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When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management [Paperback]

Roger Lowenstein
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 9 2001
With a new Afterword addressing today’s financial crisis


In this business classic—now with a new Afterword in which the author draws parallels to the recent financial crisis—Roger Lowenstein captures the gripping roller-coaster ride of Long-Term Capital Management. Drawing on confidential internal memos and interviews with dozens of key players, Lowenstein explains not just how the fund made and lost its money but also how the personalities of Long-Term’s partners, the arrogance of their mathematical certainties, and the culture of Wall Street itself contributed to both their rise and their fall.

When it was founded in 1993, Long-Term was hailed as the most impressive hedge fund in history. But after four years in which the firm dazzled Wall Street as a $100 billion moneymaking juggernaut, it suddenly suffered catastrophic losses that jeopardized not only the biggest banks on Wall Street but the stability of the financial system itself. The dramatic story of Long-Term’s fall is now a chilling harbinger of the crisis that would strike all of Wall Street, from Lehman Brothers to AIG, a decade later. In his new Afterword, Lowenstein shows that LTCM’s implosion should be seen not as a one-off drama but as a template for market meltdowns in an age of instability—and as a wake-up call that Wall Street and government alike tragically ignored.

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From Amazon

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.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
IF THERE WAS one article of faith that John Meriwether discovered at Salomon Brothers, it was to ride your losses until they turned into gains. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Not enough Cream on the Coffee July 12 2004
1997, 30 year Treasury Bonds Fell to 5.58; traders were selling short to hedge against riskier bonds, treasuries rallied and spreads increased between bonds; Japanese bonds dropped opposite of the bet by LTCM.
Blame the Asian flu, IMF unresponsiveness, and Salomon Barney Smith abandonment of its arbitrage positions as causes for the evaporation of 4 billion dollars LTCM within months. LTCM was too big, possessing $128 billion in assets and $3.6 billion in the bank and 2/5 of money belonging to the owners. Notation derivates reaching leverage 100 to 1 preventing rapid sell off and bankruptcy out of question, for bankruptcy would have caused a world cascade economic crash and loses reaching above $1 trillion. Bankruptcy was not an option; LTCM was too big to fail and the Fed knew it. LTCM only chance was too secure money from warranties, loans, or a buy out; none of which in the end would save them. In the end, the Feds 16 banks would invest $250 million each with a total accumulation of $4 billion dollars rescuing LTCM and the partners would leave with relatively nothing in their pockets. How did smartest guys on Wall Street fail? How did the impossible happen?
1997, Indonesia, Rupiah dropped 85 percent as currency traders forced devaluation revealing a corrupt banking practices and overextension of bad credit; volatility rose to 27 percent.
1998 LTCM bet that no future recession would occur and believed the Bond margins would narrow. Instead, the world economy were experience new global forces as communism was breaking down, China's GNP was heating up, and East Germany was experiencing new economic freedoms. A U.S - 56 point margin increase on the swap, England - 45 point margin, and German - 20 point margin and LTCM was losing money on all of its markets.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Account of Hubris June 16 2004
Lowenstein is one of the finest financial journalists around, and his work in this book is no exception. More than anything, Long-Term Capital's collapse is the story of hubris and arrogance. The men who ran LTCM were brilliant financial minds and legendary traders, and their investment strategies would worked (or at least not failed on such a massive scale) if they had stayed within their realm of competence (fixed-income arbitrage). But Lowenstein chronicles their ill-fated forays into merger arbitrage, emerging markets and other areas that the gurus of LTCM didn't really understand as well as they thought they did.
The ultimate irony of the story is thatmany involved still don't think they were wrong in their investment strategy, viewing Russia's default (the exogenous event that directly led to the firm's liquidation) as a one-time, unforeseeable event.
With the meticulousness of a great journalist, Lowenstein brilliantly renders a story of arrogance run amok. As a derivatives trader, I think this book is must-reading for any trader or investment professional, since it teaches us all a couple crucial trading lessons: (1) The market is bigger than any one participant, and (2) Check your ego at the door.
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This book is a great inside look into the world of finance and greed and hedge funds. Although LTCM was not your typical hedge fund, it did bring some of the brightest minds in finance together for an amazingly successful investment enterpirse, only to watch it fail miserably as ego and pride took over.
Lowenstein does an amazing job of taking complex financial transactions and stories and making them read like pure enjoyable fiction. The book starts out with a background of the main partners in LTCM who started the venture. Geniuses in the private and academic world who wanted to use their knowledge to create an sure fire investment fund guaranteed to make huge profits.
Each character is almost like a fictional figure but they ar emost certainly real and Lowenstein brings them to life through descriptions and anecdotes. Then the investments begin and wether or not you have a strong background in finance, the authoer explains complex interest rate arbitrage strategies in a way anyone can udnerstand them.
The story of how the fund grew to over $100 billion in assets and produced some amazing returns early on is amazing. You see how much money these guys made and how they became richer larger than life figures. Then, they become victoms of their own success. They deterimined that the likelihood of failure was so infintesiimally small that they were basically risk-free. But as Murphy's Law taught us, the unexpected can happen when you think you are better than everyone else and better than the market.
The story provides great details in the characters involved, the transactions, and how the bankers picked apart LTCM to cover all their losses. The writing is excellent and keeps the story moving at a fast pace.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Is it true? Mindblowing March 25 2004
Great story. Appears to be very well researched. My only criticism would be that I felt the author was striving for a conclusion or something we could learn from the story. Whilst it certainly kept me turning the pages with intrigue (and I, like some of the other reviewers I notice, wanted to find the right conclusion too), there was no answer and I don't think there is an answer. No doubt we will be persuaded and tempted by fantastic academics with ideas for awesome returns again and no doubt we'll be burnt again too.
The story appears to describe a key episode in history which has influenced how the financial world has developed into what it is today. These few brilliant academics may have brought the largest banks in the world to the brink of collapse and perhaps we should frown upon them for it but they can also, arguably, be credited with shaking up the industry.
The book still, a year on, philosophically entertains me. Is an efficient market a good thing? What kind of greed motivated these people? Can we ever fully compensate for risk?
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but fells like a journal
My title said it best - the topic of the book is very interesting, but the writing style does not make you want to finish it in one reading.
Published 17 months ago by boyan
4.0 out of 5 stars "...in crisis, correlations go to 1"
The author of this book is a journalist - not a trader or banker - and it's helpful to remember that as you read through this moralistic account of LTCM's rise and fall. Read more
Published on June 26 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Ideology and greed defy common sense
There should be a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you read this book. Long-Term Capital Management was almost guaranteed to fail from its outset and, when the end... Read more
Published on June 19 2004 by Mr Mondo
4.0 out of 5 stars Not A Work of Fiction - Just Reads Like One
Any fool knows that playing the futures game is a risk. But here we have a situation where John Meriwether, having left Salomon Brothers under a cloud, is trusted with lots of... Read more
Published on Feb. 7 2004 by J. E. Robinson
4.0 out of 5 stars A Four Star Cautionary Tale of Financial Arrogance
The geniuses who ran Long-Term Capital Management thought they could do no wrong. They believed they had developed a can't fail system of playing small margins in bond and equity... Read more
Published on Jan. 7 2004 by James Sadler
1.0 out of 5 stars really bad
This book was poorly written, poorly edited, and abounds in bad and misleading metaphors and badly presented explanations of the industry and its technical concepts. Read more
Published on Dec 29 2003 by Keith E. Koenigsberg
5.0 out of 5 stars naked display of trader arrogance --
lowenstein tells the story of a bunch of very very very smart guys who could do three things: trade, raise money, borrow money. Read more
Published on Nov. 4 2003 by Bruce R Tizes
5.0 out of 5 stars Liars Poker Part Deux
Some of you may remember Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis, written over ten years ago about the author's experiences at Salomon Bros. Read more
Published on Oct. 25 2003 by PAUL FARRINGTON
5.0 out of 5 stars Volatile Combination of Leverage and Hubris
These fund managers may have been the brightest in the business, yet they began to think they could call the direction of the market based on historical data. Read more
Published on Oct. 18 2003
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