There are dozens of books on the financial crisis: I have read many of them and the Kindle samples for just about all of them. There are only two I would recommend: those are Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera’s excellent All the Devils are Here
and the much more specifically detailed Fatal Risk
from Roddy Boyd. Roddy's book is solely concerned with the failure of AIG.
Both books start without any strong ideological preconceptions and let the facts woven into a good story do the talking - and both wind up ambivalent about many of the major players - with many players having human weaknesses (gullibility, delusion, arrogance etc) but committing nothing that looks like a strong case for criminal prosecution. Reading these you can see why there are so few criminal prosecutions from the crisis. And you will also see just how extreme the human failings that caused the crisis are.
If you are not familiar with the saga that led up to the mortgage collapse, the rise of securitisation, the depth of the repo market, the lowering of credit standards start with the McLean/Nocera book. If you have to give a book as a gift to someone who is not a financial professional you could do little better. That is the best general book yet written on the crisis.
But for me (and because I was familiar with the broad details of the crisis anyway) the best book of the crisis is Roddy Boyd’s Fatal Risk. It is not a good first financial book to read and I had to think quite hard as to the details that Roddy glossed over - but that was because Roddy had to make a choice - was he writing for someone who vaguely knew what a credit default swap was or was he writing for someone who had actually read a “credit support annexe (a CSA)”.
Fortunately for most people he does not want to assume you have actually read a CSA (although I have). But less forgivingly Roddy does not feel the need to define an Alt-A mortgage or a repo line. This is a fabulous book – but it deals with complex subjects without shying away from their complexity and it assumes you have enough knowledge and intelligence to cope
Truths, generalities and people
Underlying Roddy’s books are a few financial truths that bear repeating. Firstly anything that has any chance of going wrong if done for long enough will go wrong. It doesn’t matter if your model tells you that you will be fine in any mortgage default environment short of the great depression: if you continue to bet on that model you will lose. Maybe not next year. Maybe not in ten years but you will eventually lose.
Likewise if you write large quantities of out-of-the-money puts you will eventually lose a lot of money.
Likewise if your model assumes that there is always going to be a deep liquid market in any security (with the possible exception of a Treasury bond) then one day you will wake up and the buyers will have scampered like antelopes from a waterhole at first sight of a lion. Any business that has to roll a large amount of debt at regular intervals is dangerous.
Ignore these truths and you take a risk. Ignore them on a grand enough scale and the risk will be fatal.
Whatever: if you ignore these truths you might become rich in the interim. Earnings and growth might be fine. You might even look like a genius. Maybe a “legendary CEO”.
So Roddy’s book starts a long time ago - the 1970s and 1980s when AIG did not forget those truths - and it talks about AIG as a superlative risk management machine. The first section of the book is a repeat of the AIG legend - a legend of superlative risk management mostly in the head of one man: Hank Greenberg. It is a legend that might be overstated but that doesn’t mean that it is not mostly true. Hank really did work absurd hours, pick at steamed fish and vegetables and ask sophisticated questions to six people at once. Hank knew to really understand what was going on you had to go three to four levels deep in an organisation and ask the right questions of assorted lower/mid ranked officers. They would answer truthfully because of a desire to impress or fear or even that (unlike many senior managers) they were not accustomed to spinning. He would get the raw data. He would make the assessment.
There were two things however that Hank did not assess properly: his own mortality and his declining skill in old age. There is no question of declining skill. It is very hard to imagine the Hank Greenberg of 1975 falling for China Media Express - but the Hank Greenberg of 2010 was suckered
. As for mortality he had no plans.
He also did not plan for Eliot Spitzer.
By 2000 Hank was extremely concerned about what Wall Street thought of his stock. That is no surprise - AIG was the most highly valued large financial firm in the world (I remember being startled that its PE was three times Wells Fargo). And - unstated by Boyd - Hank liked that a lot because he used AIGs stock as currency to do acquisitions. He was - much to the chagrin of many investment bankers - very selective as to the acquisitions he would do (he knew acquisitions were fraught with risk) but he did some mighty big ones including the purchase of Sun America
. I remember that one - and thought (correctly in hindsight) that it probably made sense primarily because AIG was paying with inflated stock.
So by the year 2000 Hank was - apart from running the business - actively manipulating the earnings of the business. As far as I can tell he ran the business particularly well (the legend of AIG was not false) but he also played Wall Street like a fiddle and gave them the numbers they wanted even if they were massaged a little (or maybe a lot).
Moreover - and this is critical for the story - AIG had no overarching operating system. It was a bunch of fiefdoms all reporting to Hank. This meant that AIG could not produce earnings results until the very last day they were legally allowed to file them. It meant Hank could personally massage earnings. At many financial institutions some approximation of earnings are known every month. At AIG there was no system they could query and ask for their aggregate Alt-A mortgage exposure. Hank might have known - indeed almost certainly would have known - but the system is Hank and Hank being removed or dying would be disastrous for AIG.
And then along comes Spitzer. Spitzer discovers a relatively minor finite insurance transaction between AIG and General Re
. (Believe me it was minor - I know of plenty of nastier transactions than that... many of which were never prosecuted.*) However it is a clear attempt to fudge the numbers - Spitzer really is onto something. And with bombast and the power of the Attorney General he makes Hank Greenberg’s world fall apart. Spitzer fights dirty (and it is no surprise that several Spitzer prosecutions later failed because of prosecutorial misconduct) but Spitzer has his clear piece of fakery and he wants and gets his pound of flesh.
Hank is forced out - which is the equivalent to AIG of his sudden death. Worse because AIG went on to repudiate many things Hank stood for including many of his risk-control edicts. If he had died the hero CEO it might have been marginally better for AIG.
The minor nature of the AIG-Gen Re transaction is laid clear when Roddy suggests that there is an “excellent chance that Greenberg gave the Gen Re issues - which cost him his job, his honor, his status and perhaps over a billion dollars in personal wealth - all of five minutes of consideration.”
Still AIG-Gen Re was a transaction designed to massage (ie fake) the numbers - and thus speaks to a relationship with Wall Street and a concern to stock price that is unhealthy.
Unstated by Roddy: Hank had forgotten a cardinal rule of risk management: you do that sort of thing for long enough then one day you will find your Eliot Spitzer. This is just as sure as the statement that if you write put options long enough you will one day get your comeuppance.
The new CEO
The new CEO - Martin Sullivan - was the best salesman AIG had. Joe Cassano (who ran the disastrous AIG Financial Products) observed that he never saw Sullivan ask a single penetrating financial question. It's a telling observation.
The place I used to work had a boss who was very suspicious of financial product salesmen because inevitably they wanted to produce what the market (ie the crowd) wanted. And in financial services if you run with the crowd you can get your comeuppance delivered abnormally sharply.
To be fair, there are financial service companies that require salesmen even as leaders. Insurance brokers spring to mind.
AIG however was not one of those companies. It was global, complicated and pervasive and it had no overarching risk management system now that Hank was gone. To replace a control freak they needed another control freak at least until they built control systems. They never got that - and only at the very end (in Willumstead) did they get a CEO that even understood there was a problem.
There is a truism about financial product salespeople: if you put a salesman in charge of a financial institution with large reach and allow him to operate with thin risk control then your earnings will go up. And up. And up. At least until they don’t. Martin Sullivan proves that truism.
Under Sullivan some small businesses were allowed to expand in new ways until they became big businesses - ones big enough to threaten AIG and indeed the world. A decent example of the Martin management style comes from a small part of AIG - United Guaranty. United Guaranty was a mortgage insurer - at least for a while the best mortgage insurer on the Street. (I remember thinking that a couple of other players, notably PMI and MGIC were much riskier.)
The right thing to do with a mortgage insurer was stop writing business about 2005 - and certainly by 2006. [Or you could sell it as GE did.] Margins were collapsing and the risk of the loans was rising fast. The independent companies couldn’t really stop because that was their only business. AIG was under no such constraint - United Guaranty was a tiny part of AIG and stopping would not have affected the stock price. It might have even been seen by some (myself included) as a sign of discipline. Here is the quote from an AIG unit chiefs meeting in mid-2007.
As UGC posted its first losses, about $100 million, Nutt was explaining to Martin Sullivan and other senior management that while they hit a rough patch, they were writing excellent new business, and, at any rate, the competition was getting killed. Sullivan smilingly told Nutt that even if he didn’t write another dollar in business for a few months, “We would still love him”. AIG staffers had a phrase for this sort of response: “classic Martin”. It was a decent word or gesture, directed at a manager who was clearly fumbling, both publicly and on the job. But it also carried a serious message: better to be safe than sorry. The trouble is that the time for this was two to three years earlier.
To not realize that a mortgage insurance business in mid 2007 was problematic was seriously inept. UCG has now booked $3.9 billion in losses. Hank would have been on top of this at least a year earlier. Whether he would have been on top of it two years earlier is more dubious. One year earlier and UCG would still have had substantial losses. But they might have been absorbed by profits in an otherwise functioning AIG.
The two businesses that blew up AIG
There were problems all over AIG (and there were good bits too where individual managers saw the mess coming and ducked for cover). But two businesses stand out for the sheer destruction that they wrought. The better known was AIG Financial Products (FP) credit guarantee business. The less well known was Win Neuger’s securities lending business.
The credit guarantee business for thin fees guaranteed securitisation deals - usually very high grade paper or just as often resecuritisations of high grade paper. These were deals that would be fine in any credit event less bad than the great depression. In other words they were “great depression puts” and FP was writing puts. You should know the truism by now.
But worse the credit default swaps had a credit support annexe (CSA) attached. This made it mandatory for the parent company of AIG to collateralize the deals (ie put up hard cash to guarantee payment) under certain events. Senior management of AIG did not even know of the existence of the CSA until the company was at death’s door. They believed until very nearly the end that mark-to-market did not threaten liquidity.
I understand how a salesman (Sullivan) missed the CSA. If you followed the credit enhancement business you would know - by law - that the monoline insurers were not allowed to collateralize their obligations. Why of course should AIG be any different? But even that cursory “knowledge” could be dangerous. Both AIG and Ambac had CSAs attached to their guaranteed investment contract business (a business that was run by parent companies). I did not know of these until a well known hedge fund manager sent me a copy and even read it over the phone to me.
But that is a thin defence of AIG. The above mentioned hedge fund manager knew of the CSAs at Ambac and MBIA a couple of years before the disaster - and he had to look and find it. AIGs senior management should have just asked. Their risk management department should have been over every material contract - and believe me these were material contracts. This was an epic failure.
Win Neuger’s business was similarly destructive. What he did was [get the parent company to] borrow high grade securities from the life insurance companies, repo them, buy lower grade securities and pledge those back to the life companies to secure parent company obligations to the life companies.
Two things went wrong. The life company management (and later regulators) got mighty jacked when the life companies had lent their good securities and were holding trash security. They required hard capital injections from the parent company to solve this - and along the way AIG kicked in $5 billion. At the end the Texas Insurance Commissioner was going to confiscate four insurance companies (which would have collapsed AIG).
The second thing that went wrong is the counter-parties to the repo loans just wanted cash their back. They wanted it now. To get it though the parent company would need to get back the trashy (and hence heavily discounted) security from the life company, sell them, top up the (now large) shortfall and pay the investment bank on the repo line. This turned marks on the low-grade securities into an immediate liquidity drain on the parent. That is truly ugly.
How they got there too was a story of failure to consider fat tail risks. It is the main story of the book.
Liquidity versus solvency
At the height of the crisis it was very difficult to see whether AIG was a liquidity problem or a solvency problem. If it is a liquidity problem then bailouts don’t cost much -indeed structured right they are profitable. If it was solvency then a bailout will be very costly and in extrema (such as Ireland) can bankrupt the nation.
I originally thought AIG was liquidity
. I later thought it was solvency
. But now the Government looks like it is making heroic profits on the AIG bailout - and it was surely enough a liquidity problem.
There are a couple of lessons here: sophisticated observers (if I am a sophisticated observer) can’t tell the difference between liquidity and solvency in a crisis. The second lesson is that any contract that can cause a liquidity problem will - if repeated long enough - actually cause a liquidity problem. Modelling solvency does not cut it... if you run a financial institution you better model liquidity as well – and better be ready for the closure of debt markets.
The AIG people after the failure
There is a lot of anger in the broad community about the people at AIG especially as none of them - those that caused the largest bailout of the crisis - were ever charged criminally. Roddy does not share the anger about the lack of criminal charges but he is angry about the sheer recklessness of some AIG people. This quote was revealing:
Al Frost’s [a key salesperson for AIG FP] job was to drum up deals and revenue from the major investment banks and he did. Cassano’s job was to ensure that decisions made at FP were logical and made with all available information. He failed...
But Cassano did not fail in a vacuum....
That Martin Sullivan and Steve Bessinger did nothing is now well established. But neither did Financial Services chief Bill Dooley, his CFO Elias Habayeb, Risk Management Chief Bob Lewis and his head of credit-risk Kevin McGinn. Anastasia Kelly’s legal department was similarly silent. These people saw everything AIG FP did in real time and had plenty of authority to force at least a reevaluation. It was, in fact, their job to do this...
Save for Anastasia Kelly (who retired) every other person in the line of oversight of the FP swaps book is now gainfully employed as an officer at a publicly traded company with as much or more responsibility than they had previously.
Roddy is right. The fact that the failure of these people was not criminal does not excuse it. These people were paid big multiples of average earnings and demonstrated that they can’t do their job. So they are still paid big multiples of average earnings.
Along this line special scorn needs to be reserved for Win Neuger. He ran AIGs internal asset management business - especially the securities lending business which in itself was big enough to destroy AIG.
He now runs an asset management company with over $80 billion under management.
Where else - except Wall Street - can you be that well rewarded for failure?
I don’t want to give too much away. This is the best book yet written about any specific episode of the crisis. I just think you should buy it
. Buy multiple copies. Give them to your friends. They will be grateful too.
*Hint to the regulators: try and work out the large finite transaction between Unum Provident and Berkshire Hathaway. There lies a can of worms...