Briefing Paper No. 52

Too Big to Fail? Long-Term Capital Management and the Federal Reserve

Executive Summary

In September 1998 the Federal Reserve organized a rescue of Long-Term Capital Management, a very large and prominent hedge fund on the brink of failure. The Fed intervened because it was concerned about possible dire consequences for world financial markets if it allowed the hedge fund to fail.

The Fed’s intervention was misguided and unnecessary because LTCM would not have failed anyway, and the Fed’s concerns about the effects of LTCM’s failure on financial markets were exaggerated. In the short run the intervention helped the shareholders and managers of LTCM to get a better deal for themselves than they would otherwise have obtained.

The intervention also is having more serious long-term consequences: it encourages more calls for the regulation of hedge-fund activity, which may drive such activity further offshore; it implies a major open-ended extension of Federal Reserve responsibilities, without any congressional authorization; it implies a return to the discredited doctrine that the Fed should prevent the failure of large financial firms, which encourages irresponsible risk taking; and it undermines the moral authority of Fed policymakers in their efforts to encourage their counterparts in other countries to persevere with the difficult process of economic liberalization.

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Kevin Dowd is professor of economics at the University of Sheffield and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.