March 7, 2009

The Fed's moral hazard maximising strategy

Willem Buiter:
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, it 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. What would have happened if the Fed had decided to leave the AIG counterparties with their near-worthless CDS protection?

The organised lobbying bulldozer of Wall Street sweeps the floor with the US tax payer anytime. The modalities of the bailout by the Fed of the AIG counterparties is a textbook example of the logic of collective action at work. It is scandalous: unfair, inefficient, expensive and unnecessary.
Posted by James Zellmer at March 7, 2009 6:33 PM | Subscribe to this site via RSS:
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