Posted on 14 Dec 2009
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. played a bigger role than has been publicly disclosed in fueling the mortgage bets that nearly felled American International Group Inc (AIG).
Goldman was one of 16 banks paid off when the U.S. government last year spent billions closing out soured trades that AIG made with the financial firms.
A Wall Street Journal analysis of AIG's trades, which were on pools of mortgage debt, shows that Goldman was a key player in many of them, even the ones involving other banks.
Goldman originated or bought protection from AIG on about $33 billion of the $80 billion of U.S. mortgage assets that AIG insured during the housing boom. That is roughly twice as much as Société Générale and Merrill Lynch, the banks with the biggest exposure to AIG after Goldman, according an analysis of ratings-firm reports and an internal AIG document that details several financial firms' roles in the transactions.
In Goldman's biggest deal, it acted as a middleman between AIG and banks, taking on the risk of as much as $14 billion of mortgage-related investments. Then Goldman insured that risk with one trading partner—AIG, according to the Journal's analysis and people familiar with the trades.
The trades yielded Goldman less than $50 million in profits, which were mostly booked from 2004 to 2006, according to a person familiar with the matter. But they piled risks onto AIG's books, which later came to haunt the insurer and Goldman. The trades also gave Goldman a unique window into AIG's exposure to losses on securities linked to mortgages.
When the federal government bailed out the insurer, Goldman avoided losses on its trades with AIG covering a total of $22 billion in assets.
A Goldman spokesman says that up until AIG was rescued by the government, the insurer "was viewed as one of the most sophisticated financial counterparties in the world. It wasn't until the government intervened in September 2008 that the full extent of AIG's problems became apparent."
"What is lost in the discussion is that AIG assumed billions of dollars in risk it was unable to manage," the Goldman spokesman added.
An AIG spokesman declined to comment on the firm's trades with Goldman.
More clarity has emerged recently over the roles that firms such as Goldman played, as complex deals carried out by banks are now being untangled in legal and regulatory inquiries. Last month a government audit of part of the AIG bailout described Goldman's middleman role.
One of Goldman's trades with AIG involved a financial vehicle called South Coast Funding VIII. South Coast was one of many pools of bonds backed by individual homeowners' mortgage payments that Wall Street turned into collateralized debt obligations or CDOs.
Merrill Lynch, now part of Bank of America Corp., underwrote the South Coast CDO in January 2006 by stuffing it with packages of home loans originated by firms such as Countrywide Financial Corp., the big California lender.
Once a CDO debt pool is assembled, it is sliced into layers based on risk and return. Merrill sold the safest, or top layer, of deals like South Coast to large banks, including in Europe and Canada.
The banks wanted protection in case the housing market tanked. Many turned to Goldman, which effectively insured the securities against losses. Then, to cover its own potential losses, Goldman bought protection from AIG, in the form of credit-default swaps.
Goldman charged more than AIG for the protection, so it was able to pocket the difference, making millions while moving the default risks to AIG, according to people familiar with the trades.
The banks eventually realized they didn't need to use Goldman as a middleman.
The trades seemed prudent at the time given AIG's strong credit rating and the fact that AIG agreed to make payments to Goldman, known as collateral, if the value of the CDOs declined. The trades were also low risk for Goldman as long as AIG stayed afloat.
Other banks also acted as middlemen, including Merrill Lynch, which did roughly $6 billion of these deals compared to $14 billion for Goldman, according to people familiar with the trades and the analysis of banks' exposures to AIG.
"It seems shocking to me that Goldman would become so exposed to AIG and kept doing deals with them and laying on the risk," says Tom Savage, a former chief executive of AIG's financial products unit who left in 2001 before the explosive growth of insuring mortgage-debt pools.
The middleman trades began to unravel in mid 2007 when the U.S. mortgage market started slumping. Goldman was the first of AIG's trading partners to notify AIG that the CDOs were losing value and demand collateral. Other banks including Société Générale and a unit of Credit Agricole that had bought insurance from AIG eventually did the same.
A Goldman spokesman said that between mid-2007 and early 2008, Goldman showed AIG "market price levels" at which trades could be undone, allowing AIG to decrease its risk, but "AIG refused to accept that the market was deteriorating."
When Goldman didn't get as much collateral as it wanted from AIG, in 2007 and 2008 it bought protection against a default of AIG itself from other banks.
AIG officials were skeptical of the prices Goldman presented, according to the minutes of a February 2008 AIG audit committee meeting, which noted that Goldman was "unwilling or unable to provide any sources for their determination of market prices."
Additional calls for collateral from Goldman and other banks eventually led to AIG's September 2008 bailout and led the New York Federal Reserve two months later to fully cover $62 billion of insurance contracts Goldman and 15 other banks had with the financial products unit of AIG.
Goldman's other big role in the CDO business that few of its competitors appreciated at the time was as an originator of CDOs that other banks invested in and that ended up being insured by AIG, a role recently highlighted by Chicago credit consultant Janet Tavakoli. Ms. Tavakoli reviewed an internal AIG document written in late 2007 listing the CDOs that AIG had insured, a document obtained earlier this year by CBS News.
The Journal analysis of that document in conjunction with ratings-firm reports shows that Goldman underwrote roughly $23 billion of the $80 billion in mortgage-linked CDOs that AIG agreed to insure.
One such deal was called Davis Square Funding VI. That CDO, assembled by Goldman in March 2006, contained mortgage securities underpinned by subprime home loans originated by firms such as Countrywide and New Century Mortgage Corp., one of the first subprime lenders to fail in 2007.
A big investor in Davis Square's top layer was Société Générale, which bought protection on it from AIG, according to the internal memo. The French bank was the largest beneficiary of the New York Fed's Nov. 2008 move to pay off banks in full on their AIG insurance contracts.
A company financed largely by the New York Fed ended up owning both the Davis Square and South Coast CDOs. Société Générale received payments from AIG and the New York Fed totaling $16.5 billion.
Goldman received $14 billion for its trades that were torn up, including $8.4 billion in collateral from AIG.
A representative of Société Générale declined to comment.
The special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which recently reviewed the New York Fed's effort to stanch collateral calls last year, said Goldman officials said the company believed it would have been fully protected had AIG been allowed to fail because of collateral it had amassed and the additional insurance it had bought against an AIG default.
The auditor, however, questioned that conclusion. The report said Goldman would have had a difficult time selling the collateral and that the firm might have been unable to actually collect on the additional insurance.