Working paper series / Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität, Institute for Law and Finance
The regulation of hedge funds : financial stability and investor protection
Franklin R. Edwards
- While hedge funds have been around at least since the 1940's, it has only been in the last decade or so that they have attracted the widespread attention of investors, academics and regulators. Investors, mainly wealthy individuals but also increasingly institutional investors, are attracted to hedge funds because they promise high “absolute” returns -- high returns even when returns on mainstream asset classes like stocks and bonds are low or negative. This prospect, not surprisingly, has increased interest in hedge funds in recent years as returns on stocks have plummeted around the world, and as investors have sought alternative investment strategies to insulate them in the future from the kind of bear markets we are now experiencing. Government regulators, too, have become increasingly attentive to hedge funds, especially since the notorious collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) in September 1998. Over the course of only a few months during the summer of 1998 LTCM lost billions of dollars because of failed investment strategies that were not well understood even by its own investors, let alone by its bankers and derivatives counterparties. LTCM had built up huge leverage both on and off the balance sheet, so that when its investments soured it was unable to meet the demands of creditors and derivatives counterparties. Had LTCM’s counterparties terminated and liquidated their positions with LTCM, the result could have been a severe liquidity shortage and sharp changes in asset prices, which many feared could have impaired the solvency of other financial institutions and destabilized financial markets generally. The Federal Reserve did not wait to see if this would happen. It intervened to organize an immediate (September 1998) creditor-bailout by LTCM’s largest creditors and derivatives counterparties, preventing the wholesale liquidation of LTCM’s positions. Over the course of the year that followed the bailout, the creditor committee charged with managing LTCM’s positions effected an orderly work-out and liquidation of LTCM’s positions. We will never know what would have happened had the Federal Reserve not intervened. In defending the Federal Reserve’s unusual actions in coming to the assistance of an unregulated financial institutions like a hedge fund, William McDonough, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, stated that it was the Federal Reserve’s judgement that the “...abrupt and disorderly close-out of LTCM’s positions would pose unacceptable risks to the American economy. ... there was a likelihood that a number of credit and interest rate markets would experience extreme price moves and possibly cease to function for a period of one or more days and maybe longer. This would have caused a vicious cycle: a loss of investor confidence, lending to further liquidations of positions, and so on.” The near-collapse of LTCM galvanized regulators throughout the world to examine the operations of hedge funds to determine if they posed a risk to investors and to financial stability more generally. Studies were undertaken by nearly every major central bank, regulatory agency, and international “regulatory” committee (such as the Basle Committee and IOSCO), and reports were issued, by among others, The President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, the United States General Accounting Office (GAO), the Counterparty Risk Management Policy Group, the Basle Committee on Banking Supervision, and the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO). Many of these studies concluded that there was a need for greater disclosure by hedge funds in order to increase transparency and enhance market discipline, by creditors, derivatives counterparties and investors. In the Fall of 1999 two bills were introduced before the U.S. Congress directed at increasing hedge fund disclosure (the “Hedge Fund Disclosure Act” [the “Baker Bill”] and the “Markey/Dorgan Bill”). But when the legislative firestorm sparked by the LTCM’s episode finally quieted, there was no new regulation of hedge funds. This paper provides an overview of the regulation of hedge funds and examines the key regulatory issues that now confront regulators throughout the world. In particular, two major issues are examined. First, whether hedge funds pose a systemic threat to the stability of financial markets, and, if so, whether additional government regulation would be useful. And second, whether existing regulation provides sufficient protection for hedge fund investors, and, if not, what additional regulation is needed.