Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Never Send a Boy to Do a Man's Job

Interesting article over at Bloomberg.com this morning. Did you see it?
Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) — In the months leading up to the September 2008 collapse of giant insurer American International Group Inc., Elias Habayeb and his colleagues worked nights and weekends negotiating with banks that had bought $62 billion of credit-default swaps from AIG, according to a person who has worked with Habayeb.

Habayeb, 37, was chief financial officer for the AIG division that oversaw AIG Financial Products, the unit that had sold the swaps to the banks. One of his goals was to persuade the banks to accept discounts of as much as 40 cents on the dollar, according to people familiar with the matter.

Among AIG’s bank counterparties were New York-based Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Merrill Lynch & Co., Paris-based Societe Generale SA and Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank AG.

By Sept. 16, 2008, AIG, once the world’s largest insurer, was running out of cash, and the U.S. government stepped in with a rescue plan. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the regional Fed office with special responsibility for Wall Street, opened an $85 billion credit line for New York-based AIG. That bought it 77.9 percent of AIG and effective control of the insurer.


Beginning late in the week of Nov. 3, the New York Fed, led by President Timothy Geithner, took over negotiations with the banks from AIG, together with the Treasury Department and Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s Federal Reserve. Geithner’s team circulated a draft term sheet outlining how the New York Fed wanted to deal with the swaps—insurance-like contracts that backed soured collateralized-debt obligations.


Part of a sentence in the document was crossed out. It contained a blank space that was intended to show the amount of the haircut the banks would take, according to people who saw the term sheet. After less than a week of private negotiations with the banks, the New York Fed instructed AIG to pay them par, or 100 cents on the dollar. The content of its deliberations has never been made public.

Uh, okay.

* * *

I must admit, Dear and Long-suffering Readers, that my first reaction to this news was of a kind with several of the sources quoted in the article: white-hot, scalding rage.

I mean, what the fuck?! Tim Geithner and pals left up to thirteen billion dollars of taxpayer money just sitting on the table? Why?
[B]ecause some counterparties insisted on being paid in full and the New York Fed did not want to negotiate separate deals, says a person close to the transaction.
Oh, that's a good reason. No, really, I mean it.

Dumb fucking cocksuckers.

* * *

Now, to be fair, I am not willing to swallow the Bloomberg article hook, line, and sinker. For one thing, none of the numbers I have been able to glean either from it or from other sources add up. I suspect the high-speed, real-time negotiations over cancelation of the credit default swaps, purchase of the "super-senior" CDOs underlying AIG's CDSs, and coincident payment by AIG of increasingly frequent, strident, and large collateral calls by its counterparties during the frantic days of mid-September a year ago make it damn difficult for anyone to reconstruct exactly what happened and who paid how much to whom and when, much less a bunch of underpaid, slightly innumerate financial reporters.

And you definitely need to read between the lines. Just because Elias Habayeb intended to persuade Goldman Sachs, SocGen, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, and several other representatives of The Great Deceiver Here on Earth to accept 40% haircuts doesn't mean he had a snowball's chance in hell of doing so. In fact, the GAO's September 2009 report on the AIG fiasco unequivocally states his efforts failed prior to the government takeover (p. 17):
AIG’s negotiations with counterparties and creditors to reduce the outstanding obligations through contract renegotiation had proven unsuccessful.
But this selfsame GAO report clearly outlines the issue with the Fed's subsequent precipitate actions (p. 18):
Critics of the government’s assistance have noted that by providing assistance to AIG for the purpose of providing or returning cash collateral to counterparties, the government was indirectly assisting the counterparties, and they questioned the efficiency of this approach. Some noted that banks that had bought CDS contracts from other failed insurers were paid 13 cents on the dollar in deals mediated by New York’s insurance regulator, whereas AIG’s counterparties were paid market value. They said that new capital to AIG in effect served as direct infusions to the counterparties, including foreign financial institutions. Conversely, Federal Reserve officials believed that if AIG had failed to pay the collateral amounts due, it would have been in default of its agreements, which could have resulted in AIG’s counterparties forcing it into bankruptcy. Moreover, they believed that the unfolding crisis warranted swift action to prevent total collapse of the financial system given its fragile state at that time.
It is clear that some banks were in deep doo-doo as AIG spiraled ever more quickly toward its predestinate sticky end (p. 22):
Finally, the Federal Reserve and Treasury stated in separate reports and testimonies in the fall of 2008 and early 2009 that the failure of AIGFP could have led to billions of dollars of losses at bank counterparties that bought CDS contracts from AIG.29 Because many banks used these contracts as credit protection, following losses to CDS contract holders, if any, AIG’s failure could have led to mounting losses through sudden, unhedged, uncollateralized exposure as market conditions worsened and underlying assets continued to decline in value. Banks and other counterparties could have faced declining capital bases because of these unrealized losses. Moreover, counterparties with unfulfilled derivative contracts could have faced difficulties in offsetting balance sheet exposures through replacement derivatives, and they would have had to confront the possibility of entering into new contracts at a time when market participants had become increasingly risk averse and unwilling to execute new transactions.
Of course, not all of AIG's counterparties would have faced wrack and ruin had it defaulted on its obligations. Most notably, Goldman Sachs crowed loud and long at the time that it was fully hedged against AIG's untimely demise, and that it couldn't give a rat's ass whether Bob Willumstad's company took the pipe or not. This has led more than one market observer to speculate that the $11 or $12 or $13 billion in cash which the Federal Reserve presented to Goldman on a silver platter represented a particularly fetching and unexpected gift from the pockets of the American taxpayer direct to the bank accounts of Goldman's employees. It certainly encourages me to believe that whatever difference between a realistic haircut Goldman could have expected to endure on AIG's CDSs and the no-haircut they did receive represents a particularly large and tasty helping of frosting on an already delicious and unexpectedly rich cake.

Taking, for argument's sake, the 40% figure bandied about, that would be about five billion dollars worth of buttercream for Lloyd and his buddies. Or, as a point of reference, a figure approximately equal to the entire compensation and benefit expense Goldman recorded in its most recent fiscal quarter. Sweet, huh?

* * *

So, what's my point?

Just this: Tim Geithner and the Federal Reserve got royally played. And you and I, my friends, paid dearly for the privilege.

Sure, the Fed was worried that AIG's uncontrolled collapse could lead to a complete and utter meltdown of the global financial system. Even now, with the worst of the crisis behind us and plenty of time to reflect, it is hard to criticize this worry as hysterical. It is also true that things were moving way too quickly to sit down and think them through logically, so we should not superimpose unreasonable expectations of measured, rational thought on the Fed's negotiators. It is also even remotely possible that some of AIG's counterparties were so inept and unprepared for the insurance company's troubles that they truly might have blown up themselves if it went down. (Although AIG's train wreck was so long coming and so well telegraphed that any bank so blind to the obvious and unprepared for the inevitable probably should have been shut down purely on principle.)

But Christ, people, think about it.

What moronic financial entity—fully hedged or not—would really risk global financial catastrophe by throwing AIG into bankruptcy, even if it had the contractual and legal right to do so? Because it insisted on receiving 100% of the proceeds due to it by contract? Even though parties to financial contracts renegotiate existing terms under normal market conditions all the time? What good, for example, would those extra five billion clams—not collected, by the way, until the bankruptcy judge wound the company down, if ever—have done Goldman Sachs if it, Morgan Stanley, and every other major investment and commercial bank were in liquidation too?

Furthermore, what foreign or domestic bank CEO in his right mind has the balls to threaten the government of the United States of America with financial meltdown if it doesn't cough up another couple billion dollars out of the public purse? Are you fucking kidding me?

AIG's counterparties had no leverage whatsoever. None.

Of course, Geithner and Bernanke were over a barrel, too, because they didn't want to do anything stupid to trigger Armageddon either. Among other things, I believe it is in their brief to prevent just such annoyances. I do not claim they should have been able to get all 40% of the target discount from the banks. But nothing? Not even from the guys who claimed not to care?

Give me a break.

* * *

Now, I am sure I will catch flak from the usual suspects—ignorant twenty-somethings who have never renegotiated a contract in their lives and disingenuous ideologues who have and should know better—for suggesting it, but I think the Fed has a good case for clawing back some of AIG's payments. I think a couple of quiet words with the CEOs and Boards of Goldman Sachs, SocGen, BofA, and Deutsche Bank could go a long way toward encouraging a "voluntary" return of some of these monies to the public purse. Consider it, if you will, a generous donation from the assembled titans of finance for the benefit of the regulators who pulled their testicles out of the fire a mere thirteen months ago. A grateful gift, so to speak, from the money men to the people and officials who make their very existence possible.

Of course, history and common sense tell us that a mere bureaucrat will lack the credibility to deliver such a threat message to the Masters of the Universe. Even now, as Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Geithner is more likely to inspire giggles of disbelief from Lloyd Blankfein et al. than deferential respect.

No, what you need is a professional psychopath, a highly trained and expert negotiator, who will tuck his Hermes tie into his shirt and slap the offending CEOs silly before emptying their firms' bank accounts. Someone who can run roughshod over the rights and expectations of self-interested plutocrats in the name of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, or at least a balanced budget. Someone who can make assembled onlookers squeal in horror as he tramples precedent, custom, and noblesse oblige into the mud alongside all the other tired, self-righteous pablum capitalists and free marketeers have been reciting like Holy Writ for nigh on thirty years.

Someone who isn't afraid to negotiate hard. Someone who isn't afraid to scream, and yell, and threaten all sorts of horrible consequences, real and imagined, for anyone who doesn't accede to his demands.

And, since Steve Rattner is no longer in the picture, I guess it'll just have to be me.

Lloyd, you are so fucked.

© 2009 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.