Back in November, Michael Lewis wrote a great story in Portfolio on the financial crisis, focusing on the traders who saw that the housing bubble was going to crash, bringing mortgage-backed securities down with it – and made lots of money betting on it. Now Lewis is back with his article in Vanity Fair on AIG Financial Products (FP) and its last head, Joseph Cassano. This time, though, it feels like it’s missing the usual Lewis magic.
Lewis sets out to tell the untold story of FP, based on extensive interviews with people who actually worked there. He starts by laying out the conventional wisdom about FP, which presumably he is going to debunk. The conventional wisdom, according to Lewis, is that the problem lay in credit default swaps: “The public explanation of A.I.G.’s failure focused on the credit-default swaps sold by traders at A.I.G. F.P., when A.I.G.’s problems were clearly much broader.” Indeed, Lewis implies that the government essentially framed FP: “Why were officials, both public and private, so intent on leading others to believe all the losses at A.I.G. had been caused by a few dozen traders in this fringe unit in London and Connecticut?
The problem is that, having actually paid for the magazine and read the article, it seems to me that Lewis only reinforces the case against FP and credit default swaps. He says that all of the FP people he talked to “were fairly certain that if it hadn’t been for A.I.G. F.P. the subprime-mortgage machine might never have been built, and the financial crisis might never have happened.” That sounds to me like a more damning case than I would have made.
In Lewis’s story, it was credit default swaps sold by FP that enabled banks to issue securities backed by subprime mortgages earlier this decade. He has evidence that the people at FP who were insuring these securities had no idea how much subprime debt was inside them. When Gene Park figured it out around the end of 2005, Joe Cassano actually agreed to stop insuring subprime-backed securities. Yet Lewis even holds FP responsible for what came later:
“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. . . .
“The big Wall Street firms solved the problem by taking the risk themselves. . . . Unwilling to take the risk of subprime-mortgage bonds in 2004 and 2005, the Wall Street firms swallowed the risk in 2006 and 2007.”
This is somewhat plausible, but it’s a funny argument. Essentially it says that: (a) FP was responsible for subprime lending because, without insurance, investment banks wouldn’t have been willing to take on the risk of the securities in the first place (and demand from investment banks is what caused frontline lenders to originate these loans); but (b) when FP stopped insuring the securities, investment banks suddenly decided they were willing to take on the risk. I say it’s plausible because it could be that FP enabled a profit machine in 2004-05 and the banks were unble to shut it down in 2006-07 without torpedoing their earnings. But if that were the case, they would all have behaved like Goldman – shorting the mortgage-backed securities markets with one hand at the same time that they originated the stuff with the other. In 2006-07, most banks simply underestimated the risk of the stuff they were holding; that is FP’s fault only if you claim that FP made banks like Bear and Lehman stupid.
So when Lewis says, “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” (ellipsis in original), I’m not sure which side he is arguing. Is he saying that FP is to blame for the crash? Or is he saying that FP caused the crash, but doesn’t deserve to be singled out because it “could have happened anywhere?”
The latter argument, to me, doesn’t make sense. The problem is better illustrated when Lewis describes the rise of credit default swaps in the 1990s:
“The traits required of this corporation were that it not be a bank – and thus subject to bank regulation and the need to reserve capital against the risky assets – and that it be willing and able to bury exotic risks on its balance sheet. There was no real reason that company had to be A.I.G.; it could have been any AAA-rated entity with a huge balance sheet. Berkshire Hathaway, for instance, or General Electric. A.I.G. just got there first.”
I don’t think anyone has ever argued that for some structural reason AIG was the only company that could have created the mess it did. AIG created the mess because it made stupid business decisions that other companies did not make. Other companies made other stupid decisions, but not the one to take a huge, one-sided bet, with no reserves, on the solidity of the housing sector and the entire economy.
Ultimately, I think Lewis is actually too harsh on FP. They made bad decisions, they essentially blew up all of AIG, and they required an enormous taxpayer-funded bailout to limit the collateral damage. But holding them responsible for the bad decisions at all the Wall Street investment banks seems a bit much.
By James Kwak