An entertaining and informative history of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), the hedge fund whose 1998 collapse rattled the financial markets.
Lowenstein (Buffett, 1995) begins with a portrait of John Meriwether, the man who would be head of LTCM. Chicago-born, trained in mathematics and business at Northwestern and the University of Chicago, Meriwether joined Salomon Brothers in 1974. At 30, he formed the Arbitrage Group there in 1977. The author credits Meriwether with bringing the academic nerd to Wall Street, hiring Eric Rosenfeld, Gregory Hawkins, and Lawrence Hilibrand (all MIT wunderkinder) at precisely the moment that computer research was transforming the bond market. In 1993 Meriwether created LTCM and took his crew to Greenwich, Connecticut—and for four years the fund shone. Staffers and outsiders complained that the partners were condescending and secretive, but the huge profits kept everyone happy. In 1997 Myron Scholes and Paul Merton, LTCM’s star academics, won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Lowenstein excels at explaining esoteric financial topics; he clarifies the nature of hedge funds and coherently describes the general strategies and specific types of trades in arbitrage. With access to the partners’ confidential memoranda, he is also able to document LTCM’s swift fall with exceptional clarity and insight. On August 17, 1998, the fund had capital of $3.6 billion—but in another five weeks it was mostly gone. In a dizzying succession of events, Russia declared a moratorium on its debt, Brazilian and Mexican bonds weakened, and the Asian markets declined. All of LTCM’s trades went bad, to a degree that no one had been prepared for. (Whereas the wizards’ mathematical model calculated that a loss of more than $35 million in one day was unlikely, the fund lost $553 million on August 21, 1998, alone.) The story ends with drama and comedy: the 14-bank bailout group bickered and backstabbed, but it saved the day—and by December 1999 Meriwether and his old crew were back in business with a fresh $250 million and a new name.
With a lucid style and a sense of humor and amusement, Lowenstein guides us through the thickets of high finance in the computer age.