What Is a High-Water Mark?

The high-water mark is the highest net asset value that a fund has reached or that you have reached in your respective account. The high-water mark is a significant point for hedge fund investors because the fee you pay is often determined in part by increases in your account value beyond a previous high-water mark.

Learn what a high-water mark is, how it is calculated, and how it affects the fee you pay a hedge fund.

Definition and Examples of a High-Water Mark

The net asset value of a hedge fund or investment will fluctuate with the market it is tied to. The highest net asset value reached by a fund or investment is called the high-water mark. 

A high-water mark doesn’t only mark the highest value a fund has reached; it can also be a factor in the fund’s fee structure. When a high-water mark is part of a fund’s contract, you only pay a performance fee on returns above the previous mark.

The effect is that if an investment falls in value, then you won’t have to pay the performance fee on returns that increase your account back to the previous high value. This acts as an incentive for the fund manager(s) to keep setting new high-water marks.

The high-water mark does not limit the asset management fee because that is assessed on the entire balance.

For example, look at how a high-water mark clause can affect the performance fee that you pay as a hedge fund investor. First, assume you have $1 million invested in a fund, and over the course of a year, the investment grows by 15%. You will have earned $150,000, and your account value will be $1.15 million at the end of the year. 

If you’re required to pay a performance fee of 20% of the profits, your fee will be $30,000, or 20% of the $150,000 profit made.

Second, consider that instead of earning 15% in a year, the investment lost 15% after your account had grown to $1.8 million after several years. Because you lost 15% for the year, there are no profits; thus, you have no performance fee. Since 15% of $1.8 million is $270,000, you’d have $1.53 million in your account.

High-water mark contract clauses keep you from paying fees after losing large amounts of capital.

How Does a High-Water Mark Work?

A hedge fund high-water mark is set each time the value of a fund exceeds the previous highest price. The watermark does not drop; it only rises. When the fund generates returns higher than the watermark, the fund can charge you fees for the value of the returns that are higher than the mark. If the fund generates returns that do not increase its price above the watermark, you do not pay the performance fee.

Hedge funds have fee structures they follow that let you know upfront how much you’ll owe. The most common hedge fund fee structure requires a 2% annual asset management fee and a fee of 20% of the profit you earn from the fund. This arrangement is called the “Two and Twenty.”

Here’s how a high-water mark, as part of a fund’s performance fees, would work with a fee structure of 20% of the profits made each month.

Month Return Value High-Water Mark Performance Fees (20% of HWM difference if gains made)
Initial Value $1,000.00 $1,000.00 $0
February 3% $1,030.00 $1,030.00 $6.00
March 2% $1,050.60 $1,050.60 $4.12
April -1% $1,040.10 $1,050.60 $0

Recouping Losses

Here is where the high-water mark becomes relevant. In the years following the loss in the previous example, you would not owe the performance fee until the fund’s value surpassed its previous high-water mark of $1.8 million.

In the next year, you gained 10% on your $1.53 million. While that is a 10% profit for the year, you would only have $1.68 million in your account. Since that is short of the previous high-water mark of $1.8 million, you wouldn’t owe the performance fee of 20%.

If in the next year the account grows by 20%, then you’d have an account value of $2.02 million. You would owe the 20% performance fee on the profits earned above the $1.8 million high-water mark. In this case that would be $2.02 million – $1.8 million = $220,000 x 20% = $44,000.

High-Water Mark vs. Hurdle Rate

In addition to a high-water mark, hedge funds may also have a hurdle rate. The hurdle rate is the minimum return that a fund must earn before the performance fee applies. This is often in addition to the high-water mark. 

High-Water Mark Hurdle Rate
The highest previous value of an account The minimum return a fund must earn before the performance fee is paid
Performance fee only paid on returns above the high-water mark Performance fee only paid on return above the hurdle rate

What It Means for Individual Investors

If you choose to invest in a hedge fund, a high-water mark clause can prevent you from paying performance fees on returns that simply make up for previous losses. In a fund with no high-water mark clause, you would end up losing money in addition to the losses incurred from a drop in value.

For example, say you invest in a fund with no high-water mark. The fund’s value dropped $10,000 in two months. The following month, $2,000 in returns were generated. Since there were returns, you’d need to pay fees of 20%—you’d make $1,600 that month.

If you were then lucky enough afterward to experience a steady rate of $2,000 in returns per month ($1,600 after fees), it would take you over eight months to recoup your total losses. With the clause, it would only take five months—still a long time, but shorter than a fund without it.

Key Takeaways

  • A high-water mark is the highest value that a fund or account has reached.
  • Performance fees are often assessed only on returns above an investment’s high-water mark.
  • High-water marks are different from hurdle rates in that a hurdle rate is a minimum return that an investment must earn before the performance fee is assessed.
  • You should consider only investing in hedge funds that have high-water mark clauses to minimize extra losses.

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