Conjuncted: Long-Term Capital Management. Note Quote.

3022051-14415416419579177-Shock-Exchange_origin

From Lowenstein‘s

The real culprit in 1994 was leverage. If you aren’t in debt, you can’t go broke and can’t be made to sell, in which case “liquidity” is irrelevant. but, a leveraged firm may be forced to sell, lest fast accumulating losses put it out of business. Leverage always gives rise to this same brutal dynamic, and its dangers cannot be stressed too often…

One of LTCM‘s first trades involved the thirty-year Treasury bond, which are issued by the US Government to finance the federal budget. Some $170 billion of them trade everyday, and are considered the least risky investments in the world. but a funny thing happens to thirty-year Treasurys six months or so after they are issued: they are kept in safes and drawers for long-term keeps. with fewer left in the circulation, the bonds become harder to trade. Meanwhile, the Treasury issues new thirty-year bond, which has its day in the sun. On Wall Street, the older bond, which has about 29-and-a-half years left to mature, is known as off the run; while the shiny new one is on the run. Being less liquid, the older one is considered less desirable, and begins to trade at a slight discount. And as arbitrageurs would say, a spread opens.

LTCM with its trademark precision calculated that owning one bond and shorting another was twenty-fifth as risky as owning either outright. Thus, it reckoned, it would prudently leverage this long/short arbitrage twenty-five times. This multiplied its potential for profit, but also its potential for loss. In any case, borrow it did. It paid for the cheaper off the run bonds with money it had borrowed from a Wall Street bank, or from several banks. And the other bonds, the ones it sold short, it obtained through a loan, as well. Actually, the transaction was more involved, though it was among the simplest in LTCM’s repertoire. No sooner than LTCM buy off the run bonds than it loaned them to some other Wall street firm, which then wired cash to LTCM as collateral. Then LTCM turned around and used this cash as a collateral on the bonds it borrowed. On Wall street, such short-term, collateralized loans are known as “repo financing”. The beauty of the trade was that LTCM’s cash transactions were in perfect balance. The money that LTCM spent going long matched the money that it collected going short. The collateral it paid equalled the collateral it collected. In other words, LTCM pulled off the entire transaction without using a single dime of its own cash. Maintaining the position wasn’t completely cost free, however. Though, a simple trade, it actually entailed four different payment streams. LTCM collected interest on the collateral it paid out and paid interest at a slightly higher-rate on the collateral it took in. It made some of this deficit back because of the difference in the initial margin, or the slightly higher coupon on the bond it owned as compared to the bond it shorted. This, overall cost a few basis points to LTCM each month.

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.

Orthodoxy of the Neoclassical Synthesis: Minsky’s Capitalism Without Capitalists, Capital Assets, and Financial Markets

econschools

During the very years when orthodoxy turned Keynesianism on its head, extolling Reaganomics and Thatcherism as adequate for achieving stabilisation in the epoch of global capitalism, Minsky (Stabilizing an Unstable Economy) pointed to the destabilising consequences of this approach. The view that instability is the result of the internal processes of a capitalist economy, he wrote, stands in sharp contrast to neoclassical theory, whether Keynesian or monetarist, which holds that instability is due to events that are outside the working of the economy. The neoclassical synthesis and the Keynes theories are different because the focus of the neoclassical synthesis is on how a decentralized market economy achieves coherence and coordination in production and distribution, whereas the focus of the Keynes theory is upon the capital development of an economy. The neoclassical synthesis emphasizes equilibrium and equilibrating tendencies, whereas Keynes‘s theory revolves around bankers and businessmen making deals on Wall Street. The neoclassical synthesis ignores the capitalist nature of the economy, a fact that the Keynes theory is always aware of.

Minsky here identifies the main flaw of the neoclassical synthesis, which is that it ignores the capitalist nature of the economy, while authentic Keynesianism proceeds from precisely this nature. Minsky lays bare the preconceived approach of orthodoxy, which has mainstream economics concentrating all its focus on an equilibrium which is called upon to confirm the orthodox belief in the stability of capitalism. At the same time, orthodoxy fails to devote sufficient attention to the speculation in the area of finance and banking that is the precise cause of the instability of the capitalist economy.

Elsewhere, Minsky stresses still more firmly that from the theory of Keynes, the neoclassical standard included in its arsenal only those earlier-mentioned elements which could be interpreted as confirming its preconceived position that capitalism was so perfect that it could not have innate flaws. In this connection Minsky writes:

Whereas Keynes in The General Theory proposed that economists look at the economy in quite a different way from the way they had, only those parts of The General Theory that could be readily integrated into the old way of looking at things survive in today‘s standard theory. What was lost was a view of an economy always in transit because it accumulates in response to disequilibrating forces that are internal to the economy. As a result of the way accumulation takes place in a capitalist economy, Keynes‘s theory showed that success in operating the economy can only be transitory; instability is an inherent and inescapable flaw of capitalism. 

The view that survived is that a number of special things went wrong, which led the economy into the Great Depression. In this view, apt policy can assure that cannot happen again. The standard theory of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to assert that if policy were apt, then full employment at stable prices could be attained and sustained. The existence of internally disruptive forces was ignored; the neoclassical synthesis became the economics of capitalism without capitalists, capital assets, and financial markets. As a result, very little of Keynes has survived today in standard economics.

Here, resting on Keynes‘s analysis, one can find the central idea of Minsky‘s book: the innate instability of capitalism, which in time will lead the system to a new Great Depression. This forecast has now been brilliantly confirmed, but previously there were few who accepted it. Economic science was orchestrated by proponents of neoclassical orthodoxy under the direction of Nobel prizewinners, authors of popular economics textbooks, and other authorities recognized by the mainstream. These people argued that the main problems which capitalism had encountered in earlier times had already been overcome, and that before it lay a direct, sunny road to an even better future.

Robed in complex theoretical constructs, and underpinned by an abundance of mathematical formulae, these ideas of a cloudless future for capitalism interpreted the economic situation, it then seemed, in thoroughly convincing fashion. These analyses were balm for the souls of the people who had come to believe that capitalism had attained perfection. In this respect, capitalism has come to bear an uncanny resemblance to communism. There is, however, something beyond the preconceptions and prejudices innate to people in all social systems, and that is the reality of historical and economic development. This provides a filter for our ideas, and over time makes it easier to separate truth from error. The present financial and economic crisis is an example of such reality. While the mainstream was still euphoric about the future of capitalism, the post-Keynesians saw the approaching outlines of a new Great Depression. The fate of Post Keynesianism will depend very heavily on the future development of the world capitalist economy. If the business cycle has indeed been abolished (this time), so that stable, non-inflationary growth continues indefinitely under something approximating to the present neoclassical (or pseudo-monetarist) policy consensus, then there is unlikely to be a significant market for Post Keynesian ideas. Things would be very different in the event of a new Great Depression, to think one last time in terms of extreme possibilities. If it happened again, to quote Hyman Minsky, the appeal of both a radical interventionist programme and the analysis from which it was derived would be very greatly enhanced.

Neoclassical orthodoxy, that is, today‘s mainstream economic thinking proceeds from the position that capitalism is so good and perfect that an alternative to it does not and cannot exist. Post-Keynesianism takes a different standpoint. Unlike Marxism it is not so revolutionary a theory as to call for a complete rejection of capitalism. At the same time, it does not consider capitalism so perfect that there is nothing in it that needs to be changed. To the contrary, Post-Keynesianism maintains that capitalism has definite flaws, and requires changes of such scope as to allow alternative ways of running the economy to be fully effective. To the prejudices of the mainstream, post-Keynesianism counterposes an approach based on an objective analysis of the real situation. Its economic and philosophical approach – the methodology of critical realism – has been developed accordingly, the methodological import of which helps post-Keynesianism answer a broad range of questions, providing an alternative both to market fundamentalism, and to bureaucratic centralism within a planned economy. This is the source of its attraction for us….

Hyman Minsky, Karl Polanyi, Deleterious Markets and if there is any Alt-Right to them? Apparently No.

Karl Polanyi has often highlighted on the insight about the predicaments of the market. these perils realize that when the markets are left to their own devices, they are enough o cause attrition to the social relations and fabric. However, the social consequences of financial instability can be understood only by employing a Polanyian perspective on how processes of commodification and market expansion jeopardize social institutions. For someone like Hyman Minsky, equilibrium and stability are elusive conditions in markets with debt contracts. His financial instability hypothesis suggests that capitalist economies lead, through their own dynamics, to “the development over historical time of liability structures that cannot be validated by market-determined cash flows or asset values”. According to Minsky, a stable period generates optimistic expectations. Increased confidence and positive expectations of future income streams cause economic actors to decrease margins of safety in their investment decisions. This feeds a surge in economic activity and profits, which turns into a boom as investments are financed by higher degrees of indebtedness. As the economic boom matures, an increasing number of financial intermediaries and firms switch from hedge finance to speculative and Ponzi finance. Minsky argued that economists, misreading Keynes, downplay the role of financial institutions. In particular, he argued that financial innovation can create economic euphoria for a while before destabilizing the economy and hurling it into crises rivaling the Great Depression. Minsky’s insights are evident in the effects of innovations in mortgages and mortgage securities. Actors using speculative and Ponzi finance are vulnerable to macroeconomic volatility and interest rate fluctuations. A boom ends when movements in short-term and long-term interest rates render the liability structures of speculative and Ponzi finance unsustainable. The likelihood of a financial crisis (as opposed to a business cycle) depends on the preponderance of speculative and Ponzi finance in the economy under question.

heres-what-prophetic-economist-hyman-minsky-would-say-about-todays-crisis

Minsky regularly criticized economists for failing to grasp Keynes’s ideas. In his book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy Minsky argued that while economists assimilated some of Keynes’s insights into standard economic theory, they failed to grasp the connection between the financial and real sectors. Specifically, he argued that finance is missing from macroeconomic theory, with its focus on capital structure, asset-liability management, agency theory, and contracts. He wrote:

Keynes’s theory revolves around bankers and businessmen making deals on Wall Street … One of the peculiarities of the neoclassical theory that preceded Keynes and the neoclassical synthesis that now predominates economic theory is that neither allows the activities that take place on Wall Street to have any significant impact upon the coordination or lack of coordination of the economy…

Minsky’s work on financial crises builds on Keynes’s insights, using terms such as “euphoric economy”, and “unrealistic euphoric expectations with respect to costs, markets, and their development over time”. Yet Minsky considered the issues of rational prices and market efficiency as only the tip of an iceberg. His broad framework addresses issues related to the lending practices by financial institutions, central bank policy, fiscal policy, the efficacy of financial market regulation, employment policy, and income distribution. Financial institutions, such as banks, become increasingly innovative in their use of financial products when the business cycle expands, boosting their leverage and funding projects with ever increasing risk. Minsky’s words on financial innovation are striking, as if foretelling the recent crisis.

Over an expansion, new financial instruments and new ways of financing activity develop. Typically, defects of the new ways and the new institutions are revealed when the crunch comes.

Commercial banks sponsored conduits to finance long-term assets through special purpose entities such as structured investment vehicles (SIVs), something similar to the Indian version of Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs). These were off balance sheet entities, subjecting them to lower regulatory capital requirements. Special purpose entities used commercial paper to raise funds they then used to buy mortgages and mortgage securities. In effect, banks relied on Minsky-type speculative and Ponzi financing, borrowing short-term and using these borrowed funds to buy long-term assets. Wrote Minsky,

The standard analysis of banking has led to a game that is played by central banks, henceforth to be called the authorities, and profit-seeking banks. In this game, the authorities impose interest rates and reserve regulations and operate in money markets to get what they consider to be the right amount of money, and the banks invent and innovate in order to circumvent the authorities. The authorities may constrain the rate of growth of the reserve base, but the banking and financial structure determines the efficacy of reserves…This is an unfair game. The entrepreneurs of the banking community have much more at stake than the bureaucrats of the central banks. In the postwar period, the initiative has been with the banking community, and the authorities have been “surprised” by changes in the way financial markets operate. The profit-seeking bankers almost always win their game with the authorities, but, in winning, the banking community destabilizes the economy; the true losers are those who are hurt by unemployment and inflation.

1430246264044

Combining Hyman Minsky’s insights on financial fragility with a Polanyian focus on commodification offers a distinct perspective on the causes and consequences of the foreclosure crisis. First, following Polanyi, we should expect to find commodity fiction applied to arenas of social life previously isolated from markets to be at the heart of the recent financial crisis. Second, following Minsky, the transformations caused by novel uses of commodity fiction should be among the primary causes of financial fragility. Finally, in line with a Polanyian focus on the effects of supply-demand-price mechanism, the price fluctuations caused by financial fragility should disrupt existing social relations and institutions in a significant manner. So, how does this all peter down to alt-right? Right-wing libertarianism is basically impossible. The “free” market as we know it today needs the state to be implemented – without reading Polanyi, you just know for example that without the force of the state, you just can’t have private property or all the legal arrangements that underpin property, labour and money. So it wouldn’t work anyway. Polanyi’s point is that if we want democracy to survive, we need to beware of financial overlords and their ideological allies peddling free-market utopias. And if democracy even stinks of stability, then stability is destabilizing as Minsky would have had it, thus corroborating the cross-purposes between the two thinkers in question, at least to the point of a beginning.

The Poverty of Left in Latin America as orchestrated and endorsed by Joseph Stiglitz

For a change, here is another mushroom cropping up (It actually cropped up as an idea and then materialised in 2008-09), this time, thanks to Leftist governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Christened “Bank of the South“, the $7 billion fund-Development Bank is the most logical culmination (what else is there?) of these Latin Americans against the neoliberal, austerity-directed reforms of the Bretton Woods behemoths. Let them dig the grounds for fecundity, what really caught my attention here is that almost a decade back, Joseph Stiglitz endorsed Hugo Chavez’s economic policies, and in 2007 even called such a development bank calling it as reflecting the perspectives of those in the South. And that was a bad call.

I want to chip in why I think such endorsements portray the vacuity, and strangely that too coming from the likes of Joseph Stiglitz.

South-South cooperation is actually becoming the malafide of the resistance against the neoliberal (Oh! how much do I despise this word now, and all the more so when it is gaining currency amongst the alternative political viewpoints) policies, and it is easily gauged by the receding of the Pink Tide in Latin america, the so-called cradle of Left in the late 90s of the earlier century and the first decade of the new. “With global stagnation and falling export prices, the ‘pink tide’ states must choose between their social programme and their economic strategy,” Financial Times is tightening screws on the coffin of Left on the continent. With the recent killing of Bolivia’s Deputy Interior Minister Rodolfo Illanes by striking miners, President Evo Morales has resorted to what the Left has always been classically resorting to: “conspiracy theory”. As Richard Seymour has quipped with a lot of prescience, Morales’ resort to conspiracy theory makes a certain sense in the context of Latin America, where a series of left-wing governments elected as part of a “pink tide” in the 2000s have gone into crisis. Argentina elected its first right-wing government in 12 years in November. Venezuela’s economic crash has led to the victory of the right-wing opposition in the senate. Notwithstanding the hyperventilating coverage of the country’s total collapse, the country is beset by real problems, a combination of opposition disruptioninternational pressure and government mistakes exacerbating the turmoil. In Brazil, impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff have put the unelected opposition in power. Rousseff is impeached for manipulating the figures to make the government’s finances look better than they were, but the real problem appears to be that amid economic troubles, Rousseff was elected on a programme of investment rather than austerity. Bolivia, did set an example of an anomaly, where growth stabilised, public investment reached a high level, and minimum wages greater than the rate of inflation were introduced. So, why this turnaround? The government has built its authority on support from the police and army, and has repeatedly deployed police against social movements where they were inconvenient, such as during the protests against fuel price increases in 2010, or against a road built on indigenous land during 2011. Dissatisfaction with the left-wing and left-center governments in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela did not arise because the right-wing is admired by the public, but rather because the improvements begun under the left have stalled. The problems are most severe in Venezuela, where the drop in world oil prices has led to extreme inflation and scarcity of supplies in many sectors of the economy. It is important to understand that, largely, the problems have not arisen in the socialist part of the economies of these countries, but in sectors that are still under the control of private enterprise. In Venezuela, more than 70 percent of economic activity is still private. Food distribution, which is central to the problems of scarcity and inflation, is virtually monopolized by a small number of private companies that have ties to the right-wing opposition, especially the Polar company that controls 40 percent of the market. Venezuela, in short is a failed state. So, obviously the tide is turning.

8292010339281

From within the simmering, rises a reinvigorated bank, and its efficiency would depend on a host of issues, viz. a replication of WB/IMF’s more contributions to fund, more weightage to vote; exemption from taxes salaries and procurement of investment, which also incidentally happens to be copy of WB/IMF; undecidability on reserve funds; prioritising infrastructure over agriculture and social sectors; chalking out a plan for investment in financial intermediaries to develop national companies; procurement; and participation & transparency. Would the Bank actually be able to overcome these is in time. But, my main intention has been Joseph’s remark, or rather his subscription to such alternatives to WB/IMF. More than he actually welcoming this bank, or for that matter the NDB as rivalling the hegemonic structures of WB/IMF, it’s his stance on financialisation of capital that needs to be sent through a scanner. I have to admit honestly that I was bowled over by his discontent book, which did send me on a trip to track change via his honest and integrity-filled analysis of globalisation. Even reading Bhagwati in concomitance wasn’t a powerful let down to following JS. But, just like the Left stands precariously, JS’s conceptualisation somehow misses the beat for me these days.

He, undoubtedly was a voice to hear during and in the aftermath of global crisis. His attack was three-pronged and all of it suited the purpose for the non-esoteric to figure out the causes of 2008-09 downturn. That there are problems associated with mainstream economics with over reliance on algorithms designed by mathematical geniuses, questionable character of rationality as a result of conflict of interests impairing ratings agencies, and lack of accountability on Wall Street’s excessive risk-taking adventures isn’t really in any doubt. But, thereafter fluctuations start becoming noticeable, and as a left-inclined theorist, he blames the neoliberal policies that had its beginnings in the 70s for all the ills with current economic and financial mess the world over. Assuming it to be true, then how do we explain the fact that Western Europe’s hyper-regulated economies are presently in even worse shape than America’s? Today Greece is a nation on financial life-support. Yet it has long been one of the most regulated and interventionist economies in the entire EU. This, however, doesn’t stop Stiglitz from proposing a massive expansion of regulation. This, he says, should be shaped “by financial experts in unions, nongovernmental organisations  and universities”. More generally, there’s nothing new about what Stiglitz calls “New Capitalism.” It’s a return to old-fashioned Keynesian demand-management and the pursuit of “full employment” – that old Keynesian mantra – through the government’s direction of any number of economic sectors. Then there’s Stiglitz’s proposal for a Global Reserve System to effectively undertake demand-management for the world economy. To be fair, this is not an instance of megalomania on Stiglitz’s part. Keynes argued for something similar almost 70 years ago. But here Stiglitz wraps himself again in contradiction. Having stressed the Fed’s inability to manage America’s economy, why does Stiglitz imagine a global central bank could possibly manage monetary policy for the entire world economy? What precisely, we might ask, is the optimal interest rate for the global economy? Surely only God could know that. Until then, I’d have my reservations in taking him seriously.

Life Inc., Fascism, Corporatism

G7, G20, G77…Oh what scams are these? G and scams have somehow become equivalent in their usage. Funny. Probably, introduction to alphabets would in time have G for scams. Who knows?

Importantly, what has happened is the formation of transnational economies that have sprung up as a result of these coalitions. I halt, and go back a bit, and then resume saying that these mushrooms of coalitions have resulted in a Transnational Economy. So, would a Transnational State be far behind? It is anybody’s guess, that it would not. The Financial Times reported that this is precisely how close we could get to a World Government (Source: I do not exactly remember, come on, you cannot shoot the messenger in me!!). If such is the case, then the next obviously logical deduction happens to be for these transnational bodies like the IMF, WBG, WTO (The Unholiest of Trinities) to swing into action and strip power from, or make dictations to parliamentary entities, thus swaying the equations of power towards the corporations heavily favoured by these TN bodies. When all of it is logically deducible, where does the problem lie if we dare say that what is happening in the world today is nothing but a mirroring of the Fascist era? There are totalitarian thoughts into action even today, as they were across the spectrum then. Remember Mussolini’s adage, when he quipped that all that is required is fascism to be understood as corporatism, the culling together of state and corporations.

By Totalitarian thoughts in action today, I’d in mind how are we submitted to dictates, with the very following line in the piece attributed to Mussolini substantiating my view. I am on the edge of democracy with the coming together of corporatism and state becoming one. So, components in the form of corporatism and democracy becoming one is totalitarianism, which acts from without me to finally become within me, since I cannot escape. This is more in line with what Franco Berardi ‘Bifo’ has in mind when he talks of autonomy over communism, or rather with the former, I have to have the will to escape this situation, which somehow lacks due to the strong coupling of corporatism and state. Obviously, curiosity on the point “Importantly, what has happened is the formation of transnational economies that have sprung up as a result of these coalitions (Isn’t it the other way around, just curious?)” is more in line with conventions well believed to hold more water. Yes, ideally this should have been the case, but, coming together to forge alliances and then realizing them through a common platform is what stands here as transnational economies. These economies are different in context from the ones you suggest precisely in that rationale I prefer to call Transnational Economy. I move back and forth here to corroborate the idea of a World Government, to corroborate the idea of totalitarianism in action.

So, what is the way out? Maybe, it is better articulated in this book by Douglas Rushkoff Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back? Check the attachment for the book. The book at least is one more implosion on the Wall Street (2009), but philosophically spotty, and the futuristic scape on the canvass reminds more of Richard Morgan than William Gibson.

life-inc-how-corporatism-conquered-the-world-and-how-we-can-take-it-back-author-douglas-rushkoff-apr-2011_25336017

douglas-rushkoff-life-inc-how-the-world-became-a-corporation-and-how-to-take-it-back-2009