An alternative investment or alternative investment fund (AIF) is an investment or fund that invests in asset classes other than stocks, bonds, and cash. The term is a relatively loose one and includes tangible assets such as precious metals, art, wine, antiques, coins, or stamps and some financial assets such as real estate, commodities, private equity, distressed securities, hedge funds, carbon credits, venture capital, film production, financial derivatives, and cryptocurrencies. Investments in real estate, forestry and shipping are also often termed “alternative” despite the ancient use of such real assets to enhance and preserve wealth. In the last century, fancy color diamonds have emerged as an alternative investment class as well. Alternative investments are to be contrasted with traditional investments.
As the definition of alternative investments is broad, data and research varies widely across the investment classes. For example, art and wine investments may lack high-quality data. The Goizueta Business School at Emory University has established the Emory Center for Alternative Investments to provide research and a forum for discussion regarding private equity, hedge fund, and venture capital investments.
Access to alternative investments
In recent years, the growth of alternative finance has opened up new avenues to investing in alternatives. These include the following:
Equity crowdfunding platforms allow “the crowd” to review early-stage investment opportunities presented by entrepreneurs and take an equity stake in the business. Typically an online platform acts as a broker between investors and founders. These platforms differ greatly in the types of opportunities they will offer up to investors, how much due diligence is performed, degree of investor protections available, minimum investment size and so on. Equity crowdfunding platforms have seen a significant amount of success in the UK and, with the passing of JOBS Act Title III in early 2016, are now picking up steam in the United States.
The investor-led model was introduced by UK-based crowdfunding platform SyndicateRoom and makes it necessary for any startup seeking funding to first be vetted by an experienced investor that is also investing a significant amount (25% or more) of the target round.
SEIS and EIS funds
Only available in the UK, SEIS funds and EIS funds present a tax-efficient way of investing in early-stage ventures. These work much like venture capital funds, with the added bonus of receiving government tax incentives for investing and loss relief protection should the companies invested in fail. Such funds help to diversify investor exposure by investing into multiple early ventures. Fees are normally charged by the management team for participating in the fund, and these can end up totaling anywhere between 15% and 40% of the fund value over the course of its life.
Private equity consists of large-scale private investments into unlisted companies in return for equity. Private funds are typically formed by combining funds from institutional investors such as high-net-worth individuals, insurance companies, and pension funds. Funds are used alongside borrowed money and the money of the private equity firm itself to invest in businesses they believe to have high growth potential. In Europe, venture capital, buy-ins and buy-outs are considered private equity.
Infrastructure as an asset class
The notion of “infrastructure as an asset class” has grown steadily in the past seven years. But, so far, this development has been the preserve of institutional investors: pension funds, insurance companies and sovereign wealth funds, with very limited access to high-net-worth investors (except a few large family offices).
In a 1986 paper, William Baumol used the repeat sale method and compared prices of 500 paintings sold over 410 years before concluding that the average real annual return on art was 0.55%. Another study of high-quality oil paintings sold in Sweden between 1985 and 2016 determined the average return to be 0.6% annually. However, art gallerists are sometimes ambivalent to the idea of treating artwork as an investment. Art is also notoriously difficult to value, and there are quite a few factors to bear in mind for art valuation.
The “Merrill Lynch/Cap Gemini Ernst & Young World Wealth Report 2003”, based on 2002 data, showed high-net-worth individuals, as defined in the report, to have 10% of their financial assets in alternative investments. For the purposes of the report, alternative investments included “structured products, luxury valuables and collectibles, hedge funds, managed futures, and precious metals”. By 2007, this had reduced to 9%. No recommendations were made in either report about the amount of money investors should place in alternative investments.