By William Greider, The Nation
The government’s $182 billion bailout of insurance giant AIG should be seen as the Rosetta Stone for understanding the financial crisis and its costly aftermath. The story of American International Group explains the larger catastrophe not because this was the biggest corporate bailout in history but because AIG’s collapse and subsequent rescue involved nearly all the critical elements, including delusion and deception. These financial dealings are monstrously complicated, but this account focuses on something mere mortals can understand—moral confusion in high places, and the failure of governing institutions to fulfill their obligations to the public.
Three governmental investigative bodies have now pored through the AIG wreckage and turned up disturbing facts—the House Committee on Oversight and Reform; the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which will make its report at year’s end; and the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP), which issued its report on AIG in June.
The five-member COP, chaired by Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, has produced the most devastating and comprehensive account so far. Unanimously adopted by its bipartisan members, it provides alarming insights that should be fodder for the larger debate many citizens long to hear—why Washington rushed to forgive the very interests that produced this mess, while innocent others were made to suffer the consequences. The Congressional panel’s critique helps explain why bankers and their Washington allies do not want Elizabeth Warren to chair the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The most troubling revelation in this story is the astonishing weakness of the Federal Reserve and its incompetence as a faithful defender of the public interest.
The report concludes that the Federal Reserve Board’s intimate relations with the leading powers of Wall Street—the same banks that benefited most from the government’s massive bailout—influenced its strategic decisions on AIG. The panel accuses the Fed and the Treasury Department of brushing aside alternative approaches that would have saved tens of billions in public funds by making these same banks “share the pain.”
Bailing out AIG effectively meant rescuing Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Merrill Lynch (as well as a dozens of European banks) from huge losses. Those financial institutions played the derivatives game with AIG, the esoteric practice of placing financial bets on future events. AIG lost its bets, which led to its collapse. But other gamblers—the counterparties in AIG’s derivative deals—were made whole on their bets, paid off 100 cents on the dollar. Taxpayers got stuck with the bill.
“The AIG rescue demonstrated that Treasury and the Federal Reserve would commit taxpayers to pay any price and bear any burden to prevent the collapse of America’s largest financial institutions,” the COP report said. This could have been avoided, the report argues, if the Fed had listened to disinterested advisers with a less parochial understanding of the public interest.
Fed and Treasury officials dismiss this critique as second-guessing of tough decisions they had to make in the fall of 2008, amid the fast-moving global crisis. Yet two years later, those controversial decisions remain highly relevant. Public anger has not abated. It fuels the election turmoil that this year threatens to bring down incumbents in both parties who voted for bank bailouts.
Although the AIG bailout was carried out in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency, the popular sense of injustice has deeply scarred Barack Obama, since he too adopted a forgiving approach toward culpable financial interests. Obama came to office intent on restoring public trust in government. His indulgence of the mega-banks led to the opposite result.
More to the point, the AIG story raises real doubts and suspicions about how the government will respond next time. Or whether the new financial reform legislation actually corrects government’s deference to the pinnacles of private financial power. Massive federal intervention was certainly necessary, the Warren panel agrees, including quick action to forestall AIG’s bankruptcy. But government declined to demand anything in return.
The AIG rescue was done in ways that had “poisonous effects” on the financial marketplace and public opinion, the report concluded. Cynical expectations were confirmed, both for citizens and financial players. Some financial firms are simply “too big to fail,” it seems; Washington will not let them collapse, no matter what the president claims.
The most troubling revelation in this story is the astonishing weakness of the Federal Reserve and its incompetence as a faithful defender of the public interest. In the lore of central banking, the Fed is awesomely powerful and intimidating. As regulator of the banking system, it has life-and-death influence over banks. As manager of the economy, it has open-ended authority to intervene in the financial system to restore stability, as the central bank did massively during the crisis.
Yet the Fed was strangely passive and compliant when it came to demanding cooperation and sacrifice from the largest financial institutions. Timothy Geithner was then president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, the lead regulator of Wall Street’s largest banks. He briefly insisted they must accept the burden of rescuing AIG. But the bankers called his bluff and blew him off—and Geithner deferred to their wishes. The taxpayer bailout followed. The episode is relevant to the future, because Geithner is now Obama’s Treasury Secretary and in charge of preventing the next taxpayer bailout.
In the early autumn of 2008, mayhem swept through global financial markets. It engulfed AIG on Monday morning, September 15. Lehman Brothers had just failed. Panicky credit markets were seizing up. American International Group, largest insurance company in the world, was hemorrhaging capital, rapidly sinking toward bankruptcy. At the New York Fed, Geithner had the problem covered, or so he thought.
Geithner informed top executives of Wall Street’s most important financial houses—Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs—that the banking industry, not the Federal Reserve, must step up and do the rescue. Geithner told them it was “inconceivable that the Federal Reserve could or should play any role in preventing AIG’s collapse.”
That Monday morning, Geithner summoned representatives from Goldman and the JPMorgan bank to Fed offices and told them to organize a private-sector consortium of major lenders to provide the emergency liquidity loans that would keep AIG afloat until things settled down. It was presumed JPMorgan would be the lead lender; Goldman, as an investment bank, could help AIG sell off assets to raise capital. Given the Fed’s blessing, other banks were expected to cooperate.
The New York Fed president did not need to threaten anyone. This was the gentlemanly way in which the central bank can invoke its informal authority, with numerous precedents in the past. Prodded by the Fed and Treasury, major banks had done something similar back in 1998 to save the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, whose collapse threatened a chain reaction on Wall Street. During the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, the Fed had used its overbearing influence to make leading US banks grant concessions and write down outstanding loans—a grudging “workout” that saved Mexico, Brazil and Argentina from default but also saved some famous New York banks from imploding.