What’s interesting is their point of view on the event closest to the center of the financial crisis. For while they disagreed on this and that, they all were fairly certain that if it hadn’t been for A.I.G. F.P. the subprime-mortgage machine might never have been built, and the financial crisis might never have happened.snip
In a financial system that was rapidly generating complicated risks, A.I.G. F.P. became a huge swallower of those risks. In the early days it must have seemed as if it was being paid to insure against events extremely unlikely to occur—how likely was it that all sorts of companies and banks all over the globe would go bust at the same time? Its success bred imitators: Zurich Re F.P., Swiss Re F.P., Credit Suisse F.P., Gen Re F.P. All of these places were central to what happened in the last two decades; without them the new risks being created would have had no place to hide, but would have remained in full view of bank regulators. All of these places have been washed away by the general nausea now felt in the presence of complicated financial risks, but there was a moment when their existence seemed cartographically necessary to the financial world. And A.I.G. F.P. was the model for them all.snip
...the people who worked at A.I.G. F.P. got rich. Exactly how rich is hard to say, but there are plenty of hints. One is that a company lawyer—a mere lawyer!—took home a $25 million bonus at the end of one year. Another is that in 2005, when Howard Sosin and his wife divorced, she received more than $40 million of an estate valued at $168 million—and Sosin had left A.I.G. in 1993, receiving $182 million from the company! He had been replaced that year as C.E.O. by a gentler soul named Tom Savage, who had allowed Hank Greenberg to take some of the sugar out of F.P., but even then the small band of traders had, arguably, a sweeter deal than any money managers in the world. The typical hedge fund kept 20 percent of profits; the traders at A.I.G. F.P. kept 30 to 35 percent. The typical hedge fund or private-equity fund has to schlep around and raise money all the time, and post collateral with big Wall Street firms for all the trades they do. The traders at A.I.G. F.P. had essentially unlimited capital on tap from the parent company, along with the AAA rating, rent-free. For the people who worked there, A.I.G. F.P. was a financial miracle. They were required to leave 50 percent of their bonuses in the company, but they were happy to do so; many of them, viewing it as the best way to grow their own savings, invested far more than the minimum back in the company. When it collapsed, the employees lost more than $500 million of their own money.snip
How and why their miracle became a catastrophe, A.I.G. F.P.’s traders say, is a complicated story, but it begins simply: with a change in the way decisions were made, brought about by a change in its leadership. At the end of 2001 its second C.E.O., Tom Savage, retired, and his former deputy, Joe Cassano, was elevated. Savage is a trained mathematician who understood the models used by A.I.G. traders to price the risk they were running—and thus ensure that they were fairly paid for it. He enjoyed debates about both the models and the merits of A.I.G. F.P.’s various trades. Cassano knew a lot less math and had much less interest in debate.
Across A.I.G. F.P. the view of the boss was remarkably consistent: a guy with a crude feel for financial risk but a real talent for bullying people who doubted him. “A.I.G. F.P. became a dictatorship,” says one London trader. “Joe would bully people around. He’d humiliate them and then try to make it up to them by giving them huge amounts of money.”snip
Even by the standards of Wall Street villains, whose character flaws wind up being exaggerated to fit the crime, Cassano was a cartoon despot.snip
Oddly, he was as likely to direct his anger at profitable traders as at unprofitable ones—and what caused him to become angry was the faintest whiff of insurrection.
Who put a man like Joe Cassano in charge of such an enterprise as A.I.G. F.P.? The simple answer is Hank Greenberg, the C.E.O. of A.I.G.; the more complicated one is A.I.G. F.P.’s board, consisting of many smart people, including Harvard economist Martin Feldstein. “Tom Savage proposed Joe to replace him,” says Greenberg, “and we had no reason to think he wasn’t able to do the job.”snip
A.I.G. F.P.’s employees for their part suspect that the only reason Greenberg promoted Cassano was that he saw in him a pale imitation of his own tyrannical self and felt he could control him. “So long as Greenberg was there, it worked,” says one trader, “because he watched everything Joe did.
...the guy who had the most invested in A.I.G. F.P. was Joe Cassano. Cassano had been paid $38 million in 2007, but left $36.75 million of that inside the firm. His financial interest in A.I.G. F.P. struck those who worked for him as secondary to his psychological investment: the firm was, by all accounts, Cassano’s sole source of self-worth, its success his lone status symbol. He wore crappy clothes, drove a crappy car, and spent all of his time at the office. He had made huge piles of money ($280 million!), but so far as anyone could tell he didn’t spend any of it. “Joe wasn’t a trader and now he wasn’t a risktaker, in his personal life,” says one of the traders. “With the money he didn’t have in the company he bought Treasury bonds.” He had no children, no obvious social ambition; his status concerns seemed limited to his place in the global financial order. He entertained a notion of himself as the street-smart guy who had triumphed over his social betters—which of course implied that he wasn’t quite sure that he had. “Joe had Goldman envy,” one trader tells me—which was strange, as Cassano’s brother and sister both worked for Goldman Sachs. “His whole life was F.P.,” another trader says. “Without F.P. he had nothing.” That was another reason, in addition to fear, that the highly educated, highly intelligent people who worked for Joe Cassano were slow to question whatever he was doing: he was the last person, they assumed, who would blow the place up.snip
...Wall Street firms packaging the loans into bonds had found someone to insure against what turned out to be the rather high risk that they’d go bad: Joe Cassano.snip
A.I.G. F.P. was already insuring these big, diversified, AAA-rated piles of consumer loans; to get it to insure subprime mortgages was only a matter of pouring more and more of the things into the amorphous, unexamined piles. They went from being 2 percent subprime mortgages to being 95 percent subprime mortgages. And yet no one at A.I.G. said anything about it—not C.E.O. Martin Sullivan, not Joe Cassano, not Al Frost, the guy in A.I.G. F.P.’s Connecticut office in charge of selling his firm’s credit-default-swap services to the big Wall Street firms. The deals, by all accounts, were simply rubber-stamped by Cassano and then again by A.I.G. brass—and, on the theory that this was just more of the same, no one paid them special attention. It’s hard to know what Joe Cassano thought and when he thought it, but the traders inside A.I.G. F.P. are certain that neither Cassano nor the four or five people overseen directly by him, who worked in the unit that made the trades, realized how completely these piles of consumer loans had become, almost exclusively, composed of subprime mortgages.
The A.I.G. F.P. executives present were shocked by how little actual thought or analysis seemed to underpin the subprime-mortgage machine: it was simply a bet that U.S. home prices would never fall.snip
What no one realized was that it was too late. A.I.G. F.P.’s willingness to assume the vast majority of the risk of all the subprime-mortgage bonds created in 2004 and 2005 had created a machine that depended for its fuel on subprime-mortgage loans. “I’m convinced that our input into the system led to a substantial portion of the increase in housing prices in the U.S. We facilitated a trillion dollars in mortgages,” says one trader. “Just us.” Every firm on Wall Street was making fantastic sums of money from this machine, but for the machine to keep running the Wall Street firms needed someone to take the risk.snip
What no one realized is that Joe Cassano, in exchange for the privilege of selling credit-default swaps on subprime-mortgage bonds to Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch and all the rest, had agreed to change the traditional terms of trade between A.I.G. and Wall Street. In the beginning, A.I.G. F.P. had required its counter-parties simply to accept its AAA credit: it refused to post collateral. But in the case of the subprime-mortgage credit-default swaps, Cassano had agreed to several triggers, including A.I.G.’s losing its AAA credit rating, that would require the firm to post collateral. If the value of the underlying bonds fell, it would fork over cash, so that, for instance, Goldman Sachs would not need to be exposed for more than a day to A.I.G. Worse still, Goldman Sachs assigned the price to the underlying bonds—and thus could effectively demand as much collateral as it wanted. In the summer of 2007, the value of everything fell, but subprime fell fastest of all. The subsequent race by big Wall Street banks to obtain billions in collateral from A.I.G. was an upmarket version of a run on the bank. Goldman Sachs was the first to the door, with shockingly low prices for subprime-mortgage bonds—prices that Cassano wanted to dispute in court, but was prevented by A.I.G. from doing so when he was fired. A.I.G. couldn’t afford to pay Goldman off in March 2008, but that was O.K. The U.S. Treasury, led by the former head of Goldman Sachs, Hank Paulson, agreed to make good on A.I.G.’s gambling debts. One hundred cents on the dollar.snip
Joe Cassano was the perfect man for these times—as responsible for a series of disastrous trades as a person in a big company can be. He discouraged the dissent of subordinates who understood them better than he did. He acted with the approval of A.I.G., but he also must have known that A.I.G. wasn’t able to evaluate his trades. Once he was persuaded to stop insuring subprime-mortgage bonds, the logical course of action was to reverse the deals he had already done. In 2006 he might have found a way to do this, if he had been willing to accept the costs involved, but he wasn’t. Had he been, the machine he helped to create would have kept running—by then it had a life of its own—and the losses would have simply wound up more concentrated inside the big banks. But he’d have saved his company....For what this is worth-- the insiders claim no fraud, just mismanagement. Surprise. Because if there was fraud, then they would be complicit too.
And yet the A.I.G. F.P. traders left behind, much as they despise him personally, refuse to believe Cassano was engaged in any kind of fraud. The problem is that they knew him. And they believe that his crime was not mere legal fraudulence but the deeper kind: a need for subservience in others and an unwillingness to acknowledge his own weaknesses.