Thomas Adams, a lawyer and former bond insurer executive, wrote a guest post for naked capitalism on the question of why AIG was bailed out and the monoline bond insurers were not (wow, is it really almost two years since the monoline insurer crisis?). He estimates that the monolines together had roughly the same amount of exposure to CDOs that AIG did; in addition, since the monolines also insured trillions of dollars of municipal debt, there were potential spillover effects. (AIG, by contrast, insured tens of trillions of non-financial stuff — people’s lives, houses, cars, commercial liability, etc. — but that was in separately capitalized subsidiaries.)
The difference between the monolines and AIG, Adams posits, was Goldman Sachs.
Apparently while all the other banks were paying monoline insurers to insure their CDOs, Goldman wasn’t, because the monolines refused to agree to collateral posting requirements (clauses saying that if the risk increased and the insurer was downgraded, it would have to give collateral to the party buying the insurance). Instead, Goldman bought its insurance in the form of credit default swaps from AIG, which was willing to agree to collateral posting requirements, as we all now know. This is one way in which Goldman was smarter than its competitors. Another way, which we also all know, is that at some point in 2007 Goldman began shorting the market for mortgage-backed securities — which would given extra incentive to make sure that they were fully insured.
Until, suddenly in September 2008, it turned out that maybe Goldman wasn’t that much smarter than everyone else, when it seemed like AIG might not be able to post the collateral it owed. And so:
“I hate to get sucked into the vampire squid line of thinking about Goldman, but the only explanation i can think of for why AIG got rescued and the monolines did not is because Goldman had significant exposure to AIG and did not have exposure to the monolines.”
Yves Smith points out (in an update) another possible difference between AIG and the monolines — AIG’s business in swaps allowing European banks to reduce their capital requirements, which meant that big European banks had a lot of exposure to AIG.
Another difference might be timing — AIG hit the fan at the same time as Lehman and a week after Fannie and Freddie were taken over. Another difference might be raw size: even if the monolines together were as big as AIG, that’s precisely the point — their problems could be spaced out over time, allowing the markets more time to adjust, while AIG would go bankrupt in one big lump.
By James Kwak