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People are pissed off about this financial crisis, and about this bailout, but they're not pissed off enough. The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d'état. They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.
The most galling thing about this financial crisis is that so many Wall Street types think they actually deserve not only their huge bonuses and lavish lifestyles but the awesome political power their own mistakes have left them in possession of. When challenged, they talk about how hard they work, the 90-hour weeks, the stress, the failed marriages, the hemorrhoids and gallstones they all get before they hit 40.
"But wait a minute," you say to them. "No one ever asked you to stay up all night eight days a week trying to get filthy rich shorting what's left of the American auto industry or selling $600 billion in toxic, irredeemable mortgages to ex-strippers on work release and Taco Bell clerks. Actually, come to think of it, why are we even giving taxpayer money to you people? Why are we not throwing your *snip* in jail instead?"
But before you even finish saying that, they're rolling their eyes, because You Don't Get It. These people were never about anything except turning money into money, in order to get more money; valueswise they're on par with crack addicts, or obsessive sexual deviants who burgle homes to steal panties. Yet these are the people in whose hands our entire political future now rests.
In 1999, Gramm co-sponsored a bill that repealed key aspects of the Glass-Steagall Act, smoothing the way for the creation of financial megafirms like Citigroup.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: ...
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.
That same year, as the subprime crisis was exploding, the Government Accountability Office criticized the OTS, noting a "disparity between the size of the agency and the diverse firms it oversees." Among other things, the GAO report noted that the entire OTS had only one insurance specialist on staff — and this despite the fact that it was the primary regulator for the world's largest insurer!
"There's this notion that the regulators couldn't do anything to stop AIG," says a government official who was present during the bailout. "That's bulxxxx. What you have to understand is that these regulators have ultimate power. They can send you a letter and say, 'You don't exist anymore,' and that's basically that. They don't even really need due process. The OTS could have said, 'We're going to pull your charter; we're going to pull your license; we're going to sue you.' And getting sued by your primary regulator is the kiss of death."
When AIG finally blew up, the OTS regulator ostensibly in charge of overseeing the insurance giant — a guy named C.K. Lee — basically admitted that he had blown it. His mistake, Lee said, was that he believed all those credit swaps in Cassano's portfolio were "fairly benign products." Why? Because the company told him so. "The judgment the company was making was that there was no big credit risk," he explained. (Lee now works as Midwest region director of the OTS; the agency declined to make him available for an interview.)
In early March, after the latest bailout of AIG, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner took what seemed to be a thinly veiled shot at the OTS, calling AIG a "huge, complex global insurance company attached to a very complicated investment bank/hedge fund that was allowed to build up without any adult supervision." But even without that "adult supervision," AIG might have been OK had it not been for a complete lack of internal controls. 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 market.
III. THE CRASH
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. ...etc etc
In fact, our investigation suggests that by the time AIG had entered the CDS fray in a serious way more than five years ago, the firm was already doomed. No longer able to prop up its earnings using reinsurance because of growing scrutiny from state insurance regulators and federal law enforcement agencies, AIG's foray into CDS was really the grand finale. AIG was a Ponzi scheme plain and simple, yet the Obama Administration still thinks of AIG as a real company that simply took excessive risks. No, to us what the fraud Bernard Madoff is to individual investors, AIG is to the global financial community