Paul Brandus: Financial crises get triggered about every 10 years — Archegos might be right on time


Financial crises are never quite the same. During the late 1980s, nearly a third of the nation’s savings and loan associations failed, ending with a taxpayer bailout — in 2021 terms — of about $265 billion.

In 1997-1998, financial crises in Asia and Russia led to the near meltdown of the largest hedge fund in the U.S. — Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM). Its reach and operating practices were such that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said that when LTCM failed, “he had never seen anything in his lifetime that compared to the terror” he felt. LTCM was deemed “too big to fail,” and he engineered a bailout by 14 major U.S. financial institutions. 

Exactly a decade later, too much leverage by some of those very institutions, and the bursting of a U.S. real estate bubble, led to the near collapse of the U.S. financial system. Once again, big banks were deemed too big to fail and taxpayers came to the rescue.

The trend? Every 10 years or so, and they all look different. Are we in the early stages of a new crisis now, with the blowup at the family office Archegos Capital Management LP? 

A family office, for the uninitiated, is a private wealth management vehicle for the ultra-wealthy. Here’s what I mean by ultra-wealthy: Consulting firm EY estimates there are some 10,000 family offices globally, but manage, says a separate estimate by market research firm Campden Research, nearly $6 trillion. That $6 trillion is likely far higher now given that it’s based on 2019 data.

Unregulated money managers

Here’s the potential danger. Family offices generally aren’t regulated. The 1940 Investment Advisers Act says firms with 15 clients or fewer don’t have to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission. What this means is that trillions of dollars are in play and no one can really say who’s running the money, what it’s invested in, how much leverage is being used, and what kind of counterparty risk may exist. (Counterparty risk is the probability that one party involved in a financial transaction could default on a contractual obligation to someone else.) 

This appears to be the case with Archegos. The firm bet heavily on certain Chinese stocks, including e-commerce player Vipshop Holdings Ltd.
U.S.-listed Chinese tutoring company GSX Techedu Inc.

and U.S. media companies ViacomCBS Inc.

and Discovery Inc.
among others. Share prices have tumbled lately, sparking large sales — some $30 billion — by Archegos. 

The problem is that only about a third of that, or $10 billion, was its own money. We now know that Archegos worked with some of the biggest names on Wall Street, including Credit Suisse Group AG
UBS Group AG
Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
 Morgan Stanley
Deutsche Bank AG

and Nomura Holdings Inc. 

But since family offices are largely allowed to operate unregulated, who’s to say how much money is really involved here and what the extent of market risk is? My colleague Mark DeCambre reported last week that Archegos’ true exposures to bad trades could actually be closer to $100 billion

Danger of counterparty risk

This is where counterparty risk comes in. As Archegos’ bets went south, the above banks — looking at losses of their own — hit the firm with margin calls. Deutsche quickly dumped about $4 billion in holdings, while Goldman and Morgan Stanley are also said to have unwound their positions, perhaps limiting their downside.

So is this a financial crisis? It doesn’t appear to be. Even so, the Securities and Exchange Commission has opened a preliminary investigation into Archegos and its founder, Bill Hwang. 

One peer, Tom Lee, the research chief of Fundstrat Global Advisors, calls Hwang one of the “top 10 of the best investment minds” he knows.

But federal regulators may have a lesser opinion. In 2012, Hwang’s former hedge fund, Tiger Asia Management, pleaded guilty and paid more than $60 million in penalties after it was accused of trading on illegal tips about Chinese banks. The SEC banned Hwang from managing money on behalf of clients — essentially booting him from the hedge fund industry. So Hwang opened Archegos, and again, family offices aren’t generally aren’t regulated. 

Yellen on the case

This issue is on Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s radar. She said last week that greater oversight of these private corners of the financial industry is needed. The Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), which she oversees, has revived a task force to help agencies better “share data, identify risks and work to strengthen our financial system.”

Most financial crises end up with American taxpayers getting stuck with the tab. Gains belong to the risk-takers. But losses — they belong to us. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, family offices — a multi-trillion dollar industry largely allowed to operate in the shadows in a global financial system that is more intertwined than ever — are of the super-wealthy, by the super-wealthy and for the super-wealthy. And no one else.

The Archegos collapse may or may not be the beginning of yet another financial crisis. But who’s to say what thousands of other family offices are doing with their trillions, and whether similar problems could blow up? 

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