Behind Insurer’s Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk
“It is hard for us, without being flippant, to even see a scenario within any kind of realm of reason that would see us losing one dollar in any of those transactions.”
— Joseph J. Cassano, a former A.I.G. executive, August 2007
Two weeks ago, the nation’s most powerful regulators and bankers huddled in the Lower Manhattan fortress that is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, desperately trying to stave off disaster.
As the group, led by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., pondered the collapse of one of America’s oldest investment banks, Lehman Brothers, a more dangerous threat emerged: American International Group, the world’s largest insurer, was teetering. A.I.G. needed billions of dollars to right itself and had suddenly begged for help.
Although it was not widely known, Goldman, a Wall Street stalwart that had seemed immune to its rivals’ woes, was A.I.G.’s largest trading partner, according to six people close to the insurer who requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. A collapse of the insurer threatened to leave a hole of as much as $20 billion in Goldman’s side, several of these people said.
Days later, federal officials, who had let Lehman die and initially balked at tossing a lifeline to A.I.G., ended up bailing out the insurer for $85 billion.
Their message was simple: Lehman was expendable. But if A.I.G. unspooled, so could some of the mightiest enterprises in the world.
A Goldman spokesman said in an interview that the firm was never imperiled by A.I.G.’s troubles and that Mr. Blankfein participated in the Fed discussions to safeguard the entire financial system, not his firm’s own interests.
Yet an exploration of A.I.G.’s demise and its relationships with firms like Goldman offers important insights into the mystifying, virally connected — and astonishingly fragile — financial world that began to implode in recent weeks.
Although America’s housing collapse is often cited as having caused the crisis, the system was vulnerable because of intricate financial contracts known as credit derivatives, which insure debt holders against default. They are fashioned privately and beyond the ken of regulators — sometimes even beyond the understanding of executives peddling them.
Originally intended to diminish risk and spread prosperity, these inventions instead magnified the impact of bad mortgages like the ones that felled Bear Stearns and Lehman and now threaten the entire economy.
In the case of A.I.G., the virus exploded from a freewheeling little 377-person unit in London, and flourished in a climate of opulent pay, lax oversight and blind faith in financial risk models. It nearly decimated one of the world’s most admired companies, a seemingly sturdy insurer with a trillion-dollar balance sheet, 116,000 employees and operations in 130 countries.
“It is beyond shocking that this small operation could blow up the holding company,” said Robert Arvanitis, chief executive of Risk Finance Advisors in Westport, Conn. “They found a quick way to make a fast buck on derivatives based on A.I.G.’s solid credit rating and strong balance sheet. But it all got out of control.”
The London Office
The insurance giant’s London unit was known as A.I.G. Financial Products, or A.I.G.F.P. It was run with almost complete autonomy, and with an iron hand, by Joseph J. Cassano, according to current and former A.I.G. employees.
A onetime executive with Drexel Burnham Lambert — the investment bank made famous in the 1980s by the junk bond king Michael R. Milken, who later pleaded guilty to six felony charges — Mr. Cassano helped start the London unit in 1987.
The unit became profitable enough that analysts considered Mr. Cassano a dark horse candidate to succeed Maurice R. Greenberg, the longtime chief executive who shaped A.I.G. in his own image until he was ousted amid an accounting scandal three years ago.
But last February, Mr. Cassano resigned after the London unit began bleeding money and auditors raised questions about how the unit valued its holdings. By Sept. 15, the unit’s troubles forced a major downgrade in A.I.G.’s debt rating, requiring the company to post roughly $15 billion in additional collateral — which then prompted the federal rescue.
Mr. Cassano, 53, lives in a handsome, three-story town house in the Knightsbridge neighborhood of London, just around the corner from Harrods department store on a quiet square with a private garden.
He did not respond to interview requests left at his home and with his lawyer. An A.I.G. spokesman also declined to comment.
At A.I.G., Mr. Cassano found himself ensconced in a behemoth that had a long and storied history of deftly juggling risks. It insured people and properties against natural disasters and death, offered sophisticated asset management services and did so reliably and with bravado on many continents. Even now, its insurance subsidiaries are financially strong.
When Mr. Cassano first waded into the derivatives market, his biggest business was selling so-called plain vanilla products like interest rate swaps. Such swaps allow participants to bet on the direction of interest rates and, in theory, insulate themselves from unforeseen financial events.
Ten years ago, a “watershed” moment changed the profile of the derivatives that Mr. Cassano traded, according to a transcript of comments he made at an industry event last year. Derivatives specialists from J. P. Morgan, a leading bank that had many dealings with Mr. Cassano’s unit, came calling with a novel idea.
Morgan proposed the following: A.I.G. should try writing insurance on packages of debt known as “collateralized debt obligations.” C.D.O.’s. were pools of loans sliced into tranches and sold to investors based on the credit quality of the underlying securities.
The proposal meant that the London unit was essentially agreeing to provide insurance to financial institutions holding C.D.O.’s and other debts in case they defaulted — in much the same way some homeowners are required to buy mortgage insurance to protect lenders in case the borrowers cannot pay back their loans.
Under the terms of the insurance derivatives that the London unit underwrote, customers paid a premium to insure their debt for a period of time, usually four or five years, according to the company. Many European banks, for instance, paid A.I.G. to insure bonds that they held in their portfolios.
Because the underlying debt securities — mostly corporate issues and a smattering of mortgage securities — carried blue-chip ratings, A.I.G. Financial Products was happy to book income in exchange for providing insurance. After all, Mr. Cassano and his colleagues apparently assumed, they would never have to pay any claims.
Since A.I.G. itself was a highly rated company, it did not have to post collateral on the insurance it wrote, analysts said. That made the contracts all the more profitable.
These insurance products were known as “credit default swaps,” or C.D.S.’s in Wall Street argot, and the London unit used them to turn itself into a cash register.
The unit’s revenue rose to $3.26 billion in 2005 from $737 million in 1999. Operating income at the unit also grew, rising to 17.5 percent of A.I.G.’s overall operating income in 2005, compared with 4.2 percent in 1999.
Profit margins on the business were enormous. In 2002, operating income was 44 percent of revenue; in 2005, it reached 83 percent.
Mr. Cassano and his colleagues minted tidy fortunes during these high-cotton years. Since 2001, compensation at the small unit ranged from $423 million to $616 million each year, according to corporate filings. That meant that on average each person in the unit made more than $1 million a year.
In fact, compensation expenses took a large percentage of the unit’s revenue. In lean years it was 33 percent; in fatter ones 46 percent. Over all, A.I.G. Financial Products paid its employees $3.56 billion during the last seven years.
The London unit’s reach was also vast. While clients and counterparties remain closely guarded secrets in the derivatives trade, Mr. Cassano talked publicly about how proud he was of his customer list.
At the 2007 conference he noted that his company worked with a “global swath” of top-notch entities that included “banks and investment banks, pension funds, endowments, foundations, insurance companies, hedge funds, money managers, high-net-worth individuals, municipalities and sovereigns and supranationals.”
Of course, as this intricate skein expanded over the years, it meant that the participants were linked to one another by contracts that existed for the most part inside the financial world’s version of a black box.
Goldman Sachs was a member of A.I.G.’s derivatives club, according to people familiar with the operation. It was a customer of A.I.G.’s credit insurance and also acted as an intermediary for trades between A.I.G. and its other clients.
Few knew of Goldman’s exposure to A.I.G. When the insurer’s flameout became public, David A. Viniar, Goldman’s chief financial officer, assured analysts on Sept. 16 that his firm’s exposure was “immaterial,” a view that the company reiterated in an interview.
Later that same day, the government announced its two-year, $85 billion loan to A.I.G., offering it a chance to sell its assets in an orderly fashion and theoretically repay taxpayers for their trouble. The plan saved the insurer’s trading partners but decimated its shareholders.
Lucas van Praag, a Goldman spokesman, declined to detail how badly hurt his firm might have been had A.I.G. collapsed two weeks ago. He disputed the calculation that Goldman had $20 billion worth of risk tied to A.I.G., saying the figure failed to account for collateral and hedges that Goldman deployed to reduce its risk.
Regarding Mr. Blankfein’s presence at the Fed during talks about an A.I.G. bailout, he said: “I think it would be a mistake to read into it that he was there because of our own interests. We were engaged because of the implications to the entire system.”
Mr. van Praag declined to comment on what communications, if any, took place between Mr. Blankfein and the Treasury secretary, Mr. Paulson, during the bailout discussions.
A Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment about the A.I.G. rescue and Goldman’s role. The government recently allowed Goldman to change its regulatory status to help bolster its finances amid the market turmoil.
An Executive’s Optimism
Regardless of Goldman’s exposure, by last year, A.I.G. Financial Products’ portfolio of credit default swaps stood at roughly $500 billion. It was generating as much as $250 million a year in income on insurance premiums, Mr. Cassano told investors.
Because it was not an insurance company, A.I.G. Financial Products did not have to report to state insurance regulators. But for the last four years, the London-based unit’s operations, whose trades were routed through Banque A.I.G., a French institution, were reviewed routinely by an American regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision.
A handful of the agency’s officials were always on the scene at an A.I.G. Financial Products branch office in Connecticut, but it is unclear whether they raised any red flags. Their reports are not made public and a spokeswoman would not provide details.
For his part, Mr. Cassano apparently was not worried that his unit had taken on more than it could handle. In an August 2007 conference call with analysts, he described the credit default swaps as almost a sure thing.
“It is hard to get this message across, but these are very much handpicked,” he assured those on the phone.
Just a few months later, however, the credit crisis deepened. A.I.G. Financial Products began to choke on losses — though they were only on paper.
In the quarter that ended Sept. 30, 2007, A.I.G. recognized a $352 million unrealized loss on the credit default swap portfolio.
Because the London unit was set up as a bank and not an insurer, and because of the way its derivatives contracts were written, it had to put up collateral to its trading partners when the value of the underlying securities they had insured declined. Any obligations that the unit could not pay had to be met by its corporate parent.
So began A.I.G.’s downward spiral as it, its clients, its trading partners and other companies were swept into the drowning pool set in motion by the housing downturn.
Mortgage foreclosures set off questions about the quality of debts across the entire credit spectrum. When the value of other debts sagged, calls for collateral on the securities issued by the credit default swaps sideswiped A.I.G. Financial Products and its legendary, sprawling parent.
Yet throughout much of 2007, the unit maintained that its risk assessments were reliable and its portfolios conservative. Last fall, however, the methods that A.I.G. used to value its derivatives portfolio began to come under fire from trading partners.
In February, A.I.G.’s auditors identified problems in the firm’s swaps accounting. Then, three months ago, regulators and federal prosecutors said they were investigating the insurer’s accounting.
This was not the first time A.I.G. Financial Products had run afoul of authorities. In 2004, without admitting or denying accusations that it helped clients improperly burnish their financial statements, A.I.G. paid $126 million and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement to settle federal civil and criminal investigations.
The settlement was a black mark on A.I.G.’s reputation and, according to analysts, distressed Mr. Greenberg, who still ran the company at the time. Still, as Mr. Cassano later told investors, the case caused A.I.G. to improve its risk management and establish a committee to maintain quality control.
“That’s a committee that I sit on, along with many of the senior managers at A.I.G., and we look at a whole variety of transactions that come in to make sure that they are maintaining the quality that we need to,” Mr. Cassano told them. “And so I think the things that have been put in at our level and the things that have been put in at the parent level will ensure that there won’t be any of those kinds of mistakes again.”
At the end of A.I.G.’s most recent quarter, the London unit’s losses reached $25 billion.
As those losses mounted, and A.I.G.’s once formidable stock price plunged, it became harder for the insurer to survive — imperiling other companies that did business with it and leading it to stun the Federal Reserve gathering two weeks ago with a plea for help.
Mr. Greenberg, who has seen the value of his personal A.I.G. holdings decline by more than $5 billion this year, dumped five million shares late last week. A lawyer for Mr. Greenberg did not return a phone call seeking comment.
For his part, Mr. Cassano has departed from a company that is a far cry from what it was a year ago when he spoke confidently at the analyst conference.
“We’re sitting on a great balance sheet, a strong investment portfolio and a global trading platform where we can take advantage of the market in any variety of places,” he said then. “The question for us is, where in the capital markets can we gain the best opportunity, the best execution for the business acumen that sits in our shop?”