Greenspan was vexed: "It is one thing for one bank to have failed to appreciate what was happening to [LTCM], but this list of [banks without knowledge of LTCM’s positions] is just mind-boggling." So boggled was the man that the Greenspan (and Bernanke) Fed allowed the banks to lever as never before and write $400 trillion worth of derivatives between then and 2008 – without so much as a dollar bill of reserves: Nor a peep that maybe these off-balance-sheet liabilities might bear closer attention.

A staff member described what he had learned on his field trip to LTCM. On Aug. 31, the hedge fund had a $125 billion balance sheet. It also had $1.4 trillion of off-balance-sheet assets. On Sept. 21, when it appears (from the transcript) the Fed first saw LTCM’s balance sheet, its leverage was 55-to-1 and the "off-balance-sheet leverage was 100-to-1 or 200-to-1 – I don’t know how to calculate it." He wasn’t alone. Greenspan’s "first line of regulatory defense" didn’t know if LTCM was trading interest rate swaps or stolen cars. The models of LTCM’s "counterparty supervision" were so "complex and sophisticated" that the hedge fund’s portfolio had been translated into a Greek salad – gammas, thetas, and epsilons.


This is interesting, but not of great utility in 2008. The 1998 Fed weaknesses are important because the molehill grew into a mountain. Greenspan and Bernanke chaired the most egregious administrative failure in financial history. Paulson’s proposal is on a par with Caligula’s decision to name his horse consul.

A great piece and fascinating peek into the Greenspan Fed's thinking, how it interacted with the LTCM crisis, and how that developed into the current situation. What Greenspan seems to have missed is that leverage magnifies error (in elaborate counterparty risk-management schemes), and infinite leverage means near-certain, and near-total disaster. That is where we are today. You cannot have a fiat, centralized banking system, and not regulate it.

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