Thursday, March 19, 2009

AIG's Long History of Responsible Conduct

In 1987, AIG made a huge mistake in launching a credit-default-swaps portfolio, the source of the company's eventual collapse. Don't take my word for that - hear it from current CEO, Edward Liddy:
Mistakes were made at AIG, and on a scale that few could have imagined possible. The most egregious of those began in 1987, when the company strayed from its core insurance competencies to launch a credit-default-swaps portfolio, which eventually became subject to massive collateral calls that created a liquidity crisis for AIG. Its missteps have exacted a high price, not only for the company and its employees but for the American taxpayer, the federal government's finances and the global economy. These missteps brought AIG to the brink of collapse and to the government for help.
So, how that that happen? As a former CEO is quick to tell you, as long as you make profits on paper nothing should be deemed a mistake:
From 1987 to 2004, the company's financial products unit contributed more than $5 billion to AIG's pretax income.
As you might imagine, in former CEO Greenberg's eyes, there was no cause for concern until after he left the company:
In spring 2005, after I left the company, AIG's credit rating was downgraded. It would have been logical for AIG's new management to end or reduce its business of writing credit default swaps because of the risk it faced of having to post billions of dollars in additional collateral in connection with certain credit default protection. Yet AIG ramped up its credit default swaps business; significantly, the quality of the securities AIG wrote credit protection for deteriorated, and the company plunged into subprime mortgages. The results were disastrous.
There's no reason to doubt Greenberg's word that everything was peachy until the day he left.... except for the fact that he was ousted from AIG over dubious accounting practices, and the financial products division was his baby:
But in 2005, amid an investigation by then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Greenberg was forced out by AIG's board. He had refused to cooperate with the company's own probe.

He is still fighting civil charges being pursued by New York state, as well as a string of other lawsuits outstanding between him and AIG.

But detractors say he could face a tough time saving face given the latest loss revelations since the former chieftain was sole architect of AIG Financial Products - the business that poured itself into the CDS market, and ultimately cost AIG so much.
Under Greenberg and Joe Cassano, the former Michael Milken associate who headed the financial products group, there was trouble. In 2001 the financial products division engaged in illegal conduct, resulting in a $80 million fine and its return of close to $40 million in fees, back in 2004:
To make the transactions look legitimate, Financial Products had set up a company to "invest" in the entities, while receiving an equivalent amount in fees, investigators said. The structure of the deal violated securities laws, FBI agent Randy Tice asserted in an affidavit filed in federal court as part of the simultaneous settlement of a criminal case and an SEC civil complaint.

AIG and two Financial Products subsidiaries agreed to pay an $80-million fine and give back $39.8 million in fees it had earned, plus $6.5 million in interest. PNC paid a $115-million fine.

The settlement also required AIG "to implement a series of reforms addressing the integrity of client and third-party transactions." A group of senior AIG executives would review complex transactions from the previous few years, working with an independent monitor chosen by the Justice Department, the SEC and the company.
Unsurprisingly, the company's auditors wanted to take a close look at its operations - and was apparently told that they had to take "no" for an answer:
Both PricewaterhouseCoopers, the company’s auditor, and an independent accountant complained of a lack of access to the London unit and its leader, Joseph Cassano. The accountant, Joseph St. Denis, said in a statement to the committee that he had been deliberately blocked from questioning Mr. Cassano because he might ”pollute the process.” Mr. St. Denis later resigned in protest.
(There were a lot of red flags.) When things reached the breaking point, Cassano was allowed to retire with a sweetheart consulting deal, until negative publicity brought it to an early end.
He was forcibly retired in March of 2008, but kept on a $1 million per month retainer and allowed to keep living in the AIG-paid for apartment in London. It was only in September 2008 that Rep. Henry Waxman flipped out when he heard that the guy who blew up AIG and put taxpayers on the line for tens or hundreds of billions of dollars was still getting a $1 million a month retainer. That's when they killed the retainer too.
As things crumbled around them, those within the financial products division "negotiated" an incredibly one-sided "bonus" package based upon their division's illusory 2007 profits.
These bonuses are payable regardless of performance and are calculated at 100 percent of 2007 compensation for all employees except senior management, who receive 75 percent of 2007 compensation. The amount is payable unless they are fired with good cause, resign without good reason or fail to meet performance standards. For those hoping that these employees could now be fired, “good cause” is defined in the agreement as a very high standard.
Although the recent payments are supposedly necessary to keep on board the people needed to unravel AIG's mess, as it turns out the hardest work in wrapping up the mess was completed months ago.
The work of defusing the most dangerous bets placed by American International Group was largely concluded by December, according to documents and interviews, long before the company gave bonuses to employees it said it needed to retain to avoid a financial meltdown.
The remaining people at the financial products division could be replaced - unless they all quit at once.
But what about the argument made by top AIG officials that the people receiving retention bonuses have unique skills and knowledge that make them indispensable?

"They are replaceable," Pasciucco acknowledges. "If we were running a long-term business, we could probably replace them over time, not all at the same time."
So the sole remaining justification for the bonuses is that a bunch of replaceable employees might walk off the job at the same time, into the loving arms of the current financial industry job market, rather than "settling for" their salaries or a renegotiated bonus package based upon such absurd measures as their job performance.

Update: Here's a more comprehensive summary of AIGFP's history. It provides a bit more context to some of the bad decisions made along the way.

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