At the time, it may have seemed that regulators did the right thing. The bailout did not require upfront money from the government, and the world avoided an even bigger financial crisis. Today, however, that ad hoc intervention by the government no longer looks so wise. With the Long-Term Capital bailout as a precedent, creditors came to believe that their loans to unsound financial institutions would be made good by the Fed — as long as the collapse of those institutions would threaten the global credit system. Bolstered by this sense of security, bad loans mushroomed.


The Long-Term Capital episode looks small when viewed against [today's calamity]. But it was important precisely because the fund was not a major firm. At the time of its near demise, it was not even a major money center bank, but a hedge fund with about 200 employees. Such funds hadn’t previously been brought under regulatory protection this way. After the episode, financial markets knew that even relatively obscure institutions — through government intervention — might be able to pay back bad loans.

The major creditors of the fund included Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, all of which went on to lend and invest recklessly and, to one degree or another, pay the consequences. But 1998 should have been the time to send a credible warning that bad loans to overleveraged institutions would mean losses, and that neither the Fed nor the Treasury would make these losses good.


Fed inaction might have had graver economic consequences, especially if a Buffett deal had fallen through. In that case, a rapid financial deleveraging would have followed, and the economy would have probably plunged into recession. That sounds bad, but it might have been better to have experienced a milder version of a downturn in 1998 than the more severe version of 10 years later.

Well put. And we also share deep concerns about this:

The ad hoc aspect of the bailout created a precedent for what has come to be called “regulation by deal” — now the government’s modus operandi. Rather than publicizing definite standards and expectations for bailouts in advance, the Fed and the Treasury confront each particular crisis anew. Decisions are made as to whether a merger is possible, whether a consortium can be organized, what kind of loan guarantees can be offered and what kind of concessions will be extracted in return. So far, every deal — or lack thereof, in the case of Lehman Brothers — has been different.

While there are some advantages to leaving discretion in regulators’ hands, this hasn’t worked out very well. It has become increasingly apparent that the market doesn’t know what to expect and that many financial institutions are sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see what regulators will do next. Regulatory uncertainty is stifling the ability of financial markets to engineer at least a partial recovery.

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