Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Latest AIG Story - Regulators can't agree on what the real systemic threat was

The Latest AIG Story. WSJ Editorial
Regulators can't agree on what the real systemic threat was.
WSJ, Jan 28, 2010

Will regulators ever coherently explain why AIG could not be allowed to go bankrupt in September of 2008?

At yesterday's House hearing, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner and predecessor Hank Paulson said they didn't bail out AIG to save its derivatives counterparties. Instead, said Mr. Geithner, the now-famous 100-cents-on-the-dollar buyouts of credit default swap contracts were necessary to prevent a further downgrade of AIG by credit-ratings agencies.

This topic probably deserves another hearing on its own. Remember, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where Mr. Geithner was president, had by that time already seized AIG. We're guessing that a ratings agency is pretty comfortable with the creditworthiness of a firm 79.9%-owned by Uncle Sam. Yet Mr. Geithner is saying that the same credit raters that applied triple-A ratings to tranches of junk mortgages somehow got the yips when the world's most respected borrower was standing behind AIG.

If the agencies had applied to AIG the credit rating of its new owner, there wouldn't have been much need to send more collateral to such counterparties as Goldman Sachs. Instead, AIG could have demanded the return of some of the collateral it had already posted. Bad news for those counterparties.

More broadly, the hearing showed that the story of why AIG could not be allowed to fail continues to change, which inspires little confidence that Washington can be trusted with new powers to identify and address systemic risk. The original Beltway line was that the systemic risk was caused by AIG's inability to back up the credit default swap contracts it sold, thus endangering counterparties on the other end of these deals. In Washington's original telling, the company's insurance subsidiaries, heavily regulated by states, were safely segregated from the mess.

Yesterday, however, Messrs. Geithner and Paulson went further than ever in stating that the real systemic risk was to AIG's heavily regulated insurance businesses. Their testimony directly contradicts that offered to Congress by former New York Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo, who was AIG's principal insurance regulator at the time.

Last year Mr. Dinallo told the Senate that "The main reason why the federal government decided to rescue AIG was not because of its insurance companies." He was so confident in the health of the AIG subsidiaries that, before the federal bailout, he was working on a plan to transfer $20 billion of their excess reserves to the parent company.

Yesterday, Mr. Geithner said that the "people responsible" for overseeing the insurance subsidiaries "had no idea" about the risks facing AIG policyholders. He's talking about Mr. Dinallo here. Instead of being safely segregated, Mr. Geithner said the insurance businesses were "tightly connected" to the parent company. Mr. Paulson added that the healthy parts of AIG had been "infected" by the "toxic assets." He added, "One part of the company would have contaminated the other."

This raises some serious issues for financial reform. The Geithner and Paulson story now is essentially that the system of heavy state insurance regulation was a sham. When push came to shove, policyholders were not protected from a default by the parent company.

This also makes us wonder about all of the political and media chatter over the last year that derivatives were the doomsday machine that caused the meltdown. If this testimony is correct, then the systemic risk wasn't that if AIG collapsed it would infect Goldman and other financial companies like falling dominoes across the world.

The real risk was closer to an implosion of AIG that would have jeopardized millions of insurance policies. That's a big problem for insurance regulation. But if bad bets on derivatives would only have ruined AIG and its subsidiaries, that's not the same kind of danger to the entire financial system. And it suggests the need for different regulatory changes. We're not sure that policyholders were really in danger, but Mr. Dinallo and other state regulators deserve a chance to respond on the record, and under oath.

If yesterday's testimony is true, the real systemic risk was not in unregulated markets where the danger is obvious, but in markets where regulation created the illusion of safety.