Bear Stearns. Note Quote.

Like many of its competitors, Bear Stearns saw the rise of the hedge fund industry during the 1990s and began managing its own funds with outside investor capital under the name Bear Stearns Asset Management (BSAM). Unlike its competitors, Bear hired all of its fund managers internally, with each manager specializing in a particular security or asset class. Objections by some Bear executives, such as co-president Alan Schwartz, that such concentration of risk could raise volatility were ignored, and the impressive returns posted by internal funds such as Ralph Cioffi’s High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund quieted any concerns.

Cioffi’s fund was invested in sophisticated credit derivatives backed by mortgage securities. When the housing bubble burst, he redoubled his bets, raising a new Enhanced Leverage High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund that would use 100 leverage (as compared to the 35 leverage employed by the original fund). The market continued to turn disastrously against the fund, which was soon stuck with billions of dollars worth of illiquid, unprofitable mortgages. In an attempt to salvage the situation and cut his losses, Cioffi launched a vehicle named Everquest Financial and sold its shares to the public. But when journalists at the Wall Street Journal revealed that Everquest’s primary assets were the “toxic waste” of money-losing mortgage securities, Bear had no choice but to cancel the public offering. With spectacular losses mounting daily, investors attempted to withdraw their remaining holdings. In order to free up cash for such redemptions, the fund had to liquidate assets at a loss, selling that only put additional downward pressure on its already underwater positions. Lenders to the fund began making margin calls and threatening to seize its $1.2 billion in collateral.

In a less turbulent market it might have worked, but the subprime crisis had spent weeks on the front page of financial newspapers around the globe, and every bank on Wall Street was desperate to reduce its own exposure. Insulted and furious that Bear had refused to inject any of its own capital to save the funds, Steve Black, J.P. Morgan Chase head of investment banking, called Schwartz and said, “We’re defaulting you.”

The default and subsequent seizure of $400 million in collateral by Merrill Lynch proved highly damaging to Bear Stearns’s reputation across Wall Street. In a desperate attempt to save face under the scrutiny of the SEC, James Cayne made the unprecedented move of using $1.6 billion of Bear’s own capital to prop up the hedge funds. By late July 2007 even Bear’s continued support could no longer prop up Cioffi’s two beleaguered funds, which paid back just $300 million of the credit its parent had extended. With their holdings virtually worthless, the funds had no choice but to file for bankruptcy protection.

On November 14, just two weeks after the Journal story questioning Cayne’s commitment and leadership, Bear Stearns reported that it would write down $1.2 billion in mortgage- related losses. (The figure would later grow to $1.9 billion.) CFO Molinaro suggested that the worst had passed, and to outsiders, at least, the firm appeared to have narrowly escaped disaster.

Behind the scenes, however, Bear management had already begun searching for a white knight, hiring Gary Parr at Lazard to examine its options for a cash injection. Privately, Schwartz and Parr spoke with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. founder Henry Kravis, who had first learned the leveraged buyout market while a partner at Bear Stearns in the 1960s. Kravis sought entry into the profitable brokerage business at depressed prices, while Bear sought an injection of more than $2 billion in equity capital (for a reported 20% of the company) and the calming effect that a strong, respected personality like Kravis would have upon shareholders. Ultimately the deal fell apart, largely due to management’s fear that KKR’s significant equity stake and the presence of Kravis on the board would alienate the firm’s other private equity clientele, who often competed with KKR for deals. Throughout the fall Bear continued to search for potential acquirers. With the market watching intently to see if Bear shored up its financing, Cayne managed to close only a $1 billion cross-investment with CITIC, the state-owned investment company of the People’s Republic of China.

Bear’s $0.89 profit per share in the first quarter of 2008 did little to quiet the growing whispers of its financial instability. It seemed that every day another major investment bank reported mortgage-related losses, and for whatever reason Bear’s name kept cropping up in discussions of the by-then infamous subprime crisis. Exacerbating Bear’s public relations problem, the SEC had launched an investigation into the collapse of the two BSAM hedge funds, and rumors of massive losses at three major hedge funds further rattled an already uneasy market. Nonetheless, Bear executives felt that the storm had passed, reasoning that its almost $21 billion in cash reserves had convinced the market of its long-term viability.

Instead, on Monday, March 10, 2008, Moody’s downgraded 163 tranches of mortgage- backed bonds issued by Bear across fifteen transactions. The credit rating agency had drawn sharp criticism for its role in the subprime meltdown from analysts who felt the company had overestimated the creditworthiness of mortgage-backed securities and failed to alert the market of the danger as the housing market turned. As a result, Moody’s was in the process of downgrading nearly all of its ratings, but as the afternoon wore on, Bear’s stock price seemed to be reacting far more negatively than those of competitor firms.

Wall Street’s drive toward ever more sophisticated communications devices had created an interconnected network of traders and bankers across the world. On most days, Internet chat and mobile e-mail devices relayed gossip about compensation, major employee departures, and even sports betting lines. On the morning of March 10, however, they were carrying one message to the exclusion of all others: Bear was having liquidity problems. At noon, CNBC took the story public on Power Lunch. As Bear’s stock price fell more than 10 percent to $63, Ace Greenberg frantically placed calls to various executives, demanding that someone publicly deny any such problems. When contacted himself, Greenberg told a CNBC correspondent that the rumors were “totally ridiculous,” angering CFO Molinaro, who felt that denying the rumor would only legitimize it and trigger further panic selling, making prophecies of Bear’s illiquidity self-fulfilling. Just two hours later, however, Bear appeared to have dodged a bullet. News of New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in a high-class prostitution ring wiped any financial rumors off the front page, leading Bear executives to believe the worst was once again behind them.

Instead, the rumors exploded anew the next day, as many interpreted the Federal Reserve’s announcement of a new $200 billion lending program to help financial institutions through the credit crisis as aimed specifically toward Bear Stearns. The stock dipped as low as $55.42 before closing at $62.97. Meanwhile, Bear executives faced a new crisis in the form of an explosion of novation requests, in which a party to a risky contract tries to eliminate its risky position by selling it to a third party. Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and Goldman Sachs all reported a deluge of novation requests from firms trying to reduce their exposure to Bear’s credit risk. The speed and force of this explosion of novation requests meant that before Bear could act, both Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse issued e-mails to their traders holding up any requests relating to Bear Stearns pending approval by their credit departments. Once again, the electronically linked gossip network of trading desks around the world dealt a blow to investor confidence in Bear’s stability, as a false rumor circulated that Credit Suisse’s memo had forbidden its traders from engaging in any trades with Bear. The decrease in confidence in Bear’s liquidity could be quantified by the rise in the cost of credit default swaps on Bear’s debt. The price of such an instrument – which effectively acts as five years of insurance against a default on $10 million of Bear’s debt – spiked to more than $626,000 from less than $100,000 in October, indicating heavy betting by some firms that Bear would be unable to pay its liabilities.

Untitled

Internally, Bear debated whether to address the rumors publicly, ultimately deciding to arrange a Wednesday morning interview of Schwartz by CNBC correspondent David Faber. Not wanting to encourage rumors with a hasty departure, Schwartz did the interview live from Bear’s annual media conference in Palm Beach. Chosen because of his perceived friendliness to Bear, Faber nonetheless opened the interview with a devastating question that claimed direct knowledge of a trader whose credit department had temporarily held up a trade with Bear. Later during the interview Faber admitted that the trade had finally gone through, but he had called into question Bear’s fundamental capacity to operate as a trading firm. One veteran trader later commented,

You knew right at that moment that Bear Stearns was dead, right at the moment he asked that question. Once you raise that idea, that the firm can’t follow through on a trade, it’s over. Faber killed him. He just killed him.

Despite sentiment at Bear that Schwartz had finally put the company’s best foot forward and refuted rumors of its illiquidity, hedge funds began pulling their accounts in earnest, bringing Bear’s reserves down to $15 billion. Additionally, repo lenders – whose overnight loans to investment banks must be renewed daily – began informing Bear that they would not renew the next morning, forcing the firm to find new sources of credit. Schwartz phoned Parr at Lazard, Molinaro reviewed Bear’s plans for an emergency sale in the event of a crisis, and one of the firm’s attorneys called the president of the Federal Reserve to explain Bear’s situation and implore him to accelerate the newly announced program that would allow investment banks to use mortgage securities as collateral for emergency loans from the Fed’s discount window, normally reserved for commercial banks.

The trickle of withdrawals that had begun earlier in the week turned into an unstoppable torrent of cash flowing out the door on Thursday. Meanwhile, Bear’s stock continued its sustained nosedive, falling nearly 15% to an intraday low of $50.48 before rallying to close down 1.5%. At lunch, Schwartz assured a crowded meeting of Bear executives that the whirlwind rumors were simply market noise, only to find himself interrupted by Michael Minikes, senior managing director,

Do you have any idea what is going on? Our cash is flying out the door! Our clients are leaving us!

Hedge fund clients jumped ship in droves. Renaissance Technologies withdrew approximately $5 billion in trading accounts, and D. E. Shaw followed suit with an equal amount. That evening, Bear executives assembled in a sixth-floor conference room to survey the carnage. In less than a week, the firm had burned through all but $5.9 billion of its $18.3 billion in reserves, and was still on the hook for $2.4 billion in short-term debt to Citigroup. With a panicked market making more withdrawals the next day almost certain, Schwartz accepted the inevitable need for additional financing and had Parr revisit merger discussions with J.P. Morgan Chase CEO James Dimon that had stalled in the fall. Flabbergasted at the idea that an agreement could be reached that night, Dimon nonetheless agreed to send a team of bankers over to analyze Bear’s books.

Parr’s call interrupted Dimon’s 52nd birthday celebration at a Greek restaurant just a few blocks away from Bear headquarters, where a phalanx of attorneys had begun preparing emergency bankruptcy filings and documents necessary for a variety of cash-injecting transactions. Facing almost certain insolvency in the next 24 hours, Schwartz hastily called an emergency board meeting late that night, with most board members dialing in remotely. Bear’s nearly four hundred subsidiaries would make a bankruptcy filing impossibly complicated, so Schwartz continued to cling to the hope for an emergency cash infusion to get Bear through Friday. As J.P. Morgan’s bankers pored over Bear’s positions, they balked at the firm’s precarious position and the continued size of its mortgage holdings, insisting that the Fed get involved in a bailout they considered far too risky to take on alone.

Its role as a counterparty in trillions of dollars’ worth of derivatives contracts bore an eerie similarity to LTCM, and the Fed once again saw the potential for financial Armageddon if Bear were allowed to collapse of its own accord. An emergency liquidation of the firm’s assets would have put strong downward pressure on global securities prices, exacerbating an already chaotic market environment. Facing a hard deadline of credit markets’ open on Friday morning, the Fed and J.P. Morgan wrangled back and forth on how to save Bear. Working around the clock, they finally reached an agreement wherein J.P. Morgan would access the Fed’s discount window and in turn offer Bear a $30 billion credit line that, as dictated by a last-minute insertion by J.P. Morgan general counsel Steven Cutler, would be good for 28 days. As the press release went public, Bear executives cheered; Bear would have almost a month to seek alternative financing.

Where Bear had seen a lifeline, however, the market saw instead a last desperate gasp for help. Incredulous Bear executives could only watch in horror as the firm’s capital continued to fly out of its coffers. On Friday morning Bear burned through the last of its reserves in a matter of hours. A midday conference call in which Schwartz confidently assured investors that the credit line would allow Bear to continue “business as usual” did little to stop the bleeding, and its stock lost almost half of its already depressed value, closing at $30 per share.

All day Friday, Parr set about desperately trying to save his client, searching every corner of the financial world for potential investors or buyers of all or part of Bear. Given the severity of the situation, he could rule out nothing, from a sale of the lucrative prime brokerage operations to a merger or sale of the entire company. Ideally, he hoped to find what he termed a “validating investor,” a respected Wall Street name to join the board, adding immediate credibility and perhaps quieting the now deafening rumors of Bear’s imminent demise. Sadly, only a few such personalities with the reputation and war chest necessary to play the role of savior existed, and most of them had already passed on Bear.

Nonetheless, Schwartz left Bear headquarters on Friday evening relieved that the firm had lived to see the weekend and secured 28 days of breathing room. During the ride home to Greenwich, an unexpected phone call from New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson shattered that illusion. Paulson told a stunned Schwartz that the Fed’s line of credit would expire Sunday night, giving Bear 48 hours to find a buyer or file for bankruptcy. The demise of the 28-day clause remains a mystery; the speed necessary early Friday morning and the inclusion of the clause by J.P. Morgan’s general counsel suggest that Bear executives had misinterpreted it, although others believe that Paulson and Geithner had soured both on Bear’s prospects and on market perception of an emergency loan from the Fed as Friday wore on. Either way, the Fed had made up its mind, and a Saturday morning appeal from Schwartz failed to sway Geithner.

All day Saturday prospective buyers streamed through Bear’s headquarters to pick through the rubble as Parr attempted to orchestrate Bear’s last-minute salvation. Chaos reigned, with representatives from every major bank on Wall Street, J. C. Flowers, KKR, and countless others poring over Bear’s positions in an effort to determine the value of Bear’s massive illiquid holdings and how the Fed would help in financing. Some prospective buyers wanted just a piece of the dying bank, others the whole firm, with still others proposing more complicated multiple-step transactions that would slice Bear to ribbons. One by one, they dropped out, until J. C. Flowers made an offer for 90% of Bear for a total of up to $2.6 billion, but the offer was contingent on the private equity firm raising $20 billion from a bank consortium, and $20 billion in risky credit was unlikely to appear overnight.

That left J.P. Morgan. Apparently the only bank willing to come to the rescue, J.P. Morgan had sent no fewer than 300 bankers representing 16 different product groups to Bear headquarters to value the firm. The sticking point, as with all the bidders, was Bear’s mortgage holdings. Even after a massive write-down, it was impossible to assign a value to such illiquid (and publicly maligned) securities with any degree of accuracy. Having forced the default of the BSAM hedge funds that started this mess less than a year earlier.

On its final 10Q in March, Bear listed $399 billion in assets and $387 billion in liabilities, leaving just $12 billion in equity for a 32 leverage multiple. Bear initially estimated that this included $120 billion of “risk-weighted” assets, those that might be subject to subsequent write-downs. As J.P. Morgan’s bankers worked around the clock trying to get to the bottom of Bear’s balance sheet, they came to estimate the figure at nearly $220 billion. That pessimistic outlook, combined with Sunday morning’s New York Times article reiterating Bear’s recent troubles, dulled J.P. Morgan’s appetite for jumping onto what appeared to be a sinking ship. Later, one J.P. Morgan banker shuddered, recalling the article. “That article certainly had an impact on my thinking. Just the reputational aspects of it, getting into bed with these people.”

On Saturday morning J.P. Morgan backed out and Dimon told a shell-shocked Schwartz to pursue any other option available to him. The problem was, no such alternative existed. Knowing this, and the possibility that the liquidation of Bear could throw the world’s financial markets into chaos, Fed representatives immediately phoned Dimon. As it had in the LTCM case a decade ago, the Fed relied heavily on suasion, or “jawboning,” the longtime practice of attempting to influence market participants by appeals to reason rather than a declaration by fiat. For hours, J.P. Morgan’s and the Fed’s highest-ranking officials played a game of high-stakes poker, with each side bluffing and Bear’s future hanging in the balance. The Fed wanted to avoid unprecedented government participation in the bailout of a private investment firm, while J.P. Morgan wanted to avoid taking on any of the “toxic waste” in Bear’s mortgage holdings. “They kept saying, ‘We’re not going to do it,’ and we kept saying, ‘We really think you should do it,’” recalled one Fed official. “This went on for hours . . . They kept saying, ‘We can’t do this on our own.’” With the hours ticking away until Monday’s Australian markets would open at 6:00 p.m. New York time, both sides had to compromise.

On Sunday afternoon, Schwartz stepped out of a 1:00 emergency meeting of Bear’s board of directors to take the call from Dimon. The offer would come somewhere in the range of $4 to 5 per share. Hearing the news from Schwartz, the Bear board erupted with rage. Dialing in from the bridge tournament in Detroit, Cayne exploded, ranting furiously that the firm should file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 rather than accept such a humiliating offer, which would reduce his 5.66 million shares – once worth nearly $1 billion – to less than $30 million in value. In reality, however, bankruptcy was impossible. As Parr explained, changes to the federal bankruptcy code in 2005 meant that a Chapter 11 filing would be tantamount to Bear falling on its sword, because regulators would have to seize Bear’s accounts, immediately ceasing the firm’s operations and forcing its liquidation. There would be no reorganization.

Even as Cayne raged against the $4 offer, the Fed’s concern over the appearance of a $30 billion loan to a failing investment bank while American homeowners faced foreclosures compelled Treasury Secretary Paulson to pour salt in Bear’s wounds. Officially, the Fed had remained hands-off in the LTCM bailout, relying on its powers of suasion to convince other banks to step up in the name of market stability. Just 10 years later, they could find no takers. The speed of Bear’s collapse, the impossibility of conducting true due diligence in such a compressed time frame, and the incalculable risk of taking on Bear’s toxic mortgage holdings scared off every buyer and forced the Fed from an advisory role into a principal role in the bailout. Worried that a price deemed at all generous to Bear might subsequently encourage moral hazard – increased risky behavior by investment banks secure in the knowledge that in a worst-case scenario, disaster would be averted by a federal bailout – Paulson determined that the transaction, while rescuing the firm, also had to be punitive to Bear shareholders. He called Dimon, who reiterated the contemplated offer range.

“That sounds high tome,” Paulson told the J.P. Morgan chief. “I think this should be done at a very low price.” It was moments later that Braunstein called Parr. “The number’s $2.” Under Delaware law, executives must act on behalf of both shareholders and creditors when a company enters the “zone of insolvency,” and Schwartz knew that Bear had rocketed through that zone over the past few days. Faced with bankruptcy or J.P. Morgan, Bear had no choice but to accept the embarrassingly low offer that represented a 97% discount off its $32 close on Friday evening. Schwartz convinced the weary Bear board that $2 would be “better than nothing,” and by 6:30 p.m., the deal was unanimously approved.

After 85 years in the market, Bear Stearns ceased to exist.

Long Term Capital Management. Note Quote.

Long Term Capital Management, or LTCM, was a hedge fund founded in 1994 by John Meriwether, the former head of Salomon Brothers’s domestic fixed-income arbitrage group. Meriwether had grown the arbitrage group to become Salomon’s most profitable group by 1991, when it was revealed that one of the traders under his purview had astonishingly submitted a false bid in a U.S. Treasury bond auction. Despite reporting the trade immediately to CEO John Gutfreund, the outcry from the scandal forced Meriwether to resign.

Meriwether revived his career several years later with the founding of LTCM. Amidst the beginning of one of the greatest bull markets the global markets had ever seen, Meriwether assembled a team of some of the world’s most respected economic theorists to join other refugees from the arbitrage group at Salomon. The board of directors included Myron Scholes, a coauthor of the famous Black-Scholes formula used to price option contracts, and MIT Sloan professor Robert Merton, both of whom would later share the 1997 Nobel Prize for Economics. The firm’s impressive brain trust, collectively considered geniuses by most of the financial world, set out to raise a $1 billion fund by explaining to investors that their profoundly complex computer models allowed them to price securities according to risk more accurately than the rest of the market, in effect “vacuuming up nickels that others couldn’t see.”

One typical LTCM trade concerned the divergence in price between long-term U.S. Treasury bonds. Despite offering fundamentally the same (minimal) default risk, those issued more recently – known as “on-the-run” securities – traded more heavily than those “off-the-run” securities issued just months previously. Heavier trading meant greater liquidity, which in turn resulted in ever-so-slightly higher prices. As “on-the-run” securities become “off-the-run” upon the issuance of a new tranche of Treasury bonds, the price discrepancy generally disappears with time. LTCM sought to exploit that price convergence by shorting the more expensive “on-the-run” bond while purchasing the “off- the-run” security.

By early 1998 the intellectual firepower of its board members and the aggressive trading practices that had made the arbitrage group at Salomon so successful had allowed LTCM to flourish, growing its initial $1 billion of investor equity to $4.72 billion. However, the miniscule spreads earned on arbitrage trades could not provide the type of returns sought by hedge fund investors. In order to make transactions such as these worth their while, LTCM had to employ massive leverage in order to magnify its returns. Ultimately, the fund’s equity component sat atop more than $124.5 billion in borrowings for total assets of more than $129 billion. These borrowings were merely the tip of the ice-berg; LTCM also held off-balance-sheet derivative positions with a notional value of more than $1.25 trillion.

Untitled

The fund’s success began to pose its own problems. The market lacked sufficient capacity to absorb LTCM’s bloated size, as trades that had been profitable initially became impossible to conduct on a massive scale. Moreover, a flood of arbitrage imitators tightened the spreads on LTCM’s “bread-and-butter” trades even further. The pressure to continue delivering returns forced LTCM to find new arbitrage opportunities, and the fund diversified into areas where it could not pair its theoretical insights with trading experience. Soon LTCM had made large bets in Russia and in other emerging markets, on S&P futures, and in yield curve, junk bond, merger, and dual-listed securities arbitrage.

Combined with its style drift, the fund’s more than 26 leverage put LTCM in an increasingly precarious bubble, which was eventually burst by a combination of factors that forced the fund into a liquidity crisis. In contrast to Scholes’s comments about plucking invisible, riskless nickels from the sky, financial theorist Nassim Taleb later compared the fund’s aggressive risk taking to “picking up pennies in front of a steamroller,” a steamroller that finally came in the form of 1998’s market panic. The departure of frequent LTCM counterparty Salomon Brothers from the arbitrage market that summer put downward pressure on many of the fund’s positions, and Russia’s default on its government-issued bonds threw international credit markets into a downward spiral. Panicked investors around the globe demonstrated a “flight to quality,” selling the risky securities in which LTCM traded and purchasing U.S. Treasury securities, further driving up their price and preventing a price convergence upon which the fund had bet so heavily.

None of LTCM’s sophisticated theoretical models had contemplated such an internationally correlated credit market collapse, and the fund began hemorrhaging money, losing nearly 20% of its equity in May and June alone. Day after day, every market in which LTCM traded turned against it. Its powerless brain trust watched in horror as its equity shrank to $600 million in early September without any reduction in borrowing, resulting in an unfathomable 200 leverage ratio. Sensing the fund’s liquidity crunch, Bear Stearns refused to continue acting as a clearinghouse for the fund’s trades, throwing LTCM into a panic. Without the short-term credit that enabled its entire trading operations, the fund could not continue and its longer-term securities grew more illiquid by the day.

Obstinate in their refusal to unwind what they still considered profitable trades hammered by short-term market irrationality, LTCM’s partners refused a buyout offer of $250 million by Goldman Sachs, ING Barings, and Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. However, LTCM’s role as a counterparty in thousands of derivatives trades that touched investment firms around the world threatened to provoke a wider collapse in international securities markets if the fund went under, so the U.S. Federal Reserve stepped in to maintain order. Wishing to avoid the precedent of a government bailout of a hedge fund and the moral hazard it could subsequently encourage, the Fed invited every major investment bank on Wall Street to an emergency meeting in New York and dictated the terms of the $3.625 billion bailout that would preserve market liquidity. The Fed convinced Bankers Trust, Barclays, Chase, Credit Suisse First Boston, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Salomon Smith Barney, and UBS – many of whom were investors in the fund – to contribute $300 million apiece, with $125 million coming from Société Générale and $100 million from Lehman Brothers and Paribas. Eventually the market crisis passed, and each bank managed to liquidate its position at a slight profit. Only one bank contacted by the Fed refused to join the syndicate and share the burden in the name of preserving market integrity.

That bank was Bear Stearns.

Bear’s dominant trading position in bonds and derivatives had won it the profitable business of acting as a settlement house for nearly all of LTCM’s trading in those markets. On September 22, 1998, just days before the Fed-organized bailout, Bear put the final nail in the LTCM coffin by calling in a short-term debt in the amount of $500 million in an attempt to limit its own exposure to the failing hedge fund, rendering it insolvent in the process. Ever the maverick in investment banking circles, Bear stubbornly refused to contribute to the eventual buyout, even in the face of a potentially apocalyptic market crash and despite the millions in profits it had earned as LTCM’s prime broker. In typical Bear fashion, James Cayne ignored the howls from other banks that failure to preserve confidence in the markets through a bailout would bring them all down in flames, famously growling through a chewed cigar as the Fed solicited contributions for the emergency financing, “Don’t go alphabetically if you want this to work.”

Market analysts were nearly unanimous in describing the lessons learned from LTCM’s implosion; in effect, the fund’s profound leverage had placed it in such a precarious position that it could not wait for its positions to turn profitable. While its trades were sound in principal, LTCM’s predicted price convergence was not realized until long after its equity had been wiped out completely. A less leveraged firm, they explained, might have realized lower profits than the 40% annual return LTCM had offered investors up until the 1998 crisis, but could have weathered the storm once the market turned against it. In the words of economist John Maynard Keynes, the market had remained irrational longer than LTCM could remain solvent. The crisis further illustrated the importance not merely of liquidity but of perception in the less regulated derivatives markets. Once LTCM’s ability to meet its obligations was called into question, its demise became inevitable, as it could no longer find counterparties with whom to trade and from whom it could borrow to continue operating.

The thornier question of the Fed’s role in bailing out an overly aggressive investment fund in the name of market stability remained unresolved, despite the Fed’s insistence on private funding for the actual buyout. Though impossible to foresee at the time, the issue would be revisited anew less than ten years later, and it would haunt Bear Stearns. With negative publicity from Bear’s $38.5 million settlement with the SEC regarding charges that it had ignored fraudulent behavior by a client for whom it cleared trades and LTCM’s collapse behind it, Bear Stearns continued to grow under Cayne’s leadership, with its stock price appreciating some 600% from his assumption of control in 1993 until 2008. However, a rapid-fire sequence of negative events began to unfurl in the summer of 2007 that would push Bear into a liquidity crunch eerily similar to the one that felled LTCM.

India’s Cashlessness Drive or A Rudderless Cacophony

southlive-english-2016-12-986d6eca-56d2-4c92-974f-11a4e941f811-ewalathero

Is there a plus out of going less-cash dependent rather than  going cashless? Yes, on the negative interest rates issue, these appear to be better than Quantitative Easing to turbocharge an economy from a recession, BUT only in cases of advanced economies and definitely not in the case of an economy that is purportedly to be the fasting growing emerging one according to the whims, fancies and vagaries of WB/IMF statistics. Why is the case?

Presently, the interest rates are zero bound (though India is largely outside the bracket meaning all the more vociferously that this sudden sweep has been misplaced at the very top trickling down to the bottom in treacherous wringing. but imagine for a moment that India too faces this movement of rates towards the ignominious ‘0’), i.e. cannot fall below zero. And then there’s the sacred rule of

Real term interest rate = Nominal Interest Rate – Rate of Inflation

In 2008, with advanced economies like US having less rate of inflation the room to cut interest rates was pretty much restricted considering the US Fed had set a target rate of inflation as 2%. With a less-cash society the Central Bankers can set interest rates to negative which basically means that you need to pay the bank to hold your deposit. Now keep in mind that the debate is still out over whether the three tranches of QE actually did good.

The author (KR) acknowledges that negative interest rates might give rise to strange situations like for example in case of a bond holder – the borrower needs to pay the lender. Legal and administrative issues can arise but they can be handled as the payments due can be deducted from the principal in this case.

There’s one interesting alternative to negative interest rates shared in the book from the academic economic circles – the two currency system.

It calls for identifying as paper currency and currency in electronic form in banking system as two different. And it calls for an exchange rate when a person goes to the bank to deposit his paper currency which will ultimately be recorded in the banking system as an electronic form. This will give rise to three monetary instruments which the Central Bankers can then play with –

  1. Interest rates on electronic currency
  2. Exchange rate b/w Electronic and Paper Currency
  3. Forward (future) exchange rate

As these days the chatter increases about digital or crypto-currencies, Rogoff is of the view that these innovations are admirable but these currencies are at a major disadvantage as the govt. has tremendous power at its disposal to impose its will over them. But eventually, the technology like public ledger will be adopted, and that would eventually be taking off from #Blockchain.

Is India following the playbook in The Curse of Cash? On motivation, yes, absolutely. A central theme of the book is that whereas advanced country citizens still use cash extensively (amounting to about 10% of the value of all transactions in the United States), the vast bulk of physical currency is held in the underground economy, fueling tax evasion and crime of all sorts. Moreover, most of this cash is held in the form of large denomination notes such as the US $100 that are increasingly unimportant in legal, tax-compliant transactions. Ninety-five percent of Americans never hold $100s, yet for every man, woman and child there are 34 of them. Paper currency is also a key driver of illegal immigration and corruption. The European Central Bank recently began phasing out the 500 euro mega-note over these concerns, partly because of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

BUT SETTING AND IMPLEMENTATION IS VASTLY DIFFERENT

On implementation, however, India’s approach is radically different, in two fundamental ways. First, I argue for a very gradual phase-out, in which citizens would have up to seven years to exchange their currency, but with the exchange made less convenient over time. This is the standard approach in currency exchanges. For example this is how the European swapped out legacy national currencies (e.g the deutschmark and the French franc) during the introduction of the physical euro fifteen years ago. India has given people 50 days, and the notes are of very limited use in the meantime. The idea of taking big notes out of circulation at short notice is hardly new, it was done in Europe after World War II for example, but as a peacetime move it is extremely radical. Back in the 1970s, James Henry suggested an idea like this for the United States. Here is what I say there about doing a fast swap for the United States instead of the very gradual one I recommend:

 “(A very fast) swap plan absolutely merits serious discussion, but there might be significant problems even if the government only handed out small bills for the old big bills. First, there are formidable logistical problems to doing anything quickly, since at least 40% of U.S. currency is held overseas. Moreover, there is a fine line between a snap currency exchange and a debt default, especially for a highly developed economy in peacetime. Foreign dollar holders especially would feel this way. Finally, any exchange at short notice would be extremely unfair to people who acquired their big bills completely legally but might not keep tabs on the news.

In general, a slow gradual currency swap would be far less disruptive in an advanced economy, and would leave room for dealing with unanticipated and unintended consequences. One idea, detailed in The Curse of Cash, is to allow people to exchange their expiring large bills relatively conveniently for the first few years (still subject to standard anti-money-laundering reporting requirements), then over time make it more inconvenient by accepting the big notes at ever fewer locations and with ever stronger reporting requirements.

Second, my approach eliminates large notes entirely. Instead of eliminating the large notes, India is exchanging them for new ones, and also introducing a larger, 2000-rupee note, which are also being given in exchange for the old notes.

MY PLAN IS EXPLICITLY TAILORED TO ADVANCED ECONOMIES

The idea in The Curse of Cash of eliminating large notes and not replacing them is not aimed at developing countries, where the share of people without effective access to banking is just too large. In the book I explain how a major part of any plan to phase out large notes must include a significant component for financial inclusion. In the United States, the poor do not really rely heavily on $100 bills (virtually no one in the legal economy does) and as long as smaller bills are around, the phase out of large notes should not be too much of a problem, However, the phaseout of large notes is golden opportunity to advance financial inclusion, in the first instance by giving low income individuals access to free basic debt accounts. The government could use these accounts to make transfers, which would in turn be a major cost saving measure. But in the US, only 8% of the population is unbanked. In Colombia, the number is closer to 50% and, by some accounts, it is near 90% in India. Indeed, the 500 rupee note in India is like the $10 or $20 bill in the US and is widely used by all classes, so India’s maneuver is radically different than my plan. (That said, I appreciate that the challenges are both different and greater, and the long-run potential upside also much higher.)

Indeed, developing countries share some of the same problems and the corruption and counterfeiting problem is often worse. Simply replacing old notes with new ones does have a lot of beneficial effects similar to eliminating large notes. Anyone turning in large amounts of cash still becomes very vulnerable to legal and tax authorities. Indeed that is Modi’s idea. And criminals have to worry that if the government has done this once, it can do it again, making large notes less desirable and less liquid. And replacing notes is also a good way to fight counterfeiting—as The Curse of Cash explains, it is a constant struggle for governments to stay ahead of counterfeiters, as for example in the case of the infamous North Korean $100 supernote.

Will Modi’s plan work? Despite apparent huge holes in the planning (for example, the new notes India is printing are a different size and do not fit the ATM machines), many economists feel it could still have large positive effects in the long-run, shaking up the corruption, tax evasion, and crime that has long crippled the country. But the long-run gains depend on implementation, and it could take years to know how history will view this unprecedented move.

THE GOAL IS A LESS-CASH SOCIETY NOT A CASHLESS ONE

In The Curse of Cash, I argue that it will likely be necessary to have a physical currency into the far distant future, but that society should try to better calibrate the use of cash. What is happening in India is an extremely ambitious step in that direction, of a staggering scale that is immediately affecting 1.2 billion people. The short run costs are unfolding, but the long-run effects on India may well prove more than worth them, but it is very hard to know for sure at this stage.

The long quote is by none other than Rogoff himself on the viability of the Indian drive.

Helicopter Money Drop, or QE for the People or some other Unconventional Macroeconomic Tool…? Hoping the Government of India isn’t Looking to Buy into and Sell this Rhetoric in Defense of Demonetisation.

Let us suppose now that one day a helicopter flies over this community and drops an additional $1,000 in bills from the sky, which is, of course, hastily collected by members of the community. Let us suppose further that everyone is convinced that this is a unique event which will never be repeated.

This famous quote from Milton Friedman’s “The Optimum Quantity of Money” is the underlying principle behind what is termed Helicopter Money, where the basic tenet is if the Central Bank wants to raise inflation and output in the economy, that is below par, potential, the most effective tool would be simply to give everyone direct money transfers. In theory, people would see this as a permanent one-off expansion of the amount of money in circulation and would then start to spend more freely, increasing broader economic activity and pushing inflation back up to the central bank’s target. The notion was taken to a different level thanks to Ben Bernanke, former Chairman of FED, when he said,

A broad-based tax cut, for example, accommodated by a programme of open-market purchases to alleviate any tendency for interest rates to increase, would almost certainly be an effective stimulant to consumption and hence to prices. Even if households decided not to increase consumption but instead rebalanced their portfolios by using their extra cash to acquire real and financial assets, the resulting increase in asset values would lower the cost of capital and improve the balance sheet positions of potential borrowers. A money-financed tax cut is essentially equivalent to Milton Friedman’s famous ‘helicopter drop’ of money.

The last sentence of the quote obviously draws out the resemblances between the positions held by MF and BB, or helicopter money and quantitative easing, respectively. But, there is a difference that majorly lies in asset swaps for the latter, where the government bond gets exchanged for bank reserves. But, what about QE for the People, a dish dished out by two major ingredients in the form of financial excesses and communist manifesto!!! Thats a nice ring to it, and as Bloomberg talked of it almost a couple of years back, if the central bank were to start sending cheques to each and every household (read citizen), then most of this money would be spent, boosting demand and thus echoing MF. But, the downside would be central banks creating liabilities without corresponding assets thus depleting equity. Well, thats for QE for the People, the mix of financial excesses and communist manifesto. This differentiates with QE, as in the process of QE, no doubt liabilities are created but central banks get assets in the form of securities it buys in return. While this alleviates reserve constraints in the banking sector (one possible reason for them to cut back lending) and lowers government borrowing costs, its transmission to the real economy could at best be indirect and underwhelming. As such, it does not provide much bang for your buck. Direct transfers into people’s accounts, or monetary-financed tax breaks or government spending, would offer one way to increase the effectiveness of the policy by directly influencing aggregate demand rather than hoping for a trickle-down effect from financial markets.

geoq416_special-focus_fig1

Assuming Helicopter Money is getting materialized in India. What this in effect brings to the core is a mix of confusion fusion between who enacts the fiscal and who the monetary policies. If the Government of India sends Rs. 15 lac to households, it is termed fiscal policy and of the RBI does the same, then it is termed monetary policy and the macroeconomic mix confusions galore from here on. But, is this QE for the People or Helicopter drop really part of the fiscal policy? It can’t be, unless it starts to be taken notice of the fact that RBI starts carrying out reverse repurchase operations (reverse repo), and plans to expand its multiple fold when it raises its interest rate target in order to put a floor on how far the funds rate could fall. And thats precisely what the RBI undertook in the wake, or rather during the peak of demonetisation. So, here the difference between such drops/QE for the People and QE becomes all the more stark, for if the RBI were to undertake such drops or QE for the People, then it would end up selling securities thus self-driving the rates down, or even reach where it has yet to, ZIRP. Thus, what would happen if the Government does the drops? It’d appear they spend money and sell securities, too. But in that case, people would say the security sales are financing the spending. And in their minds this is the fiscal policy, while the RBI’s helicopter money is monetary policy. If the confusions are still murky, the result is probably due to the fact that it is hybrid in nature, or taxonomically deviant.

It seems much clearer to simply say that (a) the act of creating a deficit—raising the net financial wealth of the non-government sector is fiscal policy, and (b) the act of announcing and then supporting an interest rate target with security sales (or purchases, or interest on reserves), which has no effect on the net financial wealth of the non-government sector is monetary policy. In the case of (a), whether the RBI cuts the cheques, it’s fiscal policy, and with (b), whether the RBI sells securities, it’s monetary policy. In other words, fiscal policy is about managing the net financial assets of the non-government sector relative to the state of the economy, and monetary policy is about managing interest rates (and through it, to the best of its abilities, bank lending and deposit creation) relative to the state of the economy.

So, how does this helicopter drop pan with India’s DBT, Direct Benefit Transfers or getting back the back money to be put into accounts of every Indian? What rhetoric to begin and end with? Let us go back to the words of Raghuram Rajan, when he was the Governor of the RBI. “It is not absolutely clear that throwing the money out of the window, or targeted cheques to beneficiaries… will be politically feasible in many countries, or produce economically the desired effect,” he said because the fiscal spending hasn’t achieved much elevated growth. So, bury the hatchet here, or the government might get this, import this rhetoric to defend its botched-up move on demonetisation. Gear up, figure out.