Derivatives on TV: A Tale of Two Derivatives Debacles in Prime-Time
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
This essay discusses two recent episodes in the financial derivatives industry and the television coverage of those episodes. Our discussion focuses on (1) the 1994 bankruptcy of Orange County and the 60 Minutes television program describing that county's derivatives losses and (2) the 1998 near-collapse of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) and the PBS NOVA program describing that hedge funds' losses.
Orange County and LTCM appear at opposite ends of the spectrum of recent derivatives losses. Orange County's Treasury was a one-man show, and its now-infamous treasurer, Robert L. Citron, was a seventy-year-old college dropout. In contrast, LTCM was a slick, sophisticated hedge fund, led by John Meriwether, whose principals included two Nobel laureates and several "rocket scientists" recruited from the investment bank Salomon Brothers. Notwithstanding these differences, Orange County and LTCM had two things in common: each lost more than a billion dollars on derivatives and each shrouded the details of its operations in secrecy.
Coverage of LTCM was more accurate than coverage of Orange County. We discuss possible reasons for the difference and make some recommendations about how television programs could depict the derivatives markets more accurately, an important issue given the substantial number of policymakers who learn about derivatives through television. We conclude that television, when done properly, is more than capable of keeping pace with derivatives markets.