Michael Lewis on the AIG Financial Products Group
Michael Lewis is one of my favorite financial writers and his new Vanity Fair article about the AIG Financial Products Group and Joseph Cassano is required reading for anyone wanting to learn more about AIG’s downfall.
My favorite excerpt:
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. When Gene Park informed them that A.I.G. F.P. would no longer do so—Hello, my name is Gene Park and I’m closing down your business—he became the most hated man on Wall Street.
The big Wall Street firms solved the problem by taking the risk themselves. The hundreds of billions of dollars in subprime losses suffered by Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and the others were hundreds of billions in losses that might otherwise have been suffered by A.I.G. F.P. Unwilling to take the risk of subprime-mortgage bonds in 2004 and 2005, the Wall Street firms swallowed the risk in 2006 and 2007. Lending standards had fallen, property values had risen, and the more recent loans were thus far riskier than the earlier ones, but still they gobbled them up—for if they didn’t, the machine would have ceased to function. The people inside the big Wall Street firms who ran the machine had made so much money for their firms that they were now, in effect, in charge. And they had no interest in anything but keeping it running. A.I.G. F.P. wasn’t an aberration; what happened at A.I.G. F.P. could have happened anywhere on Wall Street … and did.