Have AIG's Trading Partners Profited from Its Distress?

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Gerald Herbert / AP

Former AIG head Hank Greenberg testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Oversight Committee on Thursday, April 2, 2009

Former AIG chief executive Maurice (Hank) Greenberg told Congress on Thursday morning that as much as $50 billion in payments that AIG has made in the past few months to banks and other financial firms, including Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, should not have been made. Greenberg believes the banks should be forced to reinvest some of those trading profits in AIG by buying the company's shares.

"The cash payments to CDS [credit-default swap] counterparties should never have occurred," Greenberg told a House oversight committee. Greenberg is not alone is raising questions about profits that financial firms have been making on the unwinding of AIG's derivative bets. Last week New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo said he was looking into AIG's trading records to examine whether the payments the company made to other financial firms were improper. (Read "How to Know When the Economy Is Turning Up.")

Also troubling: Wall Street veterans are complaining that banks and other investment firms — many of which are recipients of federal aid — may be taking advantage of the taxpayer bailout of AIG to boost their profits. "It seems very possible that the banks are forcing AIG to unwind its contracts at a premium," says James Bianco, who runs a financial-markets research firm in Chicago.

AIG is in the process of unwinding its large derivative-trading book; in the past few months, it has terminated as much as $1.1 billion in derivative contracts. Traders say Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and others have either driven hard bargains with AIG or made specific trades that would benefit from AIG's problems. Those moves are exacerbating the losses at AIG and increasing the cost of the insurer's bailout. "There is an argument to be made that the recent profits at the banks are because of AIG," says Bianco.

Last month AIG said it had paid out about $50 billion to various financial firms to which it had sold credit-default swaps, which are insurance contracts sold to bond investors and others. When a bond defaults, a holder of a CDS has the right to be reimbursed for the loss by the seller of the contract. AIG was one of the largest sellers of such contracts. Much of the credit insurance AIG sold was on mortgage bonds, which are backed by home loans. As more and more homeowners defaulted, many of those bonds plummeted in value, causing the holders of AIG's CDS contracts to request payment. AIG used money it had received from the government to pay off those contracts.

Now Greenberg and others argue that AIG should not have made good on many of those contracts. These critics say it should have been obvious to the sophisticated financial firms who bought that insurance that AIG had no ability to pay out on such claims. So when AIG ran out of money, buyers of its insurance should have been forced to settle those claims for a fraction of what they were due. Instead, AIG took money from the government and paid the claims in full. (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

"The plan to [liquidate AIG] has also been highly controversial and in some cases puzzling," Greenberg told Congress. "It would have been more beneficial for the American taxpayer if the Federal Government had ... provided guarantees to [AIG's] counterparties rather than putting up billions of dollars in cash collateral to those counterparties."

It is unclear how the payments AIG made to other financial firms could be clawed back. Unlike stocks, CDS contracts don't trade on an exchange. And trading partners can unwind those contracts at any prices they like. What's more, a rule change in late February, to which AIG voluntarily agreed, gives the insurer's trading partners more leeway to name their terms in the cases of bond defaults that trigger CDS payments.

"Wall Street firms make money when people are in pain," says Frank Partnoy, who once traded credit-derivative contracts at Morgan Stanley and is now a law professor at the University of San Diego. "I don't know if that is what is happening, but if the question is whether banks would converge on a dying body — the answer is, Absolutely."

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