Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lewis on A.I.G.

More from Michael Lewis, on A.I.G. Financial Products unit head Joe Cassano, "The Man Who Crashed the World". Quote:

Oddly, this dramatic increase in the amount of risk A.I.G. F.P. was assuming came at exactly the moment when it lost the reason for its existence. The day after Hank Greenberg was forced to resign, in March 2005, the credit-rating agencies downgraded A.I.G. from AAA to AA. The AAA rating was the competitive advantage; without it, the natural course of action would have been to close or dramatically shrink A.I.G. F.P.’s business. Instead, Cassano grew it.

Toward the end of 2005, Cassano promoted Al Frost, then went looking for someone to replace him as the ambassador to Wall Street’s subprime-mortgage-bond desks. As a smart quant who understood abstruse securities, Gene Park was a likely candidate. That’s when Park decided to examine more closely the loans that A.I.G. F.P. had insured. He suspected Joe Cassano didn’t understand what he had done, but even so Park was shocked by the magnitude of the misunderstanding: these piles of consumer loans were now 95 percent U.S. subprime mortgages. Park then conducted a little survey, asking the people around A.I.G. F.P. most directly involved in insuring them how much subprime was in them. He asked Gary Gorton, a Yale professor who had helped build the model Cassano used to price the credit-default swaps. Gorton guessed that the piles were no more than 10 percent subprime. He asked a risk analyst in London, who guessed 20 percent. He asked Al Frost, who had no clue, but then, his job was to sell, not to trade. “None of them knew,” says one trader. Which sounds, in retrospect, incredible. But an entire financial system was premised on their not knowing—and paying them for their talent!