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When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management Hardcover – September 12, 2000
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On September 23, 1998, the boardroom of the New York Fed was a tense place. Around the table sat the heads of every major Wall Street bank, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, and representatives from numerous European banks, each of whom had been summoned to discuss a highly unusual prospect: rescuing what had, until then, been the envy of them all, the extraordinarily successful bond-trading firm of Long-Term Capital Management. Roger Lowenstein's When Genius Failed is the gripping story of the Fed's unprecedented move, the incredible heights reached by LTCM, and the firm's eventual dramatic demise.
Lowenstein, a financial journalist and author of Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist, examines the personalities, academic experts, and professional relationships at LTCM and uncovers the layers of numbers behind its roller-coaster ride with the precision of a skilled surgeon. The fund's enigmatic founder, John Meriwether, spent almost 20 years at Salomon Brothers, where he formed its renowned Arbitrage Group by hiring academia's top financial economists. Though Meriwether left Salomon under a cloud of the SEC's wrath, he leapt into his next venture with ease and enticed most of his former Salomon hires--and eventually even David Mullins, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve--to join him in starting a hedge fund that would beat all hedge funds.
LTCM began trading in 1994, after completing a road show that, despite the Ph.D.-touting partners' lack of social skills and their disdainful condescension of potential investors who couldn't rise to their intellectual level, netted a whopping $1.25 billion. The fund would seek to earn a tiny spread on thousands of trades, "as if it were vacuuming nickels that others couldn't see," in the words of one of its Nobel laureate partners, Myron Scholes. And nickels it found. In its first two years, LTCM earned $1.6 billion, profits that exceeded 40 percent even after the partners' hefty cuts. By the spring of 1996, it was holding $140 billion in assets. But the end was soon in sight, and Lowenstein's detailed account of each successively worse month of 1998, culminating in a disastrous August and the partners' subsequent panicked moves, is riveting.
The arbitrageur's world is a complicated one, and it might have served Lowenstein well to slow down and explain in greater detail the complex terms of the more exotic species of investment flora that cram the book's pages. However, much of the intrigue of the Long-Term story lies in its dizzying pace (not to mention the dizzying amounts of money won and lost in the fund's short lifespan). Lowenstein's smooth, conversational but equally urgent tone carries it along well. The book is a compelling read for those who've always wondered what lay behind the Fed's controversial involvement with the LTCM hedge-fund debacle. --S. Ketchum
From Publishers Weekly
In late September 1998, the New York Federal Reserve Bank invited a number of major Wall Street investment banks to enter a consortium to fund the multibillion-dollar bailout of a troubled hedge fund. No sooner was the $3.6-billion plan announced than questions arose about why usually independent banks would band together to save a single privately held fund. The short answer is that the banks feared that the fund's collapse could destabilize the entire stock market. The long answer, which Lowenstein (Buffett) provides in undigested detail, may panic those who shudder at the thought of bouncing a $200 check. Long-Term Capital Management opened for business in February 1994 with $1.25 billion in funds. Armed with the cachet of its founders' stellar credentials (Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, 1997 Nobel Prize laureates in economics, were among the partners), it quickly parlayed expertise at reading computer models of financial markets and seemingly limitless access to financing into stunning results. By the end of 1995, it had tripled its equity capital and total assets had grown to $102 billion. Lowenstein argues that this kind of success served to enhance the fund's golden legend and sent the partners' self-confidence off the charts. As he itemizes the complex mix of investments and heavy borrowing that made 1994-1997 profitable years, Lowenstein also charts the subtle drift toward riskier (and ultimately disastrous) ventures as the fund's traditional profit centers dried up. What should have been a gripping story, however, has been poorly handled by Lowenstein, who obscures his narrative with masses of data and overwritten prose. Agent, Melanie Jackson. Author tour. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
The gist of the story is that no amount of financial modelling can overcome a “black swan” event, even though the term “black swan” was not a known term at the time of these events.
Fast forward from 1998 to 2008 and the term “black swan” has become a key piece of “financial lexicon” when considering what unforseen uncertainty might do to the value of financial assets and liabilities.
With the benefit of hindsight, some of the geniuses at Long Term Capital Management might have considered financial modelling for a “black swan” event.
The story is also one for detailing the shortcoming and weakness of human character. For example:
• Hubris v humility;
• Arrogance v meekness
• Over confidence v modesty;
• Pride v humility;
• Condescension v respect;
• Disdain v respect;
• Contempt v admiration
and so it goes on.
A reader is somewhat reminded by the verse “as you shall sow, then so shall you reap”. Such an apt phrase seemingly applies throughout the book, but the one stand out is when management decides to fully redeem the capital of the outside investors, with a view to increasing management’s share of the pie, only to find that the geniuses at Long-Term Capital Management had failed to realise that by shafting these investors, they had (in the end) shafted themselves.
Thy may not get the money from the Fed, but in the end the central bank has to come in as an intermediary.
That scene, though ten years early, is so reminiscent of the scene in 2008 when all the bankers are also hanging out at the Fed. I think Sorkin really hits it in "Too Big to Fail".
Basically, the story is that you shouldn't trust an individual firm to rate their own risk. That never works out. This is true no matter how many Nobel Prizes you have hanging around.
After several years of handsome returns, this formula turned out too good to be true. After convincing investment banks and clients to pour billions of dollars into this near-"riskless" fund, tragedy struck in 1998. A credit crisis in Asia prompted a chain reaction of panic that the fund's mathematical models could not anticipate. The story of this fund's collapse proves that markets are not efficient. It is a lesson that precision calculations in the world of finance, no matter how correct or ingenious, are no match for human irrationality when panic strikes.
Amplifying the unforeseen risk of the fund were human errors made by the principals. The firm's superior performance depended on incredible leverage (borrowed money), but that leverage also led to LTCM's demise when the margin calls hit. The principals also deviated from their core investment strategy when arbitrage opportunities started to dry up; they began making directional bets and speculating, something for which mathematical models are just inadequate for quantifying the risk.
One disadvantage of this book is that it focuses so much on the people involved that it sacrifices explanation of the market forces behind the Asian currency crisis. I felt that some chapters contained too many dry details on the interaction between the LTCM principals and the banks.
The advantage of its focus on people is that the reader can see many of today's Wall Street icons in action. Almost a continuation of Liar's Poker, many of the same Salomon traders including John Meriwether are pivotal to LTCM. Warren Buffett and George Soros play a role, allowing readers to see their investment acumen at work. Many Wall Street characters and investment banks still prevalent in today's news were plugged into the LTCM fiasco.
Because of the high-profile characters and Wall Street firms involved with LTCM, this is a great read for students aspiring for a career on the Street. It also provides good insight into trading strategies and the hedge fund world. I would recommend When Genius Failed to anyone with an interest in investing.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
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