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Tenacious G

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A composite photograph, taken over the course of two days, of businessmen emerging from Goldman Sachs.  

By Sunday night, Paulson realized he had an even bigger problem: the insurance giant AIG. AIG had sold billions in credit-default swaps to several major banks, what amounted to unregulated insurance on risky subprime-mortgage investments, the very ones that were bringing down the economy. As the real-estate market cratered, Standard & Poor’s was preparing to slash AIG’s credit rating, meaning AIG would be swamped with collateral calls it couldn’t pay.

As it happened, Goldman Sachs was AIG’s biggest banking client, having bought $20 billion in credit-default swaps from the insurer back in 2005. The swaps were meant to offset some real-estate investments Goldman had made, specifically a bunch of mortgage bonds it had on its books. The idea was simple: If the value of the mortgage bonds went down, the value of Goldman’s AIG swaps went up, assuring Goldman was safe from all-out losses on what it feared was an upcoming collapse in real estate. In reality, this was nothing like insurance and much more like an old-fashioned hedge.

By that weekend in September, Goldman Sachs had collected $7.5 billion from its AIG credit-default swaps but had an additional $13 billion at risk—money AIG could no longer pay. In an age in which we’ve become numb to such astronomical figures, it’s easy to forget that $13 billion was a loss that could have destroyed Goldman at that moment.

Hank Paulson and then–New York Fed chief Tim Geithner called an emergency meeting for the following Monday morning at the Federal Reserve Bank, ostensibly to discuss whether a private banking syndicate could be established to save AIG—one in which Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, two of the ailing insurance giant’s clients, would play prominent roles. “It was in their interest to be part of the solution,” says Robert Willumstad, the CEO of AIG at the time, who was also part of the meetings. “Geithner called on those two banks specifically to be helpful. You get the sense that both of those guys had been close to Geithner and giving him advice.”

At the meeting, it was hard to discern where concerns over AIG’s collapse ended and concern for Goldman Sachs began: Among the 40 or so people in attendance, Goldman Sachs was on every side of the large conference table, with “triple” the number of representatives as other banks, says another person who was there. The entourage was led by the bank’s top brass: CEO Blankfein, co-chief operating officer Jon Winkelried, investment-banking head David Solomon, and its top merchant-banking executive Richard Friedman—all of whom had worked closely with Hank Paulson two years prior. By contrast, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon did not attend. (Goldman Sachs has said that Blankfein left after twenty minutes, realizing he was the only chief executive present. But the person who was there says Blankfein was directly engaged in at least one full AIG meeting that Monday, appearing “ashen-faced” and “jumpy.”)

On the government side, Goldman was also well represented: Geithner himself had never worked for Goldman, but he was an acolyte of former Goldman co-chairman and Clinton Treasury secretary Robert Rubin. Former Goldman vice-president Dan Jester served as Paulson’s representative from the Treasury. And though Paulson himself wasn’t present, he didn’t need to be: He was intimately aware of Goldman’s historical relationship with AIG, since the original AIG swaps were acquired on his watch at Goldman.

The Goldman domination of the meetings might not have raised eyebrows if a private solution had been forthcoming. But on Tuesday, Paulson reversed course and announced that the government would step in and save AIG, spending $85 billion in government money to buy a majority stake. The argument was that AIG was not only too big to fail but too interconnected: The loss of the billions it owed to the banks and other counterparties could collapse the global financial system. The plan was to sell off the insurer for parts and pay the banks their cash collateral.

Of the $52 billion paid to AIG’s counterparties, Goldman Sachs was the biggest recipient: $13 billion, the entire balance of its claim. The amount was surprising: Banks like Merrill Lynch that had bought credit-default swaps from failed insurers other than AIG were paid 13 cents on the dollar in deals moderated by New York’s insurance regulator. Eric Dinallo, the former New York State insurance commissioner, who was at the AIG meetings, characterizes the decision this way: AIG’s counterparties, Goldman being the most prominent, “got to collect on an insurance policy without having the loss.”

Over time, it would appear to many that Goldman Sachs had received a backdoor bailout from a Treasury Department run by the firm’s former CEO. Why did Paulson bail out the banks that did business with AIG, critics have demanded ever since, and not Lehman Brothers? Certainly executives at Lehman want to know. (As one former Lehman managing director there puts it, “The consensus is that we were deliberately fucked.”)


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