What Cooked the World's Economy?

It wasn't your overdue mortgage.

This scheme that smacks of securities fraud facilitated the dreams of buyers called "counterparties" willing to ante up. Hedge fund offices sprouted in Kensington and Mayfair like mushrooms after a summer shower. Revenue from premiums for derivatives at AIGFP rose from $737 million in 1999 to $3.26 billion in 2005. Cassano reportedly hectored ever-willing counterparties to "play the power game"-in other words, gobble up all the credit derivatives backing CDOs that they could grab. As the bundled adjustable-rate mortgages ballooned, stretched home buyers defaulted, and the exciting power game became about as risky as blasting sitting ducks with a Glock.

People still seem surprised to read that hedge principals have raked in billions of dollars in a single year. They shouldn't be. These subprime-time players knew how to score. The scam bled AIG white. In mid-September, when it was on the ropes, AIG received an astonishing $85 billion emergency line of credit from the Fed. Soon, that was supplemented by another $67 billion. Much of that money, to use the government's euphemism, has already been "drawn down." Shamefully, neither Washington nor AIG will explain where the billions went. But the answer is increasingly clear: It went to counterparties who bought derivatives from Cassano's shop in London.


Imagine if a ring of cashiers at a local bank made thousands of bad loans, aware that they could break the bank. They would be prosecuted for fraud and racketeering under the anti-gangster RICO Act. If their counterparties-the debtors-were in on the scam and understood that they didn't have to pay off the loans, they could be charged, too. In fact, this scenario played out at subprime-pushing outlets of a host of banks, including Washington Mutual (acquired last year by JP Morgan Chase, which itself received a $25 billion bailout); IndyMac (which was seized by FDIC regulators); and Lehman Brothers (which went belly-up). About 150 prosecutions of this type of fraud are going forward.

Ezra Clayton Daniels

Details

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.

The top of the swamp's food chain, where the muck was derivatives rather than mortgages, must also be scrutinized. Apparently, that is the case. AIGFP's Cassano has hired top white-collar litigator and former prosecutor F. Joseph Warin (profiled in the 2004 Washingtonian piece, "Who to Call When You're Under Investigation!"). Neither Cassano nor his attorney responded to interview requests.

AIG's lavishly compensated counterparties were willing participants and likewise could be considered for prosecution, depending on what they knew. Who were they?

At a 2007 conference, Cassano defined them as a "global swath" that included "banks and investment banks, pension funds, endowments, foundations, insurance companies, hedge funds, money managers, high-net-worth individuals, municipalities, sovereigns, and supranationals." Abetting the scheme, ratings agencies like Standard & Poor's gave high grades to the shaky mortgage-backed securities bundled by investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers.

After the relative worthlessness of these CDOs became clear, the raters rushed to downgrade them to junk status. This occurred suddenly with more than 4,000 CDOs in the first quarter of 2008-the financial community now regards them as "toxic waste." Of course, the sudden massive downgrading raises the question: Why had CDOs been artificially elevated in the first place, leading banks to buy them and giving them protective coloring just because the derivatives writers "insured" them?

After the raters got real (i.e., got scared), the gig was up. Hedge funds fled in droves from their luxe digs in London. The industry remains murky, but some observers feel that more than half of all hedges will fold this year. Not necessarily a good sign, it seems to show that the funds were one-trick ponies living mainly off the derivatives play.

We know that AIG was not the only firm that sold derivatives: Lehman and Bear Stearns both dealt them and died. About 20 years ago, JP Morgan, the now-defunct investment bank, had brought the idea to AIGFP in London, which ran with it. Seeing the Cassano group's success, Morgan jumped in with both feet. Specializing in credit default swaps-a type of derivative triggered to pay off by negative events in the lives of loans, like defaults, foreclosures, and restructurings-Morgan had a distinctive marketing spin. Its "quants" were classy young dealers who could really do the math, which of course gave them credibility with those who couldn't. They abjured street slang like "protection." They pitched their sophisticated swaps as "technologies." The market adored them. They, in turn, oversold the product, made huge commissions, and wounded Morgan, which had to sell itself to Chase, becoming JP Morgan Chase-now the country's biggest bank.

Today, the real question is whether the Morgan quants knew the swaps didn't work and actually were grenades with pulled pins. Like Joseph Cassano, such people should consult attorneys.


Secrecy shrouds the bailout. The 21 banks that each received more than $1 billion from the Fed won't disclose how, or even if, they're lending it, which hardly quells fears of hoarding. The Treasury says it can't force disclosure because it took only preferred (non-voting) stock in exchange for the money.

If anything, the Fed had been less candid. It stonewalls requests to reveal the winners (mainly banks and corporations) of $1.5 trillion in loans, as well as the securities it received as collateral. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit to obtain this information by Bloomberg News has been rebuffed by the Fed, which insists that a loophole in FOIA exempts it. Bloomberg will probably lose the case, but at least it's trying to probe the black hole of bailout money. Of course, Barack Obama could tell the Fed to release the information, plus generally open the bailout to public eyes. That would be change that we could believe in.

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