What Cooked the World's Economy?

It wasn't your overdue mortgage.

But Congress loved Greenspan-a/k/a "the Maestro" and "the Oracle"-and Clinton loved Rubin. The sleepy hearings received almost no public attention. The upshot was that Congress removed oversight of derivatives from the CFTC and preempted all state anti-bucket-shop laws. Born resigned shortly afterward.

Soon, something odd started to happen. Legitimate big investors, often with millions of dollars to place, found that they couldn't get into certain hedge funds, despite the fact that they were willing to pay steep fees. In retrospect, it seems as if these funds did not want fussy outsiders looking into what they were doing with derivatives.

Imagine that a person is terminally ill. He or she would not be able to buy a life insurance policy with a huge death benefit. Obviously, third parties could not purchase policies on the soon-to-be-dead person's life. Yet something like that occurred in the financial world.

Ezra Clayton Daniels


James Lieber is a lawyer whose books on business and politics include Friendly Takeover (Penguin) and Rats in the Grain (Basic Books). This is his fifth article for the Voice.

This was not caused by imprudent mortgage lending, though that was a piece of the puzzle. Yes, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were put on steroids during the '90s, and some people got into mortgages who shouldn't have. But the vast majority of homeowners paid their mortgages. Only about 5 to 10 percent of these loans failed-not enough to cause systemic financial failure. (The dollar amount of defaulted mortgages in the U.S. is about $1.2 trillion, which seems like a princely sum, but it's not nearly enough to drag down the entire civilized world.)

Much more dangerous was the notorious bundling of mortgages. Investment banks gathered these loans into batches and turned them into securities called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Many included high-risk loans. These securities were then rated by Standard & Poor's, Fitch Ratings, or Moody's Investors Services, who were paid at premium rates and gave investment grades. This was like putting lipstick on pigs with the plague. Banks like Wachovia, National City, Washington Mutual, and Lehman Brothers loaded up on this financial trash, which soon proved to be practically worthless. Today, those banks are extinct. But even that was not enough to cause a worldwide financial crisis.

What did cause the crisis was the writing of credit derivatives. In theory, they were insurance policies for investors; in practice, they became a guarantee of global financial collapse.

As insurance, they were poised to pay off fabulously when these weak bundled securities failed. And who was waiting to collect? Well, every gambler is looking for a sure bet. Most never find it. But the hedge funds and their ilk did.

The mantra of entrepreneurial culture is that high risk goes with high reward. But unregulated and opaque derivatives trading was countercultural in the sense that low or no risk led to quick, astronomically high rewards. By plunking down millions of dollars, a hedge fund could reap billions once these fatally constructed securities plunged. Again, the funds did not need to own the securities; they just needed to pay for the derivatives-the insurance policies for the securities. And they could pay for them again and again. This was known as replicating. It became an addiction.

About $2 trillion in credit derivatives in 1989 jumped to $8 trillion in 1994 and skyrocketed to $100 trillion in 2002. Last year, the Bank for International Settlements, a consortium of the world's central banks based in Basel (the Fed chair, Ben Bernanke, sits on its board), reported the gross value of these commitments at $596 trillion. Some are due, and some will mature soon. Typically, they involve contracts of five years or less.

Credit derivatives are breaking and will continue to break the world's financial system and cause an unending crisis of liquidity and gummed-up credit. Warren Buffett branded derivatives the "financial weapons of mass destruction." Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker who organized the bailout of New York a generation ago, called them "financial hydrogen bombs."

Both are right. At almost $600 trillion, over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives dwarf the value of publicly traded equities on world exchanges, which totaled $62.5 trillion in the fall of 2007 and fell to $36.6 trillion a year later.

The nice thing about public markets is that they act as canaries that give warnings as they did in 1929, 1987 (the program trading debacle), and 2001 (the dot-com bubble), so we can scramble out with our economic lives. But completely private and unregulated, the OTC derivatives trade is justly known as the "dark market."

The heart of darkness was the AIG Financial Products (AIGFP) office in London, where a large proportion of the derivatives were written. AIG had placed this unit outside American borders, which meant that it would not have to abide by American insurance reserve requirements. In other words, the derivatives clerks in London could sell as many products as they could write-even if it would bankrupt the company.

The president of AIGFP, a tyrannical super-salesman named Joseph Cassano, certainly had the experience. In the 1980s, he was an executive at Drexel Burnham Lambert, the now-defunct brokerage that became the pivot of the junk-bond scandal that led to the jailing of Michael Milken, David Levine, and Ivan Boesky.

During the peak years of derivatives trading, the 400 or so employees of the London unit reportedly averaged earnings in excess of a million dollars a year. They sold "protection"-this Runyonesque term was favored-worth more than three times the value of parent company AIG. How could they have not known that they were putting at risk the largest insurer in the world and all the businesses and individuals that it covered?

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