Jesse Eisinger: A.I.G sunk itself

Jesse Eisinger pulls out the truth sticks and whacks some of the more assinine myths circulating Washington DC and long and wrong trading desks:

"For several years, A.I.G. dove headfirst into an insurance-like product called credit default swaps. It wrote hundreds of billions worth of protection mostly on the top slice of mortgage-backed structured financial products. Short-sellers and accounting rules didn’t cause A.I.G. to enter the C.D.S. protection business.

Supposedly A.I.G. had an expertise in insurance, being the largest of its kind in the world. Insurance is hard to price correctly. When the hurricane hits, were you getting enough money from homeowners all those years? It’s a difficult question. But when it was initially writing all that C.D.S. protection, A.I.G. thought it wasn’t possible to take a penny of losses because its contracts were backstopping such highly rated, highly protected slices, according to an ex-A.I.G. Financial Products employee I spoke with this week. (That makes perfect sense since this was the same mistake made by the bond insurers M.B.I.A. and Ambac.) …

Back when A.I.G. started writing these contracts, the credit-ratings agencies rated the insurer Triple A. Accounting rules didn’t prevent the ratings agencies from re-assessing the rating before the crisis. And while it may be hard to believe, short-sellers did not stick their voodoo dolls with their "Maintain the Triple A Rating Until It’s Too Late" pins.

A.I.G.’s counterparties didn’t require that the insurance company put up any collateral—called initial margin— because its rating was so high. This wasn’t an accounting rule. This was a general agreement among the players in the C.D.S. market.

Then the underlying mortgage-holders started to default, leading to the value of the super-senior tranches to decline and the spreads on the C.D.S. to widen. Counterparties wanted some collateral to reflect the changes in the market. The credit-ratings agencies downgraded A.I.G., leading to even more demands for collateral.

Does anyone seriously think that the counterparties said to A.I.G., "Hey man, we don’t want you to put up any cash. We know it’s stupid, but our hands are tied by those damn accounting rules!" Hardly. They wanted their cash now. If these positions were marked-to-model rather than marked-to-market, does anyone think that the counterparties wouldn’t have written any collateral triggers into the contracts?

And here let’s pause to dispense with a ridiculous assertion from Karabell, which makes one seriously question the credibility of his argument that the market is somehow overreacting ridiculously. He writes in his WSJ op-ed today that the value of the mortgages only has dropped about 10 percent or 20 percent, so how could the value of the securities been wiped out? "There’s something wrong with that picture: Down 20 percent doesn’t equal down 100 percent," he says.

But of course it can. That’s what "leverage" means. When you have a C.D.O. made up of mezzanine tranches of subprime M.B.S., down 20 percent in the underlying can mean exactly that."

Good stuff, as always . .  .

Vintage Whine
Accounting rules and short-sellers didn’t sink A.I.G.– A.I.G sunk itself.
Jesse Eisinger
Portfolio, Sep 18 2008

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