Due to government restrictions and social distancing recommendations, all our networking events in Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia are currently on hold. We are monitoring the situation and hope to be able to resume our event schedule soon.
Monthly Archives: May 2021
Jason Topaz, the former CTO at hedge fund Horizon Asset International in Tokyo, talks to HFC boss Stefan Nilsson about the role of technology in the hedge fund industry. Prior to joining Horizon in 2009, Jason was Head of Technology at JD Capital and has previously worked at Azimuth Trust, Intelligent Markets and Long-Term Capital Management. The Harvard-educated Jason started his career at Goldman Sachs in 1993.
In your many years as CTO and tech/IT/programming roles at hedge funds, investment management firms and financial institutions, what has been the biggest technology-driven change you have seen in the industry?
It’s always tempting to point to specific technical changes, e.g. the increasing affordability of storage and fast computing resources, mobile technology, or the public cloud. These all truly are game-changers. However, I think they all contribute to a bigger theme that’s changed the fund industry, which is the democratisation of technology and data. It’s happening at two different levels. At an industry level, the playing field’s been levelled quite a bit between large firms with massive resources, going all the way down to startups. You see way more “hedge fund quality” third party software solutions provided by vendors, and that means small guys can benefit from economies of scale, sharing the R&D costs of some pretty fancy stuff with other firms. As another example, the public cloud’s “rental” model means that both small and large firms can be way more agile than before, avoiding long buildouts and capital expenditures. I helped out on a speculative project recently in which I estimated purchasing the equipment was likely in the hundred-thousand-dollar range, with at least a month needed for acquisition and setup. Instead, we threw it into the cloud with one of the big providers and had it running the same day. We managed to rack up a bill of only a few thousand dollars before we concluded the experimental system was not a fit for us and shut it down with very few tears shed! At a staff level, what’s happened is that really everybody has become technologists, to a degree. We’ve moved into a self-service world, with staff on just about any team you can imagine – trading, legal, middle office, HR – able to harness proprietary and market data and do some really snazzy analysis ranging from old-fashioned spreadsheets up to fancy interactive visualisations. With no help from the friendly neighbourhood IT guy needed. The technology team’s role, in many cases, is to “liberate” the data so the rest of the business can apply their analytical skills to it. This change is happening not just because of better tech tools, but also because of far better tech skill sets among professionals who are not full-time techies.
What are the big tech threats to fund managers’ operations? Is it cyber attacks or less sexy things such as systems going down and firms not being prepared for business continuity?
Stefan, it’s way less sexy than you even imagined! I think the biggest tech-related threat is becoming the compliance and legal implications of the way systems are run. The dizzying array of regulations, licensing and IP concerns, and other contractual issues – especially for a fund in multiple regulatory jurisdictions – is just starting to be recognised, I think. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a fund – despite their best intentions – that’s not at least accidentally in violation of something tech-related that could lead to serious financial, legal, or reputational risk. Staying on top of these issues is a cross-disciplinary problem. Technology leaders need to form great relationships across business units and departments, particularly compliance and legal, to achieve enough information sharing and mutual education to avoid pitfalls. Are your traders storing market data in a way that risks a million dollar fine by the exchange when they audit your systems? Has somebody on your IT infrastructure team pushed a button and moved backups of the firm’s books and records to a part of the cloud, without realising this needed a filing with a regulator? Or that it violates personal data handling regulations? There’s a growing minefield of risks that needs to be navigated.
Where is tech in the fund management industry heading? Will hedge funds become automated businesses driven by artificial intelligence and robo advisory services? Will humans still have a place in the investment process?
I think you’re spot on about the increased use of those tools. Still, humans still have a place for a long time. Let’s look at AI as an example, focusing on the subset that’s playing a bigger role in investment management: machine learning. I think people have realised that yes, part of what a great portfolio manager does is “pattern recognition”. They find something in the market that may be hard to spot for most people, they assume the outcome will be similar to the past, and they trade on that idea. Machine learning can be a great tool to help automate some of this. But it’s quite telling that a complete amateur like me, starting from scratch, can probably have a pretty useful machine learning environment up and running in the cloud within a few hours. The basic building blocks are getting commoditised. If you think machine learning gives you an edge, you’re going to increasingly find that edge only comes from how you apply it, not your mere ability to access the tech. And if this tech gets more pervasive and the IP arsenal of many firms grows, who knows – we may find crowding leads to shrinking profit opportunities to those focused on historical patterns. People who can generate new trading ideas, which is still – I believe – way beyond the reach of current AI technology, still will stay busy and don’t have to worry about computers taking away their jobs yet! Taking a slightly wider view – the point I mentioned earlier about democratisation means that technologists are going to find themselves spending a lot less time building very generic tools from the ground up. Instead, they’ll be learning to become experts on industry-standard solutions, focusing their time on customisations that differentiate their fund.
Is the CTO or CIO more important in a hedge fund today?
I’m going to answer based on my experience working in funds more on the discretionary side rather than the systematic side. And I’m also going to answer by looking at a fund as a product, built for customers. I’m going to have to give the prize to the Chief Investment Officer – but qualify that by saying that more than ever, the CIO’s own tech skills, and ability to work with the CTO to leverage technology, is critical. Look, in the end, a fund’s health mostly stems from its pattern of returns and the pool of capital it manages. I feel the CIO continues to be the “face” of the fund as seen by customers, and truly has the primary responsibility for the final decisions that lead to those returns, and retaining or growing that capital. But increasingly, it’s harder to harness opportunities without strong tech supporting the data and research, trading, and portfolio management needs. When the CIO assesses a new trading opportunity, the viability and profitability can sometimes actually hinge on the CTO’s ability to deliver the right tech, cost-efficiently, reliably, and quickly. And don’t forget the CTO’s own “portfolio”, so to speak, encompasses way more than just the alpha generation side of the business. There’s general office technology, back and middle office technology, cybersecurity, and a lot more. I’d argue the CTO may have a harder job than the CIO because of the sheer breadth, and the burden of managing not just part of the portfolio risk, but also the firm’s operational risk.
With support from the finance industry, Help For Children provides grants to organisations that are working to prevent child abuse and treat those who have experienced abuse. Privium Fund Management’s Vanessa Hemavathi, who chairs Help For Children Asia, talked with Hedge Funds Club boss Stefan Nilsson about her philanthropic work, Help For Children’s support from the finance industry, the challenges of fundraising, the ESG impact on fund managers and what projects Help For Children has contributed to recently.
In addition to your day job at Privium Fund Management, you head up the Asian arm of the Help For Children as Board Chairman. How did you end up getting involved with Help For Children?
I have always been passionate about philanthropic work and was supporting a number of volunteer organisations in Singapore. After moving to Hong Kong, I was actively looking to get involved in the social sector in the city. I got to know Help For Children Asia in 2019 and was immediately drawn by its mission and approach to helping vulnerable children. I joined Help For Children as the Chair for Asia in January 2020 with the objective of bringing my industry peers together to give back to the community we live in.
Your organisation has a close connection with the hedge fund industry. The original name was Hedge Funds Care before it evolved to Help For Children. Was the name change driven by the organisation wanting to also work with corporate sponsors from other parts of the alternative investments such as private equity, venture capital and real estate?
HFC is still very much supported by hedge fund managers who remain committed to our mission. We adopted the name Help For Children in 2020 to have a more mission-focused name as well as broaden our donor base to include the entire alternative investment community, encompassing private equity, real estate and allocators. It’s simple, the more money we raise, the more vulnerable children we can help protect.
Tell us about what people and organisations here in Asia are actively involved with your organisation.
The pandemic obviously made it challenging for us to raise money. However, we worked very hard to stay connected with our members and continue to grow our network. We finally hosted our first in-person event since the pandemic on 14th May at The American Club in Hong Kong. Even though it was an intimate breakfast with a mission panel led by our academic expert, Dr Clifton Emery, all tables were booked in just a few days. The event and the panel discussion were very well-received by all who attended. I would like to acknowledge my team who are all dedicated volunteers, who have been an integral component throughout this journey who made our efforts possible. Meanwhile, the Help For Children Affiliate Board for which I serve as Chair is made up of many alternative investment professionals who are well-respected in the finance community and committed to our mission. They are Carlyon Knight-Evans (Partner, Asset and Wealth Management, PwC), Basil Godellas (Partner, Winston & Strawn), Elliot Shadforth (Partner, Global Wealth & Asset Management, EY), Effie Vasilopoulos (Executive Committee Member, Sidley Austin) and Denise Wong, (Partner, Global Corporate & Investment Funds Group, Walkers Global). Stay tuned for our second “Breakfast with a Purpose” coming this September. You won’t want to miss it.
How do you raise money from professionals and firms in the alternative investments space?
Help For Children Asia raises money by hosting fun, high-quality fundraising events and community-spread local initiatives. For example, we started a peer-to-peer campaign called #Buildhope as we were unable to host in-person events, which has proven to be very successful. As a volunteer-driven organisation that spans 10 international locations, we utilise both colleagues and partners to contribute in any way possible to our cause. Together, we are unlocking much-needed private funds to make the world a safer place for vulnerable, at-risk children.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that you are currently focused on here in Asia?
We currently have started the grant process for the 2022-2023 grant year and are looking at some very interesting organisations with cutting-edge programs. We can’t name them quite yet but some examples of our past grantees in Hong Kong include Against Child Abuse (ACA) and Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children (HKSPC). The mission of ACA is to eliminate all forms of child abuse and neglect by promoting a caring and non-violent environment for the optimal growth and development of children. ACA provides the East Asia region with quality child protection programs of both remedial and preventive nature. HKSPC protects and safeguards children’s rights and endeavours to build a “healthy, happy and safe” environment for children from all backgrounds. HKSPC currently operates 27 services units serving children aged 0 to 16 and their families and serves around 3,000 children and their families on a daily basis. Specifically, HFC funded the following programs: 1) ACA’s Child Protection and Treatment Project – Happy Child Starting From Home. We supported a registered social worker/trainer to provide therapeutic groups for abused children, parent education programs for abusive parents, and professional child protection training. 2) We also funded HKSPC’s Guardian Angels to Infants in CRH. We supported a program officer and social worker to provide services for children, 0-3, at the HKSPC Children’s Residential Home and their parents.
How do you choose the good causes you support? I am assuming that you have to focus on a few projects rather than trying to help everyone?
Help For Children provides funds that support proven methods in child abuse prevention and treatment, and also acts as venture philanthropists by supporting promising new practices in the field. Each grant location has an independent grant committee made up of our dedicated local volunteers. With the guidance and consultation of a local social work academic expert, in our case Dr Clifton Emery of the Department of Social Work from the University of Hong Kong, the committee follows a very rigorous grant application and approval process that ensures measurable results. Unlike most grant-making foundations, Help For Children and its academic experts provide grantees with year-round consultation to ensure ongoing information sharing on best practices, consultation on program design and emphasis on evidence-based evaluation tools to achieve tangible results.
ESG is all the rage now. How is the increased ESG awareness in Asia impacting your organisation?
It has definitely made the fund industry more conscious of the importance and value of giving back. Furthermore, it has sparked targeted questions on the importance that allocators place on fund managers on ESG. Charitable giving, mentoring efforts and traineeships for disadvantaged students, are all essential pillars that Help For Children Asia encourages. In general, ESG has become increasingly important to be a part of a fund manager’s investment strategy, with an increased awareness for demonstrating genuine commitment and priorities, especially in today’s socioeconomic climate.
In addition to Help For Children Asia, there are several other NGOs that engage people from the alternatives industry for good causes such as women empowerment, cancer research and prevention, etc. Do you feel that the various hedge fund- and finance-related NGOs in Asia are supportive of each other or is there a battle for the attention of potential donors?
There is definitely room in our industry for making a positive impact in the lives of others. But keep in mind that raising money for child abuse – a cause that is often overlooked because it is considered a “taboo” topic or people feel they live in a wealthy and well-developed place like Hong Kong, therefore, there is no need for it – has its own set of challenges. Child abuse has no family constituency to advocate publicly because there is so much shame associated with it. This perpetuated the need to work a little harder and gives us the drive to break the silence for children who do not have a voice for themselves.
Hong Kong-based Jonathan Garrick, Portfolio Manager of the Neutron Asia Absolute Return Fund, has a new company name. BRIC Neutron Asset Management has been rebranded as Atherton Asset Management.
Karvan Wong has joined Toroa Management in Hong Kong as its COO. Toroa, recently founded by Silas Xu, is focused on fundamental equity investments in the Asia Pacific region. Karvan was most recently Head of Operations at Seiga Asset Management and was earlier CFO at Harbour Capital Management.
David Mason in Queensland, Australia has joined Trigon Trading in a trading and operations role. Trigon Trading is an Australian proprietary trading firm trading FX, commodities, equities and digital assets. David has previously worked in prime services at PhillipCapital and MF Global and has also had stints at Merrill Lynch and UBS.
Jacky Law in Hong Kong has joined Zentrum Capital as a Quantitative Research Analyst. He most recently had a similar position at iPartners and was earlier at Safe Gold Securities & Futures.
Ruey Long Goh has left his role as Head of Hedge Fund Research at UOB Asset Management in Singapore. His previous industry roles have included Investment manager at Lion Fairfield Capital and Senior Research Analyst at EIM. Ruey’s next destination has not yet been revealed.
Tristan Kan has joined JP Morgan in Hong Kong as a Vice President. He was most recently an Associate Director at UBS in Hong Kong and was earlier an Associate in the multistrategy equity quant fund at CICC in Beijing and worked in prime brokerage sales in Singapore and Shanghai for Saxo Bank.
Adam Fiore in Singapore, until recently COO at Flowering Tree Investment Management, has formed a firm called Pivotal Axis which is focused on providing outsourced COO services as well as offering directorship services. Before joining Flowering Tree in 2008, he worked at Apex Capital in San Francisco and Clifford Chance in London.
Geoffrey Lam has become Managing Director of Original Financial Group in Hong Kong. He has spent the past three years as President of AJ Asset Management. Previously he has worked at Caitong International Asset Management, Calibre Asset Management, CL Asset Management, CIGMA Capital, Shenyin Wanguo Asset Management, SHK Fund Management and Allen Perkins Group.