Outside Economics

Alternative Investments

Posted by Wendell Brock, MBA, ChFC on Thu, May 01, 2014

With bonds yielding almost nothing and stocks looking fully valued by most measures, investors need more choices. Fortunately, they’re out there. For decades, the biggest institutional investors have used alternative investment strategies to generate higher returns, with less risk, than standard portfolios.  Today, most of these strategies and asset types are available to Main Street, often through ETF’s or mutual funds or similar investor-friendly formats. But, like any investment, you need to inform yourself.alternative assets

Master Limited Partnerships

MLPs (master limited partnerships) are a type of limited partnership that is publicly traded. There are two types of partners in this type of partnership: The limited partner is the person or group that provides the capital to the MLP and receives periodic income distributions from the MLP's cash flow, whereas the general partner is the party responsible for managing the MLP's affairs and receives compensation that is linked to the performance of the venture.

One of the most crucial criteria that must be met in order for a partnership to be legally classified as an MLP is that the partnership must derive most (~90%) of its cash flows from real estate, natural resources and commodities.  Congress established these special vehicles in the '80s to spur investment in energy infrastructure, and that’s just what this rapidly expanding industry needs today: money for drills, pipelines, and storage, etc. The advantage of an MLP is that it combines the tax benefits of a limited partnership (the partnership does not pay taxes on the profits - the money is only taxed when unit-holders receive distributions) with the liquidity of a publicly traded company.

Long/Short Funds

Long/short funds are the mutual fund industry's attempt to bring some of the advantages of a hedge fund to the common investor. Most long/short funds feature higher liquidity than hedge funds, no lock-in period and lower fees. However, they still have higher fees and less liquidity than most mutual funds. Unlike most mutual funds, long/short funds often require a minimum investment of more than $1,000.

Long/short funds aren't allowed to use as many derivative and short positions nor as much leverage as hedge funds, but they do provide some diversification to the average investor in down markets. Today, several high-quality mutual funds offer access to this strategy but still provide all the usual mutual fund benefits, including daily valuation and liquidity. While these funds won’t keep up with the market during big bull runs, they should significantly outperform it on the downside.

Private Equity

Private equity has been the top performing asset class for big investors for a long time, but it has been a tough area for regular investors to participate in. That’s changing. Private equity consists of investors and funds that make investments directly into private companies or conduct buyouts of public companies that result in a de-listing of a publicly traded entity. Capital for private equity is raised from retail and institutional investors, and can be used to fund new technologies, expand working capital within an owned company, make acquisitions, or to strengthen a balance sheet.

The majority of private equity consists of institutional investors and accredited investors who can commit large sums of money for long periods of time. Private equity investments often demand long holding periods to allow for a turnaround of a distressed company or a liquidity event such as an IPO or sale to a public company.


Most collectible assets classes -- memorabilia, jewelry, cars -- should be looked at as hobbies with an upside. These can be fun to get into, but they’re really not suitable for people just looking for returns. This type of investing requires an extremely deep understanding of the particular collectible, the market and the capital. This can be a very illiquid area of investing. I knew a fellow early in my career, who had an amazing collection of over 500 Lugar Pistols, many had been owned by famous people, but he couldn’t sell the collection. A nearly $500,000 investment with no way to convert it to cash.

Art may be an exception. Art has been recognized as a store of value for centuries in almost every civilization, and there are several high quality funds that specialize in this (some even lend out its art to its investors). The trick is to invest behind someone who is both a true expert and an experienced, trusted fiduciary.

Angel Investing

An angel investor or angel (also known as a business angel or informal investor) is an affluent individual who provides capital for a business start-up, usually in exchange for convertible debt or ownership equity. A small but increasing number of angel investors organize themselves into angel groups or angel networks to share research and pool their investment capital, as well as to provide advice to their portfolio companies.

Angel investing is exciting but risky. Most angel investors will tell you they expect a return ratio of one third, one third, one third. One third of his/her investments make money, one third go bust, one third plod along. But stats indicate that serious angels can achieve internal rate of return of well over 20%, which is obviously very attractive. Probably the best way into the field for new investors is to join a professional angel group.  To find a group to join, you can go through the Angel Capital Association.

If you’re going it alone, make sure a start-up can clearly explain the problem they’re solving, the solution they propose, why their team can handle it, the size of the market, and what the competition looks like. Two more tips: the first money into a start-up should be from a small “friends and family” round (not from you!). And the second is to be sure to keep more money ready for the next round, because the start-up will need it and you may want to invest more.

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Like any investment, it is important that you know exactly what you are getting involved in and it is critical to clearly understand the exit strategy – how do you get out of the investment? Or how do you cash out? This and the time commitment arvery important, are you committing your money for 3 years, 5 years, or 10 years, the longer the commitment period the greater the return should be. You will want to counsel with an experienced financial consultant who is experienced in the type of investment you are pursuing.

Topics: Bonds, Master Limited Partnerships, MLP's, Collectibles, Angel Investors, Private Equity, Stocks, Institutional Investors, MLPs


Wendell W. Brock, MBA, ChFC

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