The problem was, none of this was based on reality. "The banks knew they were selling crap," says a London-based trader from one of the bailed-out companies. To get AAA ratings, the CDOs relied not on their actual underlying assets but on crazy mathematical formulas that the banks cooked up to make the investments look safer than they really were. "They had some back room somewhere where a bunch of Indian guys who'd been doing nothing but math for God knows how many years would come up with some kind of model saying that this or that combination of debtors would only default once every 10,000 years," says one young trader who sold CDOs for a major investment bank. "It was nuts."
Now that even the crappiest mortgages could be sold to conservative investors, the CDOs spurred a massive explosion of irresponsible and predatory lending. In fact, there was such a crush to underwrite CDOs that it became hard to find enough subprime mortgages – read: enough unemployed meth dealers willing to buy million-dollar homes for no money down – to fill them all. As banks and investors of all kinds took on more and more in CDOs and similar instruments, they needed some way to hedge their massive bets – some kind of insurance policy, in case the housing bubble burst and all that debt went south at the same time. This was particularly true for investment banks, many of which got stuck holding or "warehousing" CDOs when they wrote more than they could sell. And that's were Joe Cassano came in.
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.
Initially, at least, the revenues were enormous: AIGFP's returns went from $737 million in 1999 to $3.2 billion in 2005. Over the past seven years, the subsidiary's 400 employees were paid a total of $3.5 billion; Cassano himself pocketed at least $280 million in compensation. Everyone made their money – and then it all went to shit.
II. THE REGULATORS
Cassano's outrageous gamble wouldn't have been possible had he not had the good fortune to take over AIGFP just as Sen. Phil Gramm – a grinning, laissez-faire ideologue from Texas – had finished engineering the most dramatic deregulation of the financial industry since Emperor Hien Tsung invented paper money in 806 A.D. For years, Washington had kept a watchful eye on the nation's banks. 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?
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