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AIG's crucial role in the banking collapse

AIG's crucial role in the banking collapse

Oct 09, 2008

Something very strange is happening in the financial markets. And I can show you what it is and what it means...

If September didn't give you enough to worry about, consider what will happen to real estate prices as unemployment grows steadily over the next several months. As bad as things are now, they'll get much worse.

They'll get worse for the obvious reason: because more people will default on their mortgages. But they'll also remain depressed for far longer than anyone expects, for a reason most people will never understand.

What follows is one of the real secrets to September's stock market collapse. Once you understand what really happened last month, the events to come will be much clearer to you...

Every great bull market has similar characteristics. The speculation must – at the beginning – start with a reasonably good idea. Using long-term mortgages to pay for homes is a good idea, with a few important caveats.

Some of these limitations are obvious to any intelligent observer... like the need for a substantial down-payment, the verification of income, an independent appraisal, etc. But human nature dictates that, given enough time and the right incentives, any endeavour will be corrupted. This is one of the two critical elements of a bubble. What was once a good idea becomes a farce. You already know all the stories of how this happened in the housing market, where loans were eventually given without fixed rates, without income verification, without down-payments, and without legitimate appraisals.

As bad as these practices were, they would not have created a global financial panic without the second, more critical element. For things to get really out of control, the farce must evolve further... into fraud.

And this is where AIG comes into the story.

Around the world, banks must comply with what are known as Basel II regulations. These regulations determine how much capital a bank must maintain in reserve. The rules are based on the quality of the bank's loan book. The riskier the loans a bank owns, the more capital it must keep in reserve. Bank managers naturally seek to employ as much leverage as they can, especially when interest rates are low, to maximise profits. AIG appeared to offer banks a way to get around the Basel rules, via unregulated insurance contracts, known as credit default swaps.

Here's how it worked: Say you're a major European bank... You have a surplus of deposits, because in Europe people actually still bother to save money. You're looking for something to maximise the spread between what you must pay for deposits and what you're able to earn lending. You want it to be safe and reliable, but also pay the highest possible annual interest. You know you could buy a portfolio of high-yielding subprime mortgages. But doing so will limit the amount of leverage you can employ, which will limit returns.

So rather than rule out having any high-yielding securities in your portfolio, you simply call up the friendly AIG broker you met at a conference in London last year.

"What would it cost me to insure this subprime security?" you inquire. The broker, who is selling a five-year policy (but who will be paid a bonus annually), says, "Not too much." After all, the historical loss rates on American mortgages is close to zilch.

Using incredibly sophisticated computer models, he agrees to guarantee the subprime security you're buying against default for five years for say, 2% of face value.

Although AIG's credit default swaps were really insurance contracts, they weren't regulated. That meant AIG didn't have to put up any capital as collateral on its swaps, as long as it maintained a triple-A credit rating. There was no real capital cost to selling these swaps; there was no limit. And thanks to what's called 'mark-to-market' accounting, AIG could book the profit from a five-year credit default swap as soon as the contract was sold, based on the expected default rate.

Whatever the computer said AIG was likely to make on the deal, the accountants would write down as actual profit. The broker who sold the swap would be paid a bonus at the end of the first year – long before the actual profit on the contract was made.

With this structure in place, the European bank was able to assure its regulators it was holding only triple-A credits, instead of a bunch of subprime 'toxic waste.' The bank could leverage itself to the full extent allowable under Basel II. AIG could book hundreds of millions in 'profit' each year, without having to pony up billions in collateral.

It was a fraud. AIG never [had] any capital to back up the insurance it sold. And the profits it booked never materialised. The default rate on mortgage securities underwritten in 2005, 2006, and 2007 turned out to be multiples higher than expected. And they continue to increase. In some cases, the securities the banks claimed were triple A have ended up being worth less than $0.15 on the dollar.

Even so, it all worked for years. Banks leveraged deposits to the hilt. Wall Street packaged and sold dumb mortgages as securities. And AIG sold credit default swaps without bothering to collateralise the risk. An enormous amount of capital was created out of thin air and tossed into global real estate markets.

On September 15, all of the major credit-rating agencies downgraded AIG – the world's largest insurance company. At issue were the soaring losses in its credit default swaps. The first big write-off came in the fourth quarter of 2007, when AIG reported an $11 billion charge. It was able to raise capital once, to repair the damage. But the losses kept growing. The moment the downgrade came, AIG was forced to come up with tens of billions of additional collateral, immediately. This was on top of the billions it owed to its trading partners. It didn't have the money. The world's largest insurance company was bankrupt.

The dominoes fell over immediately. Lehman Brothers failed on the same day. Merrill was sold to Bank of America. The Fed stepped in and agreed to lend AIG $85 billion to facilitate an orderly sell off of its assets in exchange for essentially all the company's equity.

Most people never understood how AIG was the linchpin to the entire system. And there's one more secret yet to come out...

AIG's largest trading partner wasn't a nameless European bank. It was Goldman Sachs.

I'd wondered for years how Goldman avoided the kind of huge mortgage-related writedowns that plagued all the other investment banks. And now we know: Goldman hedged its exposure via credit default swaps with AIG. Sources inside Goldman say the company's exposure to AIG exceeded $20 billion, meaning the moment AIG was downgraded, Goldman had to begin marking down the value of its assets. And the moment AIG went bankrupt, Goldman lost $20 billion. Goldman immediately sought out Warren Buffett to raise $5 billion of additional capital, which also helped it raise another $5 billion via a public offering.

The collapse of the credit default swap market also meant the investment banks – all of them – had no way to borrow money, because no one would insure their obligations.

To fund their daily operations, they've become totally reliant on the Federal Reserve, which has allowed them to formally become commercial banks. To date, banks, insurance firms, and investment banks have borrowed $348 billion from the Federal Reserve – nearly all of this lending took place following AIG's failure. Things are so bad at the investment banks, the Fed had to change the rules to allow Merrill, Morgan Stanley and Goldman the ability to use equities as collateral for these loans, an unprecedented step.

The mainstream press hasn't reported this either: A provision in the $700 billion bailout bill permits the Fed to pay interest on the collateral it's holding, which is simply a way to funnel taxpayer dollars directly into the investment banks.

Why do you need to know all of these details? First, you must understand that without the government's actions, the collapse of AIG could have caused every major bank in the world to fail.

Second, without the credit default swap market, there's no way banks can report the true state of their assets – they'd all be in default of Basel II. That's why the government will push through a measure that requires the suspension of mark-to-market accounting. Essentially, banks will be allowed to pretend they have far higher-quality loans than they actually do. AIG can't cover for them anymore.

And third, and most importantly, without the huge fraud perpetrated by AIG, the mortgage bubble could have never grown as large as it did. Yes, other factors contributed, like the role of Fannie and Freddie in particular. But the key to enabling the huge global growth in credit during the last decade can be tied directly to AIG's sale of credit default swaps without collateral. That was the barn door. And it was left open for nearly a decade.

There's no way to replace this massive credit-building machine, which makes me very skeptical of the government's bailout plan. Quite simply, we can't replace the credit that existed in the world before September 15 because it didn't deserve to be there in the first place. While the government can, and certainly will, paper over the gaping holes left by this enormous credit collapse, it can't actually replace the trust and credit that existed... because it was a fraud.

And that leads me to believe the coming economic contraction will be longer and deeper than most people understand.

You might find this strange... but this is great news for those who understand what's going on. Knowing why the economy is shrinking and knowing it's not going to rebound quickly gives you a huge advantage over most investors, who don't understand what's happening and can't plan to take advantage of it.

How can you take advantage? First, make sure you have at least 10% of your net worth in precious metals. I prefer gold bullion. World governments' gigantic liabilities will vastly decrease the value of paper currencies. [Find out how to invest in gold here]

Second, I can tell you we're either at or approaching a moment of maximum pessimism in the markets. These kinds of panics give you the chance to buy world-class businesses incredibly cheaply. A few worth mentioning are ExxonMobil, Intel, and Microsoft. I have several stocks like these in the portfolio of my Investment Advisory.

Third, if you're comfortable short-selling stocks (betting they'll fall in price), now is the time to be doing it... simply as a hedge against further declines.

Keep the fraud of AIG in mind when you form your investment plan for the coming years. By following these three strategies, you'll survive and prosper while most investors sit back and wonder what the hell is going on.

• This article was written by Porter Stansberry, a regular contributor to the free daily investment letter DailyWealth
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.
Carl Jung - Aion (1951). CW 9, Part II: P.14
I have an old report presently trapped on my old PC hard drive about the special intelligence connections of AIG. Since I cannot access that at the moment, I'm posting an article written by Mike Ruppert. My caveat here is that I no longer regard Ruppert with the respect I once did. He was, imo, lead astray by the allure of money and fame.

However, when he wrote this piece he was still on the straight and narrow and doing good work.

The point to make is that it looks as though this entire banking collapse might well have been engineered and, as I have suggested before, was possibly part of a looting scheme that we first saw enacted under the presidency of G W H Bush -- namely the savings and loans scandal.

I, therefore, stick with my theory that this has all been "gamed" in advance and that there are quite possibly far deeper motives in manufacturing a global banking collapse than simply the massive enrichment of the elite few (although that certainly is part of the story).

Deconstructing AIG

The seemingly mundane insurance business is, in fact, one of the primary weapons of intelligence gathering around the world. And the founder of AIG, Cornelius Starr, was an architect of its use in World War II. Consider these

quotes from a September 22, 2000 story by Los Angeles Times reporter Mark Fritz entitled, "The Secret (Insurance) Agent Men."

"COLLEGE PARK, Md.ÑThey knew which factories to burn, which bridges to blow up, which cargo ships could be sunk in good conscience. They had pothole counts for roads used for invasion and head counts for city blocks marked for incineration.

"They werenÕt just secret agents. They were secret insurance agents. These undercover underwriters gave their World War II spymasters access to a global industry that both bankrolled and, ultimately, helped bring down Adolf HitlerÕs Third Reich.

"Newly declassified U.S. intelligence files tell the remarkable story of the ultra-secret Insurance Intelligence Unit, a component of the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA, and its elite counterintelligence branch X-2.

"Though rarely numbering more than a half dozen agents, the unit gathered intelligence on the enemyÕs insurance industry, Nazi insurance titans and suspected collaborators in the insurance business. But, more significantly, the unit mined standard insurance records for blueprints of bomb plants, timetables of tide changes and thousands of other details about targets, from a brewery in Bangkok to a candy company in Bergedorf. 'They used insurance information as a weapon of war,' said Greg Bradsher, a historian and National Archives expert on the declassified records. That insurance information was critical to Allied strategists, who were seeking to cripple the enemyÕs industrial base and batter morale by burning citiesÉ

"Germany had 45% of the worldwide wholesale insurance industry before the war began and managed to actually expand its business as it conquered continental Europe. As wholesalers, or 'reinsurers,' these companies covered other insurers against a catastrophic loss that could wipe out a single company. In the process, the wholesaler learned everything about the lives and property they were reinsuring [emphasis, mine]É

"The men behind the insurance unit were OSS head William "Wild Bill" Donovan and California-born insurance magnate Cornelius V. Starr. Starr had started out selling insurance to Chinese in Shanghai in 1919 and, over the next 50 years, would build what is now American International Group, one of the biggest insurance companies in the world. He was forced to move his operation to New York in 1939, when Japan invaded China. In the early years of the war, the German insurance industry expanded its business as it conquered continental Europe. Nazi insurance brokers who traveled with combat troops during invasions also scoured local insurance files for strategic dataÉ"

On the special value of reinsurance as a vehicle for intelligence gathering Fritz wrote:

"Such convoluted business dealings were traced largely through the work of Ernest Stiefel, a member of the intelligence unit who diagrammed the way insurance companies pooled their risks, invested in and insured each other and, as a result, willfully or witlessly shared data about nations at war. 'Stiefel mapped the entire system, said [Timothy] Naftali, a historian at the University of VirginiaÕs Miller Center of Public Affairs. "Each time I take a piece of your risk, youÕve got to give me information. I am not going to reinsure your company unless you give me all the documents. ThatÕs great intelligence informationÉ"

Later in the story Fritz confirmed the value of reinsurance as a vehicle for money laundering:

"With the Axis defeat imminent, U.S. intelligence officials focused greater attention on ways the Nazis would try to use insurance to hide and launder their assets so they could be used to rebuild the war machine..."

And how did Starr benefit from his service? Fritz writes:

"Starr sent insurance agents into Asia and Europe even before the bombs stopped falling and built what eventually became AIG, which today has its world headquarters in the same downtown New York building where the tiny OSS unit toiled in the deepest secrecy.

Starr died in 1968, but his empire endures. AIG is the biggest foreign insurance company in Japan. More than a third of its $40 billion in revenue last year came from the Far East theater that Starr helped carpet bomb and liberate.

"In The Shadow Warriors: OSS and the Origins of the CIA (Basic Books, 1983) author Bradley F. Smith shed more light on Cornelius Starr and the OSS.

"It [a secret intelligence operation in China] was formed in April 1942, when [Bill] Donovan persuaded British insurance magnate C.V. Starr to let C.O.I. (Covert Operations Intelligence) use his commercial and insurance connections in occupied China and Formosa to create a deep cover intelligence network. Although the State Department was nervous about the operation, Donovan went ahead and, with the cooperation of the U.S. Army, bypassed the diplomats in operating the communications system. Starr's people handled their own internal communication, then turned over their intelligence findings to [General Richard] Stillwell's headquarters for dispatch to the U.S. Starr, who was residing in the U.S. at the time, provided these services to the Allied cause. Later Starr became disgusted with what he considered Donovan's inefficiency and transferred his services to the British S.I.S. But the Starr-Donovan connection worked in China at least until the winter of 1943-44.

"The establishment of the Starr intelligence network, an operation so secret that it even escaped the attention of Chiang's [Kai Shek] security police (and of historians heretofore), was a major accomplishment for an intelligence operation barely six months old" [p.133]

Drug Connections

The War Conspiracy (Bobbs-Merrill, 1972) by Peter Dale Scott, Ph.D. of UC Berkeley is a book few Americans have seen. The compelling and meticulously documented history of the creation of the Vietnam War was rushed from bookstores and shelves almost as soon as it was published. Scott, author of Deep Politics and the Assassination of JFK, The Iran-Contra Connection and Cocaine Politics is an expert on the interface between covert operations and the international drug trade. In Chapter Six of The War Conspiracy, entitled "Opium, the China Lobby, and the CIA," Scott traces the connections between drug trafficking in Southeast Asia and American intelligence operations. There are detailed references to C.V. Starr and connections with some figures, like CIA veteran Paul Helliwell, who have been irrevocably and blatantly tied to the drug trade. Those connections also lead directly into the so-called "China Lobby" and firms identified as either CIA proprietaries or "affiliates" such as Sea Supply, Inc. (run by Helliwell), Civil Air Transport (CAT), a CIA proprietary, Civil Air Transport Co., Ltd. (CATCL) -- a separate firm not owned by but affiliated with the CIA through CAT-- and Air America, an evolution of Civil Air Transport. In 1957 the Airdale Corporation which owned 100 per cent of Air America changed its name to Pacific Corp. In 1976 CIA General Counsel Lawrence Houston testified before the Senate's Church Committee looking into intelligence abuses about CIA Air operations. When asked what the one single holding company, above all others, was at the top of CIA proprietary and contract air operations, he identified Pacific Corporation. According to published reports, Houston also testified that the CIA also had interests in investment and insurance companies.

Pacific Corp -- which one source has told me is currently insured by AIG -- and the CIA have, in the 1990s, been connected with the "laundering" of some 28 C-130 military transport aircraft into the hands of private, forest fire, air tanker contractors in the U.S. Subsequently, many of those C-130s turned up all over the world. Some were directly involved in drug trafficking and one in particular, operated by Aero-Postale de Mexico, was seized with a billion dollars in cocaine aboard in Mexico City in 1996. [See FTW, Vol I, No 10 - Dec, 1998]

A key figure in the post-war operations was lawyer Tommy Corcoran, a legendary "fixer" in the Roosevelt Administration, who went on to represent Nationalist Chinese financial interests after the Communists took power in 1949. Corcoran and Helliwell worked closely together in Asia. One of the critical and well-documented U.S. responses to the Communist takeover was to fund remnants of the Chinese Nationalist army -- who had fled into Burma, Thailand and Laos -- with opium. Much of that money, along with the drugs, found its way into the U.S. As noted by writers like the late Jonathan Kwitny of The Wall Street Journal in The Crimes of Patriots (Penguin, 1987) and by Professor Alfred McCoy of the University of Wisconsin in The Politics of Heroin (1972, 1991, Lawrence Hill Books), Helliwell paid the troops using five-pound "sticky" bars of heroin. Helliwell later went on to head Castle Bank and Trust in Florida and the Bahamas and then was heavily involved with The Nugan Hand Bank in Australia and the U.S. Both banks have been heavily linked in official investigations to both drug trafficking and money laundering while also moving money for the CIA.

In The War Conspiracy Scott writes:

"For it is a striking fact that the law firm of Tommy Corcoran, the Washington lawyer for CATCL and [China Lobbyist] T.V. Soong, had its own links to the interlocking worlds of the China Lobby and of organized crime. His partner W.S. Youngman joined the board of U.S. Life and other insurance companies, controlled by C.V. Starr (OSS China) with the help of Philippine and other Asian capital. Youngman's fellow-directors of Starr's companies have included John S. Woodbridge of Pan Am, Francis F. Randolph of J. and W. Seligman, W. Palmer Dixon of Loeb Rhoades, Charles Edison of the postwar China Lobby, and Alfred B. Jones of the Nationalist Chinese government's registered agency, the Universal Trading Corporation. The [Senate] McClellan Committee heard that in 1950 U.S. Life [later part of AIG] (with Edison as a director) and a much smaller company (Union Casualty of New York) were allotted a major Teamsters insurance contract, after a lower bid from a larger and safer company had been rejected, [Jimmy] Hoffa was accused by a fellow trustee, testifying under oath before another committee, of intervening on behalf of US Life and Union Casualty, whose agents were Hoffa's close business associates Paul and Allen DorfmanÉ

"We find the same network linking CIA proprietaries, war lobbies, and organized crime, when we turn our attention from CAT to the other identified supporter of opium activities, Sea Supply, Inc. Sea Supply, Inc. was organized in Miami, Florida, where its counsel, Paul E. Helliwell, doubled after 1951 as the counsel for C.V. Starr insurance interests, and also as the Thai consul in Miami..."

The historical connections to CIA covert or proprietary air operations are interesting in light of the fact that AIG proudly announces in its 2000 annual report that with 494 full-sized jets -- 89 of which it manages itself -- it owns "the world's most modern fleet of aircraft." AIG customers include major airlines and a number of air transport companies. AIG also reported that in 2000 it leased additional aircraft "to a number of established customers" in South America.

CIA proprietary ownership or interest in companies is very difficult to detect. But, it has been proven by writers like Scott and many other researchers who combed through the paperwork that surfaced during the Iran-Contra scandals of the 1980s, where Air America assets were laundered into companies like Southern Air Transport and Evergreen Air. The single largest stockholder in AIG, the Starr International Company (SICO), holds 13.62% of AIG stock. Aside from knowing that Maurice Greenberg owns 21.86% of SICO (source, SEC) we may never be able to find out who, or what, owns the rest.
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.
Carl Jung - Aion (1951). CW 9, Part II: P.14
Poor Hank wasn't feeling well.......

AIG Agents »
Greenberg Missed The Fun On Capitol Hill!

[Image: Greenberg--Lascaro.jpg]
Hank Greenberg is known for having the constitution of an ox, thus it was both a surprise and a huge disappointment that he failed to show up on Capitol Hill this week to testify at a hearing on how AIG got into so much trouble that it needed an $85 billion government bailout to survive.

Mr. Greenberg, AIG's longtime CEO before leaving in 2005--he says he "retired," while others insist he was forced out after the company was rocked by charges that it cooked the books with bogus finite reinsurance transactions--begged off his appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“Regrettably, Mr. Greenberg has told the committee that he is too ill to appear today to answer questions,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chair of the committee.
That's a real shame, because I had my popcorn all ready and couldn't wait to settle in front of the TV to watch Hank tell everyone how AIG went to hell in a handbasket after he left, live on C-Span.
Sure, Mr. Greenberg had plenty to say in a written statement to the committee--mostly serving to distance him from the problems that sunk the firm.
But he didn't have to respond to any questions, and was spared the barbs and wrath of Rep. Waxman, who noted that while Mr. Greenberg "blames" former CEOs Martin Sullivan and Robert Willumstad for "the downfall of AIG, many others think it is Mr. Greenberg who sowed the seeds that led to AIG’s failure.” Exploring the truth of the matter was left for another day.
Without knowing what's ailing Mr. Greenberg, or how serious his illness was, I was not really surprised he didn't show.
The picture on our Oct. 13 cover has Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Willumstad standing before the committee, with hands raised, being sworn in. I can't see Hank up there completing the trio.
After all, Mr. Greenberg never was one to be just part of the pack. Even at industry conferences, I can't recall him delivering anything but the keynote address, while other, lesser industry players were reduced to joint panel discussions.
Given the blame he laid at the feet of both his predecessors, I also imagine he would not be comfortable sitting next to them, let alone have to endure a congressional grilling. Why risk guilt by association with such characters, who he said tossed risk management concerns out the window in the short-sighted pursuit of higher profits.
Mr. Greenberg--now chairman and CEO of C.V. Starr & Company--instead got to take his shots unchallenged, via his written statement.
As reported by our own Washington Bureau Chief Dave Postal, Mr. Greenberg said AIG’s financial products unit “reportedly wrote as many credit default swaps on collateralized debt obligations in the nine months following my departure as it had written in the entire previous seven years combined.”
He added that unlike what had occurred during his tenure, “the majority" of the credit default swaps written by AIG's Financial Products unit in the nine months after he "retired" were reportedly exposed to subprime mortgages. "By contrast, only a handful of the CDS written over the entire prior seven years had any subprime exposure at all.”
He said AIG’s problems occurred because the “risk controls my team and I put into place were weakened after my retirement.”
Mr. Greenberg took pot shots at the bailout deal as well, arguing that to repay the federal loan, “AIG will have no choice but to engage in a fire sale of profitable assets”--a point vigorously disputed by the company's new CEO, Ed Liddy, in an earlier call to analysts.
Mr. Greenberg also argued that giving you and I and all the other taxpayers who coughed up the billions in bailout dough a 79.9 percent ownership interest in return for our loan was foolish on AIG's part.
“AIG has more than $1 trillion in assets, including key AIG assets that already act as security for the $85 billion loan facility,” he said. “It was not necessary to wipe out virtually all of the shareholder value held by AIG’s millions of shareholders, including tens of thousands of employees and many more pensioners and other Americans on fixed incomes.”
Indeed, he suggested, it would have been better for AIG to just have bitten the bullet and gone Chapter 11. “Those millions of Americans could have fared better if AIG had filed for bankruptcy protection, since they would have at least have had the chance of recouping value on their investments in AIG over the longer term,” he said.
Will Congress get another shot at "grilliing" Mr. Greenberg about all this? I tend to doubt it. Attention spans in Congress are notoriously short. Already, the next crisis is upon us, and AIG's woes are quickly becoming a distant memory in Washington.
That is, unless asset sales don't go as smoothly as planned, and AIG has trouble repaying the loan. Or, even worse, if AIG needs more than $85 billion to keep going. Now that Uncle Sam is in for a penny, he's in for every single pound, right?
Stay tuned!

Notice they don't wander far from home
"Mr. Greenberg--now chairman and CEO of C.V. Starr & Company"
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Buckminster Fuller

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