Posted on 08 Aug 2011
AIG Financial Products, the unit that set off a panic on Wall Street and came to symbolize the recklessness and greed behind the financial crisis, died this week. The firm’s death sentence was sealed after it nearly brought insurance giant American International Group to its knees and forced a massive government bailout in 2008.
The sign at its Wilton, Connecticut, headquarters is slated to come down this month. Its operations in Hong Kong and Tokyo and London have closed. The few dozen employees who remain include mostly support staff — not the traders that fueled the firm’s rise and fall — and even they will be let go or absorbed into other divisions of AIG.
“It’s over,” said Gerry Pasciucco, whose final day at work was Friday, nearly three years after he was hired to sort out the mess at Financial Products.
In its youth, Financial Products was the envy of Wall Street, a place where some of the best and brightest traders and mathematicians flocked to create exotic derivatives deals that raked in billions of dollars in profits for its parent company.
Since the crisis, however, it had become an albatross for AIG and a pariah within the financial circles where it once had been revered.
The massive and risky bets the firm made insuring mortgage-backed securities for banks around the world turned sour when the housing market tanked, leading to billions of dollars in losses. That meltdown prompted the federal government to provide a rescue that grew to more than $182 billion.
In March 2009, news that employees at the Financial Products division had received more than $165 million in bonuses despite the bailout sparked national outrage. Protests and bitter hearings followed on Capitol Hill. Scornful e-mails and calls poured into the firm’s offices. Even President Obama weighed in angrily.
“How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?” he said at the time, vowing to “pursue every single legal” to block the bonuses, which never were fully recouped.
What ended in disaster began with idealism.
In the mid-1980s, two enterprising traders at the junk-bond firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert, Howard Sosin and Randy Rackson, conceived of a nimble, creative enterprise that could seek out profitable opportunities in the seams and gaps of financial markets and federal regulation. Along with a third colleague, they went searching for a corporate partner to fund their venture.
They found one in AIG, which had deep pockets, a sterling AAA credit rating and an ambitious chief executive in Maurice “Hank” Greenberg who was looking to diversify and expand his global empire.
Financial Products was born on Jan. 26, 1987, in an attorney’s office in Midtown Manhattan, when Greenberg and the Drexel traders made their partnership official.
Sosin, Rackson and their band of recruits soon set up shop in a windowless, makeshift room inside an accounting firm on Third Avenue. Until the rental furniture arrived, they sat on cardboard boxes. When it finally showed up, someone had made a mistake and they briefly were left to sit at children’s chairs and work at tiny tables.
The firm’s early success came from its discipline. The group created a collaborative culture and built an innovative computer system that tracked the changing value of thousands of trades in a ways no other firm could.
In 1998, the firm ventured into new and fateful territory. It began writing a new kind of deal called credit-default swaps. In essence, the firm essentially would insure a company’s corporate debt in case of default. The models suggested a 99.85 percent chance of never having to pay out. It seemed like free money.
What started as a side business grew exponentially. In less than a decade, Financial Products became a leader in writing credit-default swaps that insured the massive pools of mortgages fueling the housing boom. The deals were immensely profitable, but also deceptively risky.
When the housing crash came, Financial Products owed billions of dollars and nearly bled AIG dry, forcing the government to rescue the company.
Financial Products is survived by a collection of remaining trades that will be managed over time by other parts of AIG. It will remain a legal entity for purposes of winding down what’s left in its portfolio and to resolve lingering lawsuits. But there is no chief operating officer, no band of traders and computer wonks seeking out new profits. It is, for all intents and purposes, finally gone.
“It’s not a business we should be in, we’re an insurance company,” said AIG chief executive Robert Benmosche.
In its regulator filing this week, AIG including a note about the unceremonious end of Financial Products, saying the “wind-down” was complete.
“It was a disciplined organization,” Greenberg, who ran AIG for decades until his ouster in 2005, said of Financial Products. But in the end, he said, “It become something that it was never intended to be.”