Hedge funds investors are overwhelmingly happy with their investments in the lightly regulated investment pools, despite indications that average fund results will be underwhelming in June for the third consecutive month.

Conservative institutional investors such as pension funds continue to pour money into hedge funds, suggesting that the much scrutinized $800 billion industry is successfully recasting itself as a haven from bear markets, rather than an arena for dramatic gains from speculative bets.

To get larger sums of money to manage, Wall Street's cowboys have traded in their pickups for minivans, and the image makeover seems to have worked. In 2003 alone, hedge fund assets under management grew from $592 million to $795 billion, a 34% increase, according to the Hennessee Group, a New York investment advisor that creates custom portfolios of hedge funds.

At the same time, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson has cited pension fund investment as one reason the agency should increase its oversight of the approximately 6,800 hedge funds now operating in the U.S. The commission is scheduled to consider the oversight measure at its July 14 meeting.

The Hennessee survey also reported that 88% of hedge fund investors said their investments "met or exceeded expectations" and that 62% of the endowments that invest in them will be increasing their capital. Since hedge funds generally require individual investors to invest a minimum of $1 million -- for most institutions, it's $5 million -- that's serious money.

Leon Metzger, vice chairman of Paloma Partners, a Greenwich, Conn., hedge fund, said the arrival of pension fund represents a logical progression.

"In the '90s, the stock market was doing very well, and investments there generally did better than the payout rates of pension plans," he said. "Once the market tanked, pension plan trustees had to be concerned -- if you were paying out 8%, you had to be earning 8%. Therefore, significantly more pension plans started paying attention to these alternative investments."

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