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Absolute return describes a style of defensive investing which aims to make money for investors, regardless of what direction stock markets are heading.

Absolute return funds can do this because they make their money by betting on shares falling as well as rising.

As such it should be little surprise that the popularity of absolute return vehicles has surged since the financial crisis began.

During 2008, as the market crisis gained momentum and traditional equity based returns fell off a cliff, sales of absolute return funds, made up no less than a third of sales of unit trusts to private investors – only corporate bonds funds were more popular.

Fund management houses have been quick to respond to demand. In 2009, Liontrust, unveiled its European Absolute Return fund, which like other absolute return vehicles, aims to deliver positive no matter what direction the market is going, in this case, European stock markets.

Notably absolute return investing has until recently only been available to high-net worth investors and institutions, via hedge funds (which were first set up some 60 years ago), chiefly because of very high minimum investment levels.

The chief selling point of absolute return funds is their ability to cancel out the risk of the market, whether it is going north or south. Similar to hedge funds, and unlike traditional equity vehicles, absolute return funds are not just dependent on rising share prices in order for them to make money, they can also make a buck by shorting the market.

Shorting or going short refers to fund managers making a bet that a stock will tumble. Essentially, if the manager thinks a share price will fall he can sell shares he doesnt own in the hope that he can buy them back at a lower price in future and pocket the difference.

During the banking crisis, many hedge fund managers, including Crispin Odey, of Odey Asset Management, made millions from shorting the shares of leading banks, most notably Bradford & Bingley, before it was put into public ownership.

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Although absolute return funds are marketed as defensive investment vehicles, they are still stock market investments with equity exposure, and as such do not have they safety of say, a deposit savings account. When times are bad, they should protect you from the downside and deliver a positive return, but equally in a rampant bull market they will under perform, as they wont rise as quickly as traditional equity funds.

Newcomers to the absolute return sector include,Gartmore European Absolute ReturnIgnis Argonaut European Absolute ReturnandSVM UK Absolute Alpha.

More established vehicles includeBlackRock UK Absolute AlphaBaring Absolute Return Global BondNewton Real ReturnThreadneedle Absolute Return BondandCazenove UK Absolute Target. Funds are also available from Marlborough, Skandia and Scottish Widows Investment Partnership.

Three in particular stand out,Cazenove UK Absolute TargetBlackRock UK Absolute AlphaandGartmore European Absolute Return.

Updated August 2009, Philip Scott, This is Money

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