Shortly after 1:30 on the afternoon of March 18, two dozen traders in AIG’s financial-products division stepped away from their Bloomberg terminals and huddled around televisions to watch their boss, CEO Edward Liddy, testify before Congress. There was much at stake. These were the people who received the greater part of $165 million in “retention bonuses” that had suddenly become, to borrow a phrase, toxic.
As the hue and cry to return the money grew, the traders had thought that Liddy would stand up for them. The ruddy-faced, 63-year-old former Allstate CEO, who had been installed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in September, was, if not exactly one of them, at least someone who understood the rules of the game as it had been played—and who understood what they were entitled to under those rules, even if those rules were unspoken. In AIG’s glory years, executives like Joseph Cassano, the former head of financial products, took home more than $300 million. That was the kind of money you couldn’t talk about.
But as Andrew Cuomo stoked public outrage by threatening to release the names of the bonus recipients, it became clear that the game was changing. When AIG employees had arrived at their desks that morning, they found a memo from Liddy asking them to return 50 percent of the money. The number infuriated many of the traders. Why 50 percent? It seemed to be picked out of a hat. The money had been promised, was the feeling. A sacred principle was at stake, along with, not incidentally, their millions.
Everyone on Wall Street is prepared to lose money. Bankers have expressions for disastrous losses: clusterfuck, Chernobyl, blowing up … But no one was prepared to lose money this way. This felt like getting mugged.
Jake DeSantis, a 40-year-old commodities trader at AIG, was an unlikely face of Wall Street greed. Stocky and clean cut, with an abiding moral streak, he’d worked summers for a bricklayer in the shadow of shuttered steel mills outside Pittsburgh; he was valedictorian of his high-school class and attended college at MIT. Compared with the way many of his Wall Street brethren lived, with their Gulfstreams, Hamptons mansions, and fleets of luxury cars, his life wasn’t one to invite scorn. He had canvassed for Obama in Scranton on Election Day and drove a Prius. His division at AIG was profitable. And since joining the company in 1998, he had never traded a single credit-default swap.
Now his boss was selling him out. DeSantis left work that day feeling that his world was falling apart. The next day, the House passed—by a wide margin—a bill that would levy a 90 percent tax on bonuses at firms that were bailed out. The Connecticut Working Families Party planned to bus protesters to the homes of AIG executives in Fairfield County. There were death threats. “It’s been terrifying,” says his wife’s mother, Lynnette Baughman. “It’s like a witch hunt.”
It was in this environment that DeSantis sent his remarkable resignation letter to the New York Times. In the letter, which ran as an op-ed on March 25, he compared himself to a plumber (“None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house”) and announced that he would quit AIG and donate his bonus to charity. The letter, passionate and wounded and oddly out of touch with ordinary Americans, put a human face on Wall Street’s anger. When DeSantis arrived at the office the morning his letter appeared in the paper, the AIG traders gave him a standing ovation. In some quarters of the press, he was vilified. (As Frank Rich put it in the Times, “He didn’t seem to understand that his … $742,006.40 (net) would have amounted to $0 had American taxpayers not ponied up more than $170 billion to keep AIG from dying.”) But the fracas was useful: DeSantis had succeeded in opening up an honest conversation—as typically emotional and awkward and neurotically charged as is any conversation on the subject—about money, the first this town has had in years.
In a witch hunt, the witches have feelings, too. As populist rage has erupted around the country, stoked by canny politicians, an opposite rage has built on Wall Street and other arenas where the wealthy hold sway. Its expression is more furtive and it’s often mixed with a kind of sublimated shame, but it can be every bit as vitriolic.
“AIG pissed some people off, and now you’re gonna screw everyone on Wall Street?” rails a laid-off JPMorgan vice-president. (Despite the honesty of the conversation, many did not wish to be quoted by name.)