Key lessons from When Genius Failed by Roger Lowenstein

When Genius Failed
When Genius Failed, Roger Lowenstein


This book documents the rise and fall of Long Term Capital Management. A hedge fund that specializes in government arbitrage

LTCM’s trading methodology

  • Yield for bonds of the same length of maturity with the different maturity dates issued by the US treasure will tend towards each other over time.
  • Bond’s past a specific time frame becomes less liquid hence gets discounted by fund managers
  • leverage up to 30X capital to short the over bought bond and long the over sold bond, essentially making the difference with little capital employed

Causes for LTCM’s failure

  • becoming overly reliant on their models
    • a period of continuous credit spread widening was followed by the Russian government bond default. LTMC continuously doubled down on their position assuming the trend would eventually reverse
  • not taking into account that unlikely long tail negative events. When they occur the impact tend to be very large
  • Excessive use of leverage
    • up to 30X as compared to 20X employed by most hedge funds
    • made possible by FOMO of all banks who were eager to profit by extending credit lines
    • partners borrowed money from banks using securities they own within the firm as collateral
  • The margins of any profitable trading methodology will tend to get eroded overtime as big banks start tapping into the same opportunities
  • Stepping beyond their circle of competence and expecting the same methodology to still work with international bonds
    • assuming political dynamics overseas (Russia) will be the same as within the US
  • banks unloading sections of their portfolio likely to be impacted by LTCM’s position after news of LTCM’s funds and positions they hold further exacerbated their problem
  • Winding an extremely large position is extremely difficult
    • not enough liquidity
    • will negatively impact price

Lessons for LTCM’s failure

  • guard against hubris / overconfidence
  • be self aware of your circle of confidence and staying within it
  • always check for faulty assumptions in your reasoning
  • avoid excessive use of leverage
  • monitor for long tail events that are emergent by nature
  • do not double down on any positions that did not performed up to expectation
  • guard information about your trades tightly
  • be wary of entering into positions with little liquidity
  • If your fund gets into trouble and you owe the bank a small amount of money its your problem, but when it is an extremely large amount of money it becomes their problem

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