Update 26 Mar 2009: Paul Kedrosky has a good post out on how the collateral arrangement works in CDS contracts: Collateral 101: How It Works at AIG and Elsewhere
Don Kohn’s testimony before the Senate Banking committee was so outrageous that I feel compelled to re-post the first paragraphs of this article from Willem Buiter about the moral hazard it represents. Basically, the U.S. government settled a bunch of credit default swap contracts at sweetheart prices with the very financial institutions who got us into this mess. Shambolic, I say.
It is this unbelievable in-the-pocket-of-the-finance-industry mentality by regulators that is going to be the ruin of the U.S. banking industry. This type of thing must be condemned in the harshest of terms. The link is below as is an associated link on Jim Bunning giving Kohn a working over.
The reports on the evidence given by the Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Don Kohn, to the Senate Banking Committee about the Fed’s role in the government’s rescue of AIG, have left me speechless and weak with rage. AIG wrote CDS, that is, is sold credit default swaps that provided the buyer of the CDS (including some of the world’s largest banks) with insurance against default on bonds and other credit instruments they held. Of course the insurance was only as good as the creditworthiness of the party writing the CDS. When it was uncovered during the late summer of 2008, that AIG had nurtured a little rogue, unregulated investment banking unit in its bosom, and that the level of the credit risk it had insured was well beyond its means, the AIG counterparties, that is, the buyers of the CDS, were caught with their pants down.
Instead of saying, “how sad, too bad” to these counterparties, the Fed decided (in the words of the Wall Street Journal), to unwind “.. some AIG contracts that were weighing down the insurance giant by paying off the trading partners at the full value they expected to realize in the long term, even though short-term values had tumbled.”
An LSE colleague has shown me an earlier report in the Wall Street Journal (in December 2008), citing a confidential document and people familiar with the matter, which estimated that about $19 billion of the payouts went to two dozen counterparties between the government bailout of AIG in mid-September and early November 2008. According to this Wall Street Journal report, nearly three-quarters was reported to have gone to a group of banks, including Société Générale SA ($4.8 billion), Goldman Sachs Group ($2.9 billion), Deutsche Bank AG ($2.9 billion), Credit Agricole SA’s Calyon investment-banking unit ($1.8 billion), and Merrill Lynch & Co. ($1.3 billion). With the US government (Fed, FDIC and Treasury) now at risk for about $160 bn in AIG, a mere $19 bn may seem like small beer. But it is outrageous. It is unfair, deeply distortionary and unnecessary for the maintenance of financial stability.
Don Kohn ackowledged that the aid contributed to “moral hazard” – incentives for future reckless lending by AIG’s counterparties – it “will reduce their incentive to be careful in the future.” But, here as in all instances were the weak-kneed guardians of the common wealth (or what’s left of it) cave in to the special pleadings of the captains of finance, this bail-out of the undeserving was painted as the unavoidable price of maintaining, defending or restoring financial stability.
The rest of this ridiculous story is available at the link below. But I would highlight how it closes:
The logic of collective action teaches us that a small group of interested parties, each with much at stake, will run rings around large numbers of interested parties each one of which has much less at stake individually, even though their aggregate stake may well be larger. The organised lobbying bulldozer of Wall Street sweeps the floor with the US tax payer anytime. The modalities of the bailout of the AIG counterparties of the Fed is a textbook example of the logic of collective action at work. It is scandalous: unfair, inefficient, expensive and unnecessary.
When principled individuals warn against nationalization, it is this type of activity that gives them the greatest concern, and with good reason.
The Fed’s moral hazard maximising strategy – Willem Buiter
Bunning to Fed: Skip the Press Release – Real Time Economics