In today’s New York Times, reporter Jenny Anderson talks about lackluster returns for some hedge funds. In “Hedging ’06: Year to Read the Caveats,” she quotes Christy Wood, CALPERS senior investment officer, as saying that this year marks the third year that “the global equity markets and long-only managers outperformed hedge funds” and that “If you threw all these in an index fund net of fees, you would have done better than if you put it in the hedge fund industry.”

The article continues that CALPERS has another $3.5 billion to invest, beyond the existing $4 billion in hedge fund investments. Their appeal, says Ms. Wood, is equitylike performance with bondlike risk.

The numbers are compelling. Courtesy of data from Hedge Fund Research, the article describes inflows in excess of $110 billion through Q3-2006, compared with $47 billion last year.

What caught my eye is the quote about leverage and the notion that markets have all but ignored situations like Amaranth and its reported $6 billion loss.

Excerpted from this piece, investment advisor Stewart R. Massey, founding partner of Massey, Quick & Company, is quoted as saying that “If there’s a lesson in 2006 – and no one talks about it anymore – it’s that leverage is a very dangerous thing” and “there’s too much out there.”

On the face of it, leverage is not necessarily bad (nor is it necessarily good). However, in bad times, levered investments can cause significant harm to a pension fund portfolio. Let’s hope that fiduciaries are asking good questions about leverage and not forgetting that things can sour quickly. Far from an exhaustive list, here are a few basic queries for hedge fund managers.

1. How does your fund measure leverage?

2. What is the fund’s average leverage measurement?

3. Are there particular market conditions and/or investment positions that worsen leverage?

4. What is the fund’s stop-loss policy as a way to curtail trouble before it’s too late?

5. How does the fund value its “hard-to-value” positions and what is the likely impact on reported leverage?

6. Does the fund’s leverage vary over time or has it been relatively stable?

7. How does the fund’s leverage metric compare with similar strategy hedge funds?

8. How does the fund’ return compare with similarly leveraged peers?

9. Does the fund’s risk management policy address leverage?

10. Does the fund plan to do anything different going forward that would materially impact leverage? If so, why and what policy changes will occur as a result?