As a huge multinational insurance company, with a storied history and a reputation for being extremely well run, A.I.G. had one of the most precious prizes in all of business: an AAA rating, held by no more than a dozen or so companies in the United States. That meant ratings agencies believed its chance of defaulting was just about zero. It also meant it could borrow more cheaply than other companies with lower ratings.
To be sure, most of A.I.G. operated the way it always had, like a normal, regulated insurance company. (Its insurance divisions remain profitable today.) But one division, its “financial practices” unit in London, was filled with go-go financial wizards who devised new and clever ways of taking advantage of Wall Street’s insatiable appetite for mortgage-backed securities. Unlike many of the Wall Street investment banks, A.I.G. didn’t specialize in pooling subprime mortgages into securities. Instead, it sold credit-default swaps.
These exotic instruments acted as a form of insurance for the securities. In effect, A.I.G. was saying if, by some remote chance (ha!) those mortgage-backed securities suffered losses, the company would be on the hook for the losses. And because A.I.G. had that AAA rating, when it sprinkled its holy water over those mortgage-backed securities, suddenly they had AAA ratings too. That was the ratings arbitrage. “It was a way to exploit the triple A rating,” said Robert J. Arvanitis, a former A.I.G. executive who has since become a leading A.I.G. critic.
Why would Wall Street and the banks go for this? Because it shifted the risk of default from themselves to A.I.G., and the AAA rating made the securities much easier to market. What was in it for A.I.G.? Lucrative fees, naturally. But it also saw the fees as risk-free money; surely it would never have to actually pay up. Like everyone else on Wall Street, A.I.G. operated on the belief that the underlying assets — housing — could only go up in price.
That foolhardy belief, in turn, led A.I.G. to commit several other stupid mistakes. When a company insures against, say, floods or earthquakes, it has to put money in reserve in case a flood happens. That’s why, as a rule, insurance companies are usually overcapitalized, with low debt ratios. But because credit-default swaps were not regulated, and were not even categorized as a traditional insurance product, A.I.G. didn’t have to put anything aside for losses. And it didn’t. Its leverage was more akin to an investment bank than an insurance company. So when housing prices started falling, and losses started piling up, it had no way to pay them off. Not understanding the real risk, the company grievously mispriced it.
It gets worse. Hopefuly, some of these people end up in doing blue-collar jail sentences, but since we never seem to learn from our mistakes, we're apparently doomed to keep repeating them....