Updated from 3:05 p.m.

The hedge fund industry argued Thursday against charges that its investment strategies cause market upheaval and put small retail investors at a disadvantage.

During a conference held by the Securities and Exchange Commission to help determine whether hedge funds warrant more regulation, panelists argued that the risks present in the market aren't necessarily related to the strategies employed by these funds.

Much of the market volatility comes from individual investors' behavior, the panelists said. Risks, they said, can be mitigated by investor education rather than regulation. Skittish and uninformed investors are more likely to roil the markets than hedge funds are, the panel argued.

Hedge funds aren't subject to the same strictures that regulate mutual funds and other retail investments, as hedge funds are generally excluded from the definition of "investment company" in the Investment Company Act of 1940. To be excluded from that category, hedge funds must have 100 or fewer investors, or require that investors meet certain minimum standards in terms of investible assets and annual income. But those minimum standards were set some 20 years ago, and thanks to inflation and the recent bull market, far more "average" investors are able to invest in hedge funds than originally intended.

The broader investor base, as well as some spectacular hedge fund failures, prompted the SEC to launch a formal fact-finding investigation of the industry a year ago. This week's two-day conference is supposed to provide information that the SEC can use to determine if more regulation is warranted.

Risky Business

Hedge fund advocates argue that it's up to the investors to do their homework on risks. "Each style of hedge fund carries its own unique risk that can't be measured by volatility. You can't explain that to an unsophisticated investor. Most of them can't get the blinking 12 on their VCRs to stop," said Andrew Lo, professor of finance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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