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When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management Paperback – October 9, 2001
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
LCTM began operating in 1994, set up by John Meriwether formally head of the bond-arbitrage group at Solomon Brothers. He put together a star-studded cast that included three (1997) Nobel prize winners in economics. Their basic strategy was something called convergence arbitrage. In essence this strategy says buy two bonds that you think will track one another. Go long on the cheap one and short on the other; you make money if the spread narrows. In theory you are protected from changing prices as long as the two vary in the same way. To make the big bucks LCTM was after they took a gigantic number of highly leveraged arbitrage positions all over the world. To get high leverage you borrow for the position, like buying a stock on margin. LCTM got really high leverage by avoiding something called the "haircut," which is an extra margin of collateral banks usually demand, but forgave LCTM. Why would banks they do such a thing? Because they were blinded by the glitter of the cast, and in some cases the banks themselves were investors in LCTM. By 1997 convergence arbitrage opportunities in bonds began to dry up, everyone was doing it. So LCTM applied their strategy to stocks. Find two stocks that will track on another and go long and short with borrowed money. This is not easy. Stocks are less amenable to mathematical analysis than bonds, and after all these were the bond guys from Solomon, they were out of their depth. You might ask how can you borrow most of your stock position when the Federal Reserve requires 50% margin (Regulation T). Answer: don't really buy the stocks, instead buy derivative contracts that simulate stocks, an end run around Regulation T. Even with all this leverage LCTM would claim that the fund was no more risky than the stock market, meaning a stock index. In 1998 the markets went against LCTM, with the "flight to quality" (US government bonds) as investors panicked. The fund suffered from what reliability engineers call "common mode error." Spreads got wider not narrower across the board, and LCTM's capital base began to shrink as their positions lost money. At a certain point they would have to start liquidating positions, and the market impact of such large scale selling would cascade across their portfolio. The fund would "blow up."
The above gives a flavor of the material Lowenstein provides, only in much greater detail. If that's what you want, buy the book. Is this a tale of human folly or just plain bad luck? Answering that question is not easy, one needs to grasp a large amount of technical finance theory, and understand what happened in the particular case of LCTM. This book will help.
Dunbar - a physicist by trade - is more interested in the theoretical economics that went into the risk arbitrage fund in the first place and how this came unstuck. He gives a long description of the Black-Scholes model, what it says, and how it was used to pull off the risk "free" trades which made Long Term so much money for three or four years.
Lowenstein, by contrast, barely mentions either the Black-Scholes model (he barely touches on option pricing at all, as a matter of fact) or the Italian convergence trades which eventually blew the gaffe on the fund, but instead tells the human story, exposes the inevitable egos, and indulges in more than a little smuggery (this book is long on wisdom after the fact) in dissecting the naivety of the LTCM hedging and trading strategy and the people who ran it.
As long as he sticks to the egos and the posturing, When Genius Failed is a dandy read: the negotiations amongst the Wall Street top brass as the fund is going under rate with anything served up in Barbarians at the Gate, and as this is a large part of the book, it rips along quite nicely.
But the schadenfreude grates: One of the lessons of the whole fiasco was that the smart money is with the guy who can predict the future: any old mug can be a genius with hindsight. Lowenstein spends a lot of his time wisely pointing out what the traders should have done.
Additionally, Lowenstein employs some metaphors which indicate he might not have much of a grip on his subject: for one, he states "a bit of liquidity greases the wheels of markets; what Greenspan overlooked is that with too much liquidity, the market is apt to skid off the tracks." It's a poor metaphor, because it isn't excess liquidity which causes markets to skid, rather, it's the sudden disappearance of it. As this is the fundamental lesson of the Long Term story, it's a bad mistake to make for the sake of a smart-alec aphorism.
Similarly, in the epilogue states, with regard to the putative diversification in the fund "the Long-Term episode proved that eggs in separate baskets *can* break simultaneously". Again, this conclusion is not supported by the text, which observes several times that in a market crash, liquidity drains and the correlation risk of instruments in the market goes to one: that is to say, it turns out all your eggs are in the same basket after all. Diversity wasn't the problem; the problem was you wrongly thought you had it.
For these reasons I prefer Dunbar's more academic work: it may not be such a sizzling read, but nor does it misguidedly kick a fund when it's down.
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.
We always had a saying "The stupid must be punished". Its funny because of the "stupid people" in this book, a couple of them are Nobel prize winners.
The book gives a pretty good idea of how Wall St. really works. The partners at LTCM were arrogant and incredibly secretive, and yet every broker and banker lined up to throw money at them. It also gives a great understanding of how huge leverage can make you rich really quickly. But that same leverage seems to take back the money even faster.