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What Was the Long-Term Capital Management Hedge Fund and the LTCM Crisis?

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LTCM crisis

The cause of the LTCM crisis was not addressed, laying the foundation for the 2008 financial crisis. (Photo credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Question: What Was the Long-Term Capital Management Hedge Fund and the LTCM Crisis?
Answer: Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) was a very large hedge fund ($126 billion in assets) that nearly collapsed in late 1998. It reached that size thanks to the stellar reputation of its owners. The founder was a Salomon Brothers trader, John Meriwether, and the principal shareholders were Nobel prize-winning economists Myron Scholes and Robert Merton. These were all experts in investing in derivatives to make above-average returns and outperform the market.

Investors paid $10 million to get into the fund. They were not allowed to take the money out for three years, or even ask about the types of investments LTCM used. Despite these restrictions, investors clamored to get in, thanks to LTCM's spectacular annual returns of 42.8% in 1995 and 40.8% in 1996. This was after management took 27% off the top in fees. LTCM successfully hedged most of the risk from the 1997 Asian currency crisis, giving its investors a 17.1% return that year.

However, by September 1998, the company's risky trades brought it close to bankruptcy. Its size meant it was too big to fail, and so the Federal Reserve took steps to bail it out. (Source: Le Monde, LTCM, a Hedge Fund Above Suspicion, November 1998)

What Caused the LTCM Crisis?

Like many hedge funds, LTCM's investment strategies were based upon hedging against a fairly regular range of volatility in foreign currencies and bonds. When Russia declared it was devaluing its currency and basically defaulting on its bonds, this event was beyond the regular range that LTCM had counted on. The U.S. stock market dropped 20%, while European markets fell 35%. Investors sought refuge in Treasury bonds, causing long-term interest rates to drop by more than a full point.

As a result, LTCM's highly leveraged investments started to crumble. By the end of August 1998, it lost 50% of the value of its capital investments. Since so many banks and pension funds were invested in LTCM, its problems threatened to push most of them to near bankruptcy. In September, Bear Stearns dealt the final death blow. The investment bank, which managed all of LTCM's bond and derivatives settlements, called in a $500 million payment. Bear Stearns was afraid it would lose all of its investments, which were considerable since LTCM had been out of compliance with its banking agreements for three months. (Source: The Independent, Bear Stearns Call Triggered LTCM Crisis, September 26, 1998)

How Did the Federal Reserve Intervene?

To save the U.S. banking system, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William McDonough William J. McDonough convinced 15 banks to bail out LTCM with $3.5 billion, in return for a 90% owernship of the fund. In addition, the Fed started lowering the Fed funds rate as a reassurance to investors that the Fed would do whatever it took to support the U.S. economy. Without such direct intervention, the entire financial system was threatened with a collapse. (Source: IMF, World Economic Outlook, Interim Assessment, "Chapter III: Turbulence in Mature Financial Markets December 1998; IMF Report: International Contagion Effects from the Russian Crisis and the LTCM Near-Collapse, April 2002; European Central Bank, Financial Stability Report December, 2006.)

Should the Fed Have Intervened?

A CATO Institute study says the Federal Reserve didn't need to rescue LTCM because it would not have failed. An investment group led by Warren Buffett offered to buy out the shareholders for just $250 million and kept the fund running. The shareholders and management would have been replaced.

However, the Fed intervened and brokered a better deal for the LTCM shareholders and managers. This was the precedent for the Federal Reserve's bailout role with Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac during the 2008 financial crisis. Once financial firms realized that the Fed would bail them out, they were more willing to take risks.

The Cleveland Federal Reserve countered by saying the Buffett deal was only for LTCM's assets, not its portfolio. The failure of the portfolio, which consisted of derivatives, would have damaged the global economy. Furthermore, the Fed didn't actually bail out LTCM, since no federal funds were used. It merely brokered a better deal than the one Buffett was offering.

As much as $100 billion worth of derivative positions throughout global financial markets could have unraveled, according to The Independent. Large banks throughout the world would have lost billions, forcing them to cut back on loans to save money to write down those losses. Small banks would have gone bankrupt. The Fed stepped in to soften the blow.

Unfortunately, economic leaders did not learn from this mistake. The LTCM crisis was just an early warning symptom of the same disease that reoccurred with an vengeance in the 2008 global financial crisis. (Source: CATO Institute,Too Big to Fail?, Kevin Dowd; Federal Reserve of Cleveland, Some Lessons on the Rescue of Long Term Capital Management, April 2007)

(Article updated January 18, 2012)

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