reached. This term is often used in the context of fund manager compensation, which is performance-based. The high-water mark ensures the manager does not get paid large sums for poor performance. If the manager loses money over a period, he must get the fund above the high-water mark before receiving a performance bonus from the assets under management (AUM).

1:15

High-Water Mark

Key Takeaways

  • A high-water mark is the highest level in value an investment account or fund has reached.
  • A high-water mark is often used as a demarcation point in determining performance fees that an investor must pay.
  • The purpose is to protect investors from paying a fee for poor performance, and from paying a fee repeatedly every time the fund earns a profit.
  • With a high-water mark, the investor pays a fee that only covers the amount the fund earned between the point of entry and its highest level.

Understanding High-Water Mark

A high-water mark ensures that investors do not have to pay performance fees for poor performance, but, more importantly, guarantees that investors do not pay performance-based fees twice for the same amount of performance.

A high-water mark is different from a hurdle rate, which is the lowest amount of profit or returns a hedge fund has to earn to charge an incentive fee.

High-Water Mark Example

For example, assume an investor is invested in a hedge fund that charges a 20% performance fee, which is quite typical in the industry. Assume the investor places $500,000 into the fund, and, during its first month, the fund earns a 15% return. Thus, the investor's original investment is worth $575,000. The investor owes a 20% fee on this $75,000 gain, which equates to $15,000.

At this point, the high-water mark for this particular investor is $575,000, and the investor is obligated to pay $15,000 to the portfolio manager.

Next, assume the fund loses 20% in the next month. The investor's account drops to a value of $460,000. This is where the importance of the high-water mark is noted. A performance fee does not have to be paid on any gains from $460,000 to $575,000, only after the high-water mark amount. Assume that in the third month the fund unexpectedly earns a profit of 50%. In this unlikely case, the value of the investor's account rises from $460,000 to $690,000. Without a high-water mark in place, the investor owes the original $15,000 fee, plus 20% on the gain from $460,000 to $690,000, which equates to 20% on a gain of $230,000, or an additional $46,000 in performance fees.

Value of a High-Water Mark

The high-water mark prevents this "double fee" from occurring. With a high-water mark in place, all gains from $460,000 to $575,000 are disregarded, but gains above the high-water mark are subject to the performance-based fee. In this example, beyond the original $15,000 performance-based fee, this investor owes 20% on the gains from $575,000 to $690,000, which is an additional $23,000.

In total, with a high-water mark in place, the investor owes $38,000 in performance fees, which is $690,000 less than the original investment of $500,000 multiplied by 20%. Without a high-water mark in place, which is below industry standards, the investor owes a 20% performance fee on all gains, which equates to $61,000. The value of a high-water mark is unquestionable.

A high-water mark both protects the fund's investors from double fees and motivates the fund's managers to perform well, in order to earn fees.

A High-Water Mark and the "Free Ride" 

Several things can happen when an investor enters a fund during a period of under-performance. For instance, at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, an investor who buys into the fund at a net asset value (NAV) below the high-water mark will enjoy the upside from the subscription NAV to the high-water mark without paying a fee. This situation is known as a "free ride." It allows new investors to benefit from buying into an under-performing fund without penalizing existing investors. Other funds may avoid the "free ride" by charging a performance fee for any positive performance.