Another Spin at the Wheel

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"Another Spin at the Wheel"

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Good news for investors who like to lose all their money, “John Meriwether, the hedge fund manager and arbitrageur behind Long-Term Capital Management, is in the process of setting up a new hedge fund – his third.” What’s that, you ask, didn’t his first fund lose all its money? Why, yes. And didn’t the second fund fold because it lost a ton of money? Yes, quite so. So how will this new one be different? It won’t! It’s “expected use the same strategy as both LTCM and JWM to make money: so-called relative value arbitrage, a quantitative investment strategy Mr Meriwether pioneered when he led the hugely successful bond arbitrage group at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s.”

The way this works is that you identify arbitrage opportunities such that you make trades you’re overwhelmingly likely to make money on. But those opportunities only exist because the opportunities are very small. So to make them worth pursuing, you need to lever-up with huge amounts of debt. Which means that on the rare moments when the trades do go bad, everything falls apart: “The strategy typically has a high ‘blow-up’ risk because of the large amounts of leverage it uses to profit from often tiny pricing anomalies.”

As a friend puts it, this strategy is “literally the equivalent of putting a chip on 35 of the 36 roulette numbers and hoping for no zero/36.” But you’re doing it with borrowed money. I’m not a huge believer in human rationality, so I totally understand how this scam worked once. That he was able to get a second fund off the ground is pretty amazing. If he finds investors for a third spin around the wheel I’m going to propose confiscating all the rich peoples’ money and giving it to capuchin monkeys.

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