Long-Term Capital: It’s a Short-Term Memory





A FINANCIAL firm borrows billions of dollars to make big bets on esoteric securities. Markets turn and the bets go sour. Overnight, the firm loses most of its money, and Wall Street suddenly shuns it. Fearing that its collapse could set off a full-scale market meltdown, the government intervenes and encourages private interests to bail it out.

The firm isn’t Bear Stearns — it was Long-Term Capital Management, the hedge fund based in Greenwich, Conn., and the rescue occurred 10 years ago this month.

The Long-Term Capital fiasco momentarily shocked Wall Street out of its complacent trust in financial models, and was replete with lessons, for Washington as well as for Wall Street. But the lessons were ignored, and in this decade, the mistakes were repeated with far more harmful consequences. Instead of learning from the past, Wall Street has re-enacted it in larger form, in the mortgage debacle cum credit crisis.

In the wake of Long-Term Capital’s failure, Wall Street professed to have learned that even models designed by “geniuses” were subject to error and to the uncertainties that inevitably afflict human forecasts. It also professed a newfound respect for the perils of borrowing. Whether this wisdom endured may be judged by events of the past year, when not only Bear Stearns but also scores of banks and financial institutions have written off hundreds of billions of dollars — a result of blithe faith in models of the housing industry, not to mention a voracious hunger to do business on credit.


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