That guy — the Patient Zero of the global economic meltdown — was one Joseph Cassano, the head of a tiny, 400-person unit within the company called AIG Financial Products, or AIGFP. Cassano, a pudgy, balding Brooklyn College grad with beady eyes and way too much forehead, cut his teeth in the Eighties working for Mike Milken, the granddaddy of modern Wall Street debt alchemists. Milken, who pioneered the creative use of junk bonds, relied on messianic genius and a whole array of insider schemes to evade detection while wreaking financial disaster. Cassano, by contrast, was just a greedy little turd with a knack for selective accounting who ran his scam right out in the open, thanks to Washington’s deregulation of the Wall Street casino.
Ever since the Great Depression, commercial banks — those that kept money on deposit for individuals and businesses — had not been allowed to double as investment banks, which raise money by issuing and selling securities. The Glass-Steagall Act, passed during the Depression, also prevented banks of any kind from getting into the insurance business.
But in the late Nineties, a few years before Cassano took over AIGFP, all that changed. The Democrats, tired of getting slaughtered in the fundraising arena by Republicans, decided to throw off their old reliance on unions and interest groups and become more “business-friendly.” Wall Street responded by flooding Washington with money, buying allies in both parties. In the 10-year period beginning in 1998, financial companies spent $1.7 billion on federal campaign contributions and another $3.4 billion on lobbyists. They quickly got what they paid for. In 1999, Gramm co-sponsored a bill that repealed key aspects of the Glass-Steagall Act, smoothing the way for the creation of financial megafirms like Citigroup. The move did away with the built-in protections afforded by smaller banks. In the old days, a local banker knew the people whose loans were on his balance sheet: He wasn’t going to give a million-dollar mortgage to a homeless meth addict, since he would have to keep that loan on his books. But a giant merged bank might write that loan and then sell it off to some fool in China, and who cared?
The very next year, Gramm compounded the problem by writing a sweeping new law called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that made it impossible to regulate credit swaps as either gambling or securities. Commercial banks — which, thanks to Gramm, were now competing directly with investment banks for customers — were driven to buy credit swaps to loosen capital in search of higher yields. “By ruling that credit-default swaps were not gaming and not a security, the way was cleared for the growth of the market,” said Eric Dinallo, head of the New York State Insurance Department.
The blanket exemption meant that Joe Cassano could now sell as many CDS contracts as he wanted, building up as huge a position as he wanted, without anyone in government saying a word. “You have to remember, investment banks aren’t in the business of making huge directional bets,” says the government source involved in the AIG bailout. When investment banks write CDS deals, they hedge them. But insurance companies don’t have to hedge. And that’s what AIG did. “They just bet massively long on the housing market,” says the source. “Billions and billions.”
In the biggest joke of all, Cassano’s wheeling and dealing was regulated by the Office of Thrift Supervision, an agency that would prove to be defiantly uninterested in keeping watch over his operations. How a behemoth like AIG came to be regulated by the little-known and relatively small OTS is yet another triumph of the deregulatory instinct. Under another law passed in 1999, certain kinds of holding companies could choose the OTS as their regulator, provided they owned one or more thrifts (better known as savings-and-loans). Because the OTS was viewed as more compliant than the Fed or the Securities and Exchange Commission, companies rushed to reclassify themselves as thrifts. In 1999, AIG purchased a thrift in Delaware and managed to get approval for OTS regulation of its entire operation.
Making matters even more hilarious, AIGFP — a London-based subsidiary of an American insurance company — ought to have been regulated by one of Europe’s more stringent regulators, like Britain’s Financial Services Authority. But the OTS managed to convince the Europeans that it had the muscle to regulate these giant companies. By 2007, the EU had conferred legitimacy to OTS supervision of three mammoth firms — GE, AIG and Ameriprise.
Known for his boldness and arrogance, Cassano took over as chief of AIGFP in 2001. He was the favorite of Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the head of AIG, who admired the younger man’s hard-driving ways, even if neither he nor his successors fully understood exactly what it was that Cassano did. According to a source familiar with AIG’s internal operations, Cassano basically told senior management, “You know insurance, I know investments, so you do what you do, and I’ll do what I do — leave me alone.” Given a free hand within the company, Cassano set out from his offices in London to sell a lucrative form of “insurance” to all those investors holding lots of CDOs. His tool of choice was another new financial instrument known as a credit-default swap, or CDS.
The CDS was popularized by J.P. Morgan, in particular by a group of young, creative bankers who would later become known as the “Morgan Mafia,” as many of them would go on to assume influential positions in the finance world. In 1994, in between booze and games of tennis at a resort in Boca Raton, Florida, the Morgan gang plotted a way to help boost the bank’s returns. One of their goals was to find a way to lend more money, while working around regulations that required them to keep a set amount of cash in reserve to back those loans. What they came up with was an early version of the credit-default swap.
In its simplest form, a CDS is just a bet on an outcome. Say Bank A writes a million-dollar mortgage to the Pope for a town house in the West Village. Bank A wants to hedge its mortgage risk in case the Pope can’t make his monthly payments, so it buys CDS protection from Bank B, wherein it agrees to pay Bank B a premium of $1,000 a month for five years. In return, Bank B agrees to pay Bank A the full million-dollar value of the Pope’s mortgage if he defaults. In theory, Bank A is covered if the Pope goes on a meth binge and loses his job.
When Morgan presented their plans for credit swaps to regulators in the late Nineties, they argued that if they bought CDS protection for enough of the investments in their portfolio, they had effectively moved the risk off their books. Therefore, they argued, they should be allowed to lend more, without keeping more cash in reserve. A whole host of regulators — from the Federal Reserve to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — accepted the argument, and Morgan was allowed to put more money on the street.
What Cassano did was to transform the credit swaps that Morgan popularized into the world’s largest bet on the housing boom. In theory, at least, there’s nothing wrong with buying a CDS to insure your investments. Investors paid a premium to AIGFP, and in return the company promised to pick up the tab if the mortgage-backed CDOs went bust. But as Cassano went on a selling spree, the deals he made differed from traditional insurance in several significant ways. First, the party selling CDS protection didn’t have to post any money upfront. When a $100 corporate bond is sold, for example, someone has to show 100 actual dollars. But when you sell a $100 CDS guarantee, you don’t have to show a dime. So Cassano could sell investment banks billions in guarantees without having any single asset to back it up.
Secondly, Cassano was selling so-called “naked” CDS deals. In a “naked” CDS, neither party actually holds the underlying loan. In other words, Bank B not only sells CDS protection to Bank A for its mortgage on the Pope — it turns around and sells protection to Bank C for the very same mortgage. This could go on ad nauseam: You could have Banks D through Z also betting on Bank A’s mortgage. Unlike traditional insurance, Cassano was offering investors an opportunity to bet that someone else’s house would burn down, or take out a term life policy on the guy with AIDS down the street. It was no different from gambling, the Wall Street version of a bunch of frat brothers betting on Jay Feely to make a field goal. Cassano was taking book for every bank that bet short on the housing market, but he didn’t have the cash to pay off if the kick went wide.
In a span of only seven years, Cassano sold some $500 billion worth of CDS protection, with at least $64 billion of that tied to the subprime mortgage market. AIG didn’t have even a fraction of that amount of cash on hand to cover its bets, but neither did it expect it would ever need any reserves. So long as defaults on the underlying securities remained a highly unlikely proposition, AIG was essentially collecting huge and steadily climbing premiums by selling insurance for the disaster it thought would never come.
For six months before its meltdown, according to insiders, the company had been searching for a full-time chief financial officer and a chief risk-assessment officer, but never got around to hiring either. That meant that the 18th-largest company in the world had no one checking to make sure its balance sheet was safe and no one keeping track of how much cash and assets the firm had on hand. The situation was so bad that when outside consultants were called in a few weeks before the bailout, senior executives were unable to answer even the most basic questions about their company — like, for instance, how much exposure the firm had to the residential-mortgage
Ironically, when reality finally caught up to Cassano, it wasn’t because the housing market crapped but because of AIG itself. Before 2005, the company’s debt was rated triple-A, meaning he didn’t need to post much cash to sell CDS protection: The solid creditworthiness of AIG’s name was guarantee enough. But the company’s crummy accounting practices eventually caused its credit rating to be downgraded, triggering clauses in the CDS contracts that forced Cassano to post substantially more collateral to back his deals.
By the fall of 2007, it was evident that AIGFP’s portfolio had turned poisonous, but like every good Wall Street huckster, Cassano schemed to keep his insane, Earth-swallowing gamble hidden from public view. That August, balls bulging, he announced to investors on a conference call that “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 $1 in any of those transactions.” As he spoke, his CDS portfolio was racking up $352 million in losses. When the growing credit crunch prompted senior AIG executives to re-examine its liabilities, a company accountant named Joseph St. Denis became “gravely concerned” about the CDS deals and their potential for mass destruction. Cassano responded by personally forcing the poor sap out of the firm, telling him he was “deliberately excluded” from the financial review for fear that he might “pollute the process.”
The following February, when AIG posted $11.5 billion in annual losses, it announced the resignation of Cassano as head of AIGFP, saying an auditor had found a “material weakness” in the CDS portfolio. But amazingly, the company not only allowed Cassano to keep $34 million in bonuses, it kept him on as a consultant for $1 million a month. In fact, Cassano remained on the payroll and kept collecting his monthly million through the end of September 2008, even after taxpayers had been forced to hand AIG $85 billion to patch up his fuck-ups. When asked in October why the company still retained Cassano at his $1 million-a-month rate despite his role in the probable downfall of Western civilization, CEO Martin Sullivan told Congress with a straight face that AIG wanted to “retain the 20-year knowledge that Mr. Cassano had.” (Cassano, who is apparently hiding out in his lavish town house near Harrods in London, could not be reached for comment.)
What sank AIG in the end was another credit downgrade. Cassano had written so many CDS deals that when the company was facing another downgrade to its credit rating last September, from AA to A, it needed to post billions in collateral — not only more cash than it had on its balance sheet but more cash than it could raise even if it sold off every single one of its liquid assets. Even so, management dithered for days, not believing the company was in serious trouble. AIG was a dried-up prune, sapped of any real value, and its top executives didn’t even know it.
Here is a good condensed version of the 3-part Washington Post article on the Fall of AIG and Cassano’s role in it.