Tyler Cowan: Bailout of Long-Term Capital ... A Bad Precedent?

THE financial crisis is a result of many bad decisions, but one of them hasn’t received enough attention: the 1998 bailout of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund. If regulators had been less concerned with protecting the fund’s creditors, our current problems might not be quite so bad.

Long-Term Capital was advised by finance quants, or quantitative analysts, who made a number of unsound, esoteric bets, including investments in interest rate derivatives. When Russia’s inability to pay its debts roiled global markets, the fund, saddled with high-leverage and off-balance-sheet obligations, was near collapse.

Because Long-Term Capital owed large sums to banks and other financial institutions, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York organized a consortium of companies to buy it out and cover the debts. Alan Greenspan, then the Fed chairman, eased monetary policy to restart capital markets, which were starting to freeze up. Long-Term Capital’s shareholders were wiped out, but none of the creditors took losses.

At the time, it may have seemed that regulators did the right thing. The bailout did not require upfront money from the government, and the world avoided an even bigger financial crisis. Today, however, that ad hoc intervention by the government no longer looks so wise. With the Long-Term Capital bailout as a precedent, creditors came to believe that their loans to unsound financial institutions would be made good by the Fed — as long as the collapse of those institutions would threaten the global credit system. Bolstered by this sense of security, bad loans mushroomed.

Of course, there were many reasons for the reckless lending and failures of risk management that led to the most recent systemic credit shocks. And we have now entered the realm of trillion-dollar bailouts, vast contagion across financial institutions, rapid deleveraging of banks and an economic crisis that some people are starting to compare to the Great Depression.

The Long-Term Capital episode looks small when viewed against all of that. But it was important precisely because the fund was not a major firm....

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