Time to Investigate Lloyd Blankfein and Hank Paulson

The New York Times has unearthed a damning tidbit about the bailout of AIG:

When the government began rescuing it from collapse in the fall of 2008 with what has become a $182 billion lifeline, A.I.G. was required to forfeit its right to sue several banks -- including Goldman, Société Générale, Deutsche Bank and Merrill Lynch -- over any irregularities with most of the mortgage securities it insured in the precrisis years.

How one reacts to this depends in no small measure as to how one views the salvage operation. For all intents and purposes, the rescue of AIG was merely a way to save the banks; the credit default swaps had been too big a source of faux capital (via risk-shifting for US firms, and for Eurobanks, as part of a regulatory arbitrage) to let the insurer go. So any effort by the officialdom to aid the banks, most notably by paying out 100% on credit default swap exposures (which had already been written down by counterparties to less than par) was simply an effort to funnel more cash to the banks. Since we've had massive backdoor bailout mechanisms in addition to the overt ones, this orientation should come as no surprise.

But then we get to the funny business. Why a broad waiver? Why shouldn't AIG (and by extension, taxpayers) not recover in the event of fraud? And we turn again to the ambiguous standing of AIG. By all rights, it ought to be owned by the government. The reason it isn't is that we don't do nationalization in America, and full ownership would require AIG's debts to be consolidated with government debt. So another way to read this requirement is that the Fed and Treasury were opposed to having fraud at the banks exposed, period.

That is a very troubling stance for bank regulators to take. And experts agreed:

"Even if it turns out that it would be a hard suit to win, just the gesture of requiring A.I.G. to scrap its ability to sue is outrageous," said David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "The defense may be that the banking system was in trouble, and we couldn't afford to destabilize it anymore, but that just strikes me as really going overboard."

"This really suggests they had myopia and they were looking at it entirely through the perspective of the banks," Mr. Skeel said.

Also note that the banks mentioned by the Times account for a significant proportion of the Maiden Lane III exposures (the $62.9 billion CDO portfolio; note this does not include all CDO guarantees assumed by the Federal Reserve; seven Goldman Abacus trades stayed with AIG and were salvaged via credit extensions to AIG). An analysis by Tom Adams and Andrew Dittmer showed the significance of Merrill, Goldman, and SocGen (percentages based on par amount):

1. Merrill as both packager and counterparty 7.7%

2. Goldman as both packager and counterparty 7.4%
3. Merrill as packager, Goldman as counterparty 9.6%
4. Goldman as packager, SocGen as counterparty 15.9%

We thought these interrelationships were potentially significant; they account for 40.6% of the Maiden Lane III exposures. Then add in:

5. Anyone else with a pulse as packager, SocGen as counterparty 11.0%
6. Anyone else with a pulse as packager, Goldman as counterparty 5.5%

That bring you to 56.5% of the total.

Goldman, either as packager or as swap counterparty, was involved in 38.4% of the Maiden Lane transactions, plus had additional AIG exposure through seven Abacus trades (we only have tranche exposure on three of these transactions):

Abacus 2004-1
Abacus 2004-2
Abacus 2005-2
Abacus 2005-3
Abacus 2005-CB1
Abacus 2006-NS1
Abacus 2007-18

The time is long overdue that Lloyd Blankfein's early and extensive involvement in the AIG rescue be investigated in detail. The legal waiver no doubt was particularly beneficial to Goldman, and given that it is now being sued by the SEC, it is fair to ask if he put the idea of the waiver forward. It is highly unlikely to have occurred to the Fed and Treasury officials unprompted, particularly given the fevered pace at which the AIG rescue was cobbled together.

Moreover, while the Fed was being advised to take a tough posture towards the banks, it was Treasury, then under former Goldman CEO Hank Paulson, who was bending over backwards:

For its part, the Treasury appeared to be opposed to any options that did not involve making the banks whole on their A.I.G. contracts. At Treasury, a former Goldman executive, Dan H. Jester, was the agency's point man on the A.I.G. bailout. Mr. Jester had worked at Goldman with Henry M. Paulson Jr., the Treasury secretary during the A.I.G. bailout.

And in an astonishing lapse, Jester still owned Goldman stock. By any standard, he should not have been involved at all in the process, much less in a crucial role. But because he was a contractor, and not a government employee, this arrangement was kosher. Not surprisingly, Jester opposed measures that would require Goldman and other banks to take any pain.

The Times reminds readers it pays to be a bankster:

All of this was quite different from the tack the government took in the Chrysler bailout. In that matter, the government told banks they could take losses on their loans or simply own a bankrupt company; the banks took the losses.

The Audit the Fed investigation will shed even more light on the AIG rescue, but the seamy dealing of Treasury means that investigations need to extend into its role as well. But it will take a public hue and cry for that to come to pass.