Thus, when I wanted to read more about the cause of AIG's meteoric fall from glory, I went to find the self-serving testimony of the CEO of AIG on this topic. Mr. Robert Willumstad testified before the United States House of Representatives Oversight Committee on October 7.
He had a long litany of reasons why AIG encountered financial disaster. You can read his tale of woe here:
One thing caught my eye in this testimony. The testimony describes how one AIG non-insurance unit, AIG Financial Products, entered into contracts for 500 billion dollars (with a "b") of credit default swaps. What is a credit default swap, one might ask. The good news is that it is a simple thing to have such an impressive-sounding name. It's a form of "derivative", but not a complex form of derivative.
Let's imagine that I wish to invest in a bond. I am afraid, though, that the bond may default. I acquire a "credit default swap". I pay some payments to the party from whom I acquire the swap. In turn, if the bond defaults, then the person with whom I contracted for the swap (in this case an AIG entity) has to make good the losses.
Imagine that you worked for the biggest insurance holding comapny in the world. Imagine if your basic insurance business was in the main profitable, subject to the usual cyclical ups and downs of the insurance markets.
But imagine you wanted more. Much more. More profit. More clout.
How do you get more financial clout?
Take more risk. Enter into masses of swaps as to mortgage-backed securities. Tell yourself that you are being careful, because you are "only" risking a half trillion dollars on the most highly-rated packages of
Then, when a real estate market bubble bursts, watch your company need 120 billion dollars in bail-out money.
Not to worry, though. You'll have your story down straight. When the house of cards comes crashing down--explain to the American people's elected representatives that it's not your fault--the market turned against you.
One thing I love about people is that they always have a reason. No matter what foolish or even wrongful choices people make, they often have a very good pat explanation. The dog ate my derivatives. My options package was no longer as sexy, so I had to cheat. What a fellow needs is a trophy salary, and you have to do something to make the pulse race to get that.
It's easy to shake our heads in vague ways about corporations and their insidious wrongs.
But we can easily be concrete.
AIG best 1/2 trillion dollars of its money on the Amercian real estate money.
We, the American people, must now bail out AIG, which is, of all the "too large to fail" companies, perhaps the one private company truly "too large to fail".
Commentators talk down to folks, as if they can't understand derivatives or risk.
But this one is simple--one half trillion dollars, payable if a recession makes a lot of real estate loans simultaneously default.
Don't let anyone tell you that this flawed business judgment is "nobody's fault".