Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: When Genius Failed

The second book I read on finance (OK, listened to on Audible) was When Genius Failed by Roger Lowenstein. It was a great follow-up to Liar's Poker because it follows John Meriwether, a key figure at Solomon Brothers in the 1980s and, thus, a key figure in Liar's Poker. Meriwether was one of the top traders at Solomon and he had one particular stroke of genius: to find other geniuses to tell him how to trade. Meriwether saw early on that a set of super-geniuses who were applying rocket-science to trading might be able to make a heck of a lot of money if they got out of the ivory tower and on to the trading floor. In one of my favorite passages in the book, Meriwether calls up a Harvard professor to try to poach one of his grad. students and the professor offers himself instead.

Meriwether and his group were incredibly successful, he but ended up leaving over a bond trading scandal. Pressing on, Meriwether took his group from Solomon and started a hedge fund called Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). He hired a former Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He hired two of the most highly respected financial economists around (John Merton and Fischer Black, both of whom would win the Nobel Prize while working for LTCM). These guys were so smart that they thought they couldn't lose. They had incredibly complex and intricate computer models that told them that the odds of losing all their money were so low, you wouldn't expect it to ever happen in the history of the universe. Guess what?

Long story short, LTCM lost it all and had to be bailed out. The government didn't offer any funds, but the New York Fed. called all the big Wall Street bankers into a room and basically ordered them to work it out. (The one firm that wouldn't play ball? Bear Stearns.)

The book is well written and provides interesting pictures of the LTCM principals, though some of the detail about trading strategies is a bit dry and long. But what's amazing about this book is that, much like Liar's Poker which was written a decade before, everything that is falling apart now was falling apart then and no one seems to have learned. After LTCM (and after Lowenstein's brilliant deconstruction of what went wrong) it's flabbergasting to think that in 2006 the same banks that had to bail out LTCM were convinced, utterly, that they couldn't loose money on subprime mortgages because housing prices never fall!

Reading this book makes me think of the people who stayed in New Orleans because they'd been through hurricanes before and figured they could make it through Katrina. That attitude seemed to pervade our entire financial system. The tragedy of LTCM is that it perversely made people in power feel optimistic that any problems like that could be dealt with and solved. But the Category 5 subprime crisis hit and all the financial levies broke, and now we're in the midst of the greatest crisis since the Great Depression. Just like New Orleans, the warning signs were all there and Lowenstein meticulously flagged and catalogued them in When Genius Failed.


Steven said...

Helpful review, Brent -- thanks for this. I wouldn't have been interested in reading this before, still not sure I would, but the notions of "folks, this has happened before" are compelling.

John H. said...

Very nice blog Brent. I should check out the book when I'm done reading the Good Calories Bad Calories "Bible sized" book.