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".Price of proventil inhaler" (NYT, 9/20/98) presents an overview of present issues, with an interesting historic perspective.
"There should be lunatic asylums for nations as well as individuals," one investor wrote in The Morning Post of London, denouncing the defaulting country as "as nation with whom no contracts can be made."
"...the year was 1842 and the developing country was the United States.....
The Price of Money:
Capitalist economies depend on the ability to borrow money AND pay it back. Keeping the cycle flowing, so as to build realistically valued real wealth, requires that the price of money be fairly stable. Money itself is a commodity, something that can be bought and sold. Its price is set by means of interest rates and foreign exchange rates. Interest rates are easier for governments to control than exchange rates.
National governments set interest rates through their central banks. They attempt to control exchange rates by setting interest rates, trading in their own currencies, and devaluations. But exchange rates are fundamentally dependent on private international currency markets whose movements can be much larger than any single nation has the resources to control.
More on Valuing Currencies: The Role of Governments and Traders.
When currency traders bet against declining currencies, governments may raise interest rates and/or sell reserves to protect their value. Some people consider these traders bad guys (currency "speculators", hedge fund "profiteers"), while others consider them good guys, who keep the whole game honest. They are not the only players, of course: banks, governments, institutional investors, businesses and individuals share responsibility for the rise or fall of national economies and the currency that represents their relative wealth. However, markets are not self-regulating. They require good-enough government and good-enough laws. Central governments are the only entities with a legal mandate to brake and steer. Will the desire for effective markets lead to political and regulatory reform, both within countries and internationally?
Referring to Hong Kong's suspension of land sales and its restrictions on short-selling in the summer of 1998, Ronnie Chan, a prominent Hong Kong property developer, defended his government's intervention (which was definitely in his personal interest as well). He cited the growing power of global markets to sweep away local economies.
"The government [of Hong Kong] had an obligation to protect its citizens from a wave of speculation that was threatening to swamp the stock market and the local economy.
'The total annual output of Hong Kong is dwarfed by the daily capital flow of the markets. At will, the market can destroy an economy overnight. Is Hong Kong being destroyed? No. But is it suffering hugely? You bet." (NYT, p. B2, 8/29/98)
Selling short is a technique for selling a stock or currency you do not own on the assumption that its value will drop and you will be able to buy it more cheaply later, delivering it back to the lender on time and pocketing the difference in share price. Shares are typically "borrowed" from brokerages' inventories. Exchanges in the United States have various rules for constraining this type of transaction. International transactions are not so constrained.
Quoted material below is from the New York Times, September 25, 1998, p C-4. An Colchicine for sale on p. A-26 details the assumptions behind Long-Term's speculative practices.
What distinquishes hedge funds from other investment pools is "that they can take bigger risks and are subject to virtually no regulatory oversight." ......
At its high point earlier last year, Long-Term Capital was reportedly able to leverage the roughly $5 billion it had in capital into about $120 Billion in investments."
Mr. Meriwether, described as both a genius and obsessive gambler, left Salomon Brothers in the early 1990's after one of his traders submitted false bids at Treasury auctions. In 1994 he turned to raising capital for a new venture, in which he was joined by two Nobel-prize winning economists and a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
"..betting the way he [Mr. Meriwether, principal of Long-Term Capital] did turns out to be a little like Russian roulette: the odds of winning are very good, but you can't play again if you lose."
At the time of its $3.2 billion bailout, Long-Term Capital had a portfolio worth ~$90 Billion. "For every dollar put up by investors in the fund, Mr. Meriwether seems to have borrowed more than $20." The rescue, announced on September 24, 1998, was arranged by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and financed by the consortium of private banks and brokerages from whom Long-Term had borrowed the money it used to speculate.
The possibility that the $90 billion portfolio might be sold "would keep much of the fixed-income markets frozen." More restrictive lending by banks might also result. "If difficulty in borrowing money lasted more than a few weeks, it could cause a significant slowdown in the United States economy."
Hedge Fund Bailout (NYT, 9/24/98) by private consortium arranged by Federal Reserve Bank of NY: "...indicating that regulators recognize that such speculators are an increasingly significant factor in world markets." Online and print versions of this article are compared.
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