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High-Water Mark


The High-Water Mark is a financial term that refers to the highest peak in value that an investment fund or account has ever achieved. It serves as a benchmark for the performance fee calculation of fund managers, ensuring they are only rewarded when the fund’s value exceeds its previous highest level. This is designed to prevent managers from receiving large fees for poor performance.


The phonetic transcription for “High-Water Mark” is /ˈhaɪ ˈwɔːtər mɑːrk/

Key Takeaways

  1. High-Water Mark refers to the highest peak in value that an investment fund or account has reached. This term is often used in the context of a hedge fund.
  2. It serves as a benchmark in evaluating the performance of the fund. A fund manager typically only receives a performance fee when the fund’s value increases above its high-water mark. This ensures that fund managers are rewarded for positive growth.
  3. High-Water Marks offer protection for investors because they prevent fund managers from receiving a performance fee for volatile performance. It ensures that fund managers are not overpaid for poor performance since they can’t claim additional performance fees until they regain losses.


The high-water mark is an important concept in business and finance as it ensures that the investors are not charged unfairly for the fund’s performance. It is a term widely used in hedge funds symbolizing the peak value that an investment fund or account has ever reached. The implication of this is that the fund manager only receives a performance fee if the fund’s value rises above the highest value it has ever achieved. If the fund’s value drops, the manager must get the fund performance back above the high-water mark before receiving a performance fee. This setup, hence, protects investors from paying performance fees on the same increase in a fund’s net asset value multiple times and aligns the fund manager’s interests with theirs.


The High-Water Mark serves as an important benchmark in the finance world, especially in hedge fund investing. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the investors from paying performance fees on the same returns twice. It is a mechanism that ensures the fund manager will only earn significant fees if the fund’s value is higher than it has ever been. Essentially, it is the highest peak in value that an investment fund or account has reached. This value becomes the benchmark, and the manager gets paid a performance fee only when this value is exceeded in future.For instance, if a fund’s high-water mark is set at $100 million and the fund’s year-end net asset value (NAV) drops to, say, $80 million due to poor returns, no additional performance fee would be charged until the fund’s NAV recovers to $100 million. If the market conditions turn favourable and the fund value increases to $120 million in the subsequent year, the fund manager earns a performance fee for the $20 million increment over the high-water mark. This system is employed to align the interests of the fund manager with those of the investors, thereby encouraging funds to perform optimally and maintain their highest values consistently.


1. Hedge Funds: One of the most common usages of the high-water mark concept is in the hedge fund industry. A hedge fund manager typically earns a performance fee only on the assets that exceed the highest value the fund has ever achieved – this is the high-water mark. For example, if a hedge fund ends a year with a net asset value of $200 million, that amount becomes the high-water mark. If in the next year the net value drops to $180 million, the manager will not receive a performance fee. The fee will only be paid when the fund’s value exceeds the $200 million high-water mark.2. Asset Management/Investment Advisory Services: High-water marks are not exclusive to hedge funds. Traditional asset managers or investment advisors who are compensated based on performance may also set a high-water mark. For instance, an asset manager who manages a pension fund may create a high-water mark and will earn a performance fee only when the fund’s portfolio reaches a new maximum value.3. Private Equity: This term is also used in private equity funds. The fund manager here receives a share of the profits (carried interest) only when the returns exceed the highest historical value of the fund, as determined by the high-water mark. Let’s say a private equity fund has a net asset value of $500 million. That amount becomes the high-water mark. If the fund value falls below that mark in the following year, the fund manager does not earn a performance fee. The fee is only earned when the fund value exceeds the previous high-water mark of $500 million.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

What does the term High-Water Mark mean in the field of finance and business?

The high-water mark refers to the highest peak in value that an investment fund or account has reached. This value is used as a reference point to calculate performance fees for fund managers.

How does the high-water mark work?

It’s a method to ensure that fund managers are only rewarded if the fund achieves a level of value that is higher than its previous maximum value. If the fund falls in value, managers must bring it back above the high-water mark before they can receive performance fees.

Do all investment funds have a high-water mark?

Not all investment funds use a high-water mark. It is more commonly associated with hedge funds.

How is the high-water mark related to performance fees?

The high-water mark ensures that fund managers are only paid performance fees for generating net gains. If the fund’s value falls below the high-water mark, the manager does not collect a performance fee until the fund surpasses its previous high-water mark.

What’s the purpose of a high-water mark in an investment?

The high-water mark is meant to protect investors from paying performance fees for poor fund performance. It ensures that managers are paid for genuine growth and not for simply recovering from losses.

Can a high-water mark reset?

Generally, once a high-water mark is established, it does not reset lower even if the fund’s value decreases. However, this can depend on the specific terms and conditions of the investment.

Does high-water mark consider fund withdrawals and contributions?

Yes, when calculating the high-water mark, most fund managers consider fund withdrawals and contributions to prevent manipulation. For instance, some may try to artificially increase a manager’s performance fee by adding a large amount of capital just before the period end.

Is a high-water mark the same for all investors in a fund?

Depending on when investors enter a fund, they may have different high-water marks. Each investor’s high-water mark would typically be the highest value of their investment in the fund.

Related Finance Terms

  • Performance Fees
  • Hurdle Rate
  • Carry (Carried Interest)
  • Fund Manager Compensation
  • Investment Fund Benchmark

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