Can one man in London really be to blame for the collapse of capitalism?
The official version is that Joseph Cassano, who occupies the stucco-fronted house near Harrods, brought down a safe and stable company — and by extension, the world — with incompetent gambles. “You’ve got a company, AIG, which used to be just a regular old insurance company,” Obama explained during a recent TV appearance. “Then they decided — some smart person decided — let’s put a hedge fund on top of the insurance comp-any, and let’s sell these derivative products to banks all around the world.” Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, adds: “This was a hedge fund, basically, that was attached to a large and stable insurance company.”
Cassano, who ran AIG’s financial-products division in London, “almost single-handedly is responsible for bringing AIG down and by reference the economy of this country”, says Jackie Speier, a US representative. “They basically took people’s hard-earned money, gambled it and lost everything. And he must be held accountable for the dereliction of his duty, and for the havoc he’s wrought on America. I don’t think the American people will be content, nor will I, until we hear the click of the handcuffs on his wrists.”
This account is as satisfying as it is easy to understand. It treats the blowing up of the world financial system like a global version of Barings, the bank that collapsed in 1995, with Cassano in the role of Nick Leeson. Operating from the fifth floor of a polished white stone building in Mayfair, Cassano’s unit sold billions of pounds of derivatives called credit-default swaps (CDS), allowing banks to buy risky debt without attracting the attention of regulators. AIG took the fees, but did not have the money to pay up if the loans went bad. By the time the music stopped, European banks had protected more than $300 billion of debt with this bogus “insurance”. And that is just one corner of a web of risk extending to over 1,500 big corporations, banks and hedge funds. In a 21-page paper known as the Mutually Assured Destruction memo, AIG claims that if the bailouts stop and the company is allowed to go bust, it will take the world with it. Cassano must have played with handcuffs as a child: he is the son of a Brooklyn cop. Now he waits for the fallout.
But the official version overlooks many things, including episodes of fraud at AIG that go back at least 15 years. It fails to explain why Public Enemy No 1 was allowed to leave the company on generous terms, with a retainer of $1m a month and up to $34m (£23m) in bonuses. And it does nothing to tell us why other big companies, whose profits looked as smooth and certain as AIG’s in the good times, are also fighting for survival.