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New York Times, October 1, 1998

Greenspan Defends Fed's Rescue of Hedge Fund


WASHINGTON -- Federal Reserve officials stepped into talks leading to the $3.6 billion private bailout of a major hedge fund to avert the chance of damage to the U.S. economy and global financial disruption, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said Thursday.

He defended the central bank's involvement in the rescue, which partially protected wealthy investors in Long-Term Capital Management LP, who had bet big on interest-rate swings and lost.

"Financial market participants were already unsettled by recent global events," Greenspan said in testimony prepared for the House Banking Committee.

"Had the failure of LTCM triggered the seizing up of markets, substantial damage could have been inflicted on many market participants, including some not directly involved with the firm, and could have potentially impaired the economies of many nations, including our own," he said.

Greenspan, appearing with William J. McDonough, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, who helped arrange the Sept. 23 rescue of the hedge fund by a group of major banks and brokerage firms, acknowledged there was "moral hazard" in partially protecting the fund's owners.

But, Greenspan said, Fed officials were worried about the potential for a disruptive "fire sale," if the fund were liquidated, that would have risked a credit crunch for other borrowers -- what Greenspan called "a severe drying up of market liquidity."

"In situations like this, there is no reason for central bank involvement unless there is substantial probability that a fire sale would result in severe, widespread and prolonged disruptions to financial market activity," he said.

He said the Fed participated "solely to enhance the probability of an orderly private-sector adjustment," that no Federal Reserve funds were put at risk and that none of the firms in the rescue group were pressured to participate.

"This agreement was not a government bailout," he said.

He said there was a long tradition of such rare interventions, dating back to the Panic of 1907, when J.P. Morgan convened a meeting of the world's most powerful bankers in his library.

However, the House Banking Committee chairman, Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, said the Fed-led rescue raised "troubling questions of financial concentration and antitrust."

"The bailout may involve a tendency toward concentration that the Justice Department has an obligation to review," he said.

The rescue group includes Merrill Lynch & Co., Bankers Trust, Chase Manhattan, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Salomon Smith Barney and several big European banks. Its representatives declined Leach's invitation to testify.

"Working as a cartel, these institutions could influence economies for good or for naught, potentially in ways that may not be guided by any standard of national or international interest," Leach said.

Leach questioned how federally regulated commercial banks, whose deposits are insured by taxpayers, could extend such large credit lines to Long-Term Capital Management.

But Greenspan said a preliminary review suggested "the banks have collateral adequate to cover most of their current mark-to-market exposures" with the hedge fund.

Long-Term Capital Management borrowed heavily on behalf of its wealthy investors. It employed sophisticated computer modeling and derivatives -- often-complex financial instruments whose value is derived from an underlying security, commodity or asset -- in hope of producing a profit, no matter which direction stock prices or interest rates moved as a whole.

But the models failed to account for the sudden collapse of the Russian ruble in late August or the dramatic intensification of the global financial crisis, which has widened the spread between interest paid on U.S. Treasury securities and other less-safe securities.

The 4-year-old fund's chairman, John Meriwether, is one of Wall Street's most celebrated traders and his senior partners include two Nobel laureate economists and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve.

At first, their strategy was remarkably successful but it was in the long run, Greenspan said, "a strategy that was destined to fail."

He said it was regrettable that Meriwether and his partners retained a small stake in the reorganized fund but said, "The creditors felt that, given the complexity of market bets woven into a bewildering array of financial contracts, working with the existing management would be far easier than starting from scratch."

Long-Term Capital Management is one of as many as 4,000 hedge funds controlling as much as $400 billion in investor equity. They are not subject to the same kind of strict disclosure and oversight rules as mutual funds because participants presumably have the resources to look after themselves.

Securities laws limit participation in each fund to 500 investors. Individuals must have incomes of at least $200,000 in each of the past two years ($300,000 for couples) or a net worth of at least $1 million.

Greenspan said they probably should not be more strictly regulated. Otherwise, they would move overseas and operate in cyberspace, he said.

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