The AIG-Maiden Lane III Controversy
As everyone knows by now, Neil Barofsky, special inspector general for TARP, has a new report out on the decision by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last Fall to make various AIG counterparties (primarily some very big banks with names you know) whole on the the CDS protection they had bought from AIG to cover their risk on some CDOs. The potentially juicy bit has to do with the Maiden Lane III transaction (New York Fed summary here).
There are a couple of details I can’t quite reconcile (for example, the Fed balance sheet shows initial funding of $29.3 billion, but everyone says Maiden Lane III paid $29.6 billion for the CDOs), but essentially it went like this. The banks had bought CDS protection on $62.1 billion of CDOs. As of November, the market value of those CDOs was $29.6 billion. At that point, the banks already held $35.0 billion in cash collateral from AIG to cover the difference. (If you have a derivatives contract with someone under which your counterparty may have to pay you a huge amount of money, you generally negotiate a term under which the counterparty has to give you money as the trade moves against him, to protect you from default. In this case, a lot of the collateral came from the $85 billion credit line the Fed gave to AIG in September — otherwise AIG would have gone bankrupt because of collateral calls.)
In the transaction (I’m working off the New York Fed summary), first AIG contributed $5 billion to Maiden Lane III and the New York Fed gave it a $24.3 billion loan. Then Maiden Lane III gave all $26.8 billion to the banks in exchange for the CDOs. (The banks accepted $26.8 billion because they already held $35.0 billion in collateral; together that makes $61.8 billion — as I said, I can’t get $300 million to reconcile.) Then Maiden Lane III gave $2.5 billion right back to AIG (this is the amount by which AIG had overcollateralized). As part of the deal, the banks agreed to tear up the original CDS on the CDOs, so AIG couldn’t lose any more on the CDS (which, remember, are separate from the CDOs).
The controversy is not over paying $29.3 (or $29.6) billion for the CDOs, since that was the market price. The controversy is over whether AIG should have agreed to settle the CDS at 100 cents on the dollar (meaning that the banks get the difference between the face value of the CDOs and their current market value). Bloomberg reported a while back that prior to the government bailout, AIG had been trying to negotiate a settlement at 60-70 cents on the dollar, but that that portion of the term sheet was crossed out in the final agreement. The implication is that paying the swaps off in full was a back-door, off-the-books way of funneling cash to banks that we didn’t want to fail.
The argument for the NY Fed is that the banks had legal contracts that entitled them to the money. AIG might have been able to negotiate a haircut because it was going bankrupt and counterparties will take less money up front rather than risk getting even less in bankruptcy. However, once the government stepped in, it had no way to abrogate the contracts. The Agonist has a long post with much more detail than I have provided, arguing in conclusion that Federal Reserve Bank presidents are technocrats, and technocrats abide by the advice of their lawyers, which was almost certainly that AIG had to pay off the swaps in full. (He says the mistake was bailing out AIG in the first place back in September.)
Various people have argued, however, that the Fed could have negotiated a better deal. The Epicurean Dealmaker argues that, given the considerable powers of the Federal Reserve and the federal government in general, the banks could have been intimidated into accepting a modest haircut.
Robert Pozen, in his very worth reading book Too Big to Save?, says (p. 79) that AIGFP could have been forced into bankruptcy without putting the rest of AIG into bankruptcy; threatening to put AIGFP into bankruptcy would have provided the leverage to induce the banks to take a haircut. Lucian Bebchuk, a Harvard law professor, argued back in March that because AIG had guaranteed the obligations of AIGFP, this would constitute a default by AIG — but that wouldn’t affect AIG’s insurance subsidiaries, which could stand alone quite nicely (insurance companies get most of their money from customer premiums, not from debt).
I think that given the state of the world in November 2008, paying the banks off in full was definitely the easy choice — it’s always easier to abide by the contract and pay up, especially when you have very deep pockets. And the fact that it helped out the banks as well was probably seen as another argument for it, given the perceived need within the government to bolster the banks’ balance sheets by any means necessary.
By James Kwak