Joseph J. Cassano, president of AIG’s financial products division and its financial products guru and the man behind the ultimate downfall of AIG was himself a personal favorite of Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG and the man credited with building up AIG into a global powerhouse. He admired Cassano’s aggressiveness even if he didn’t understand exactly what it was that he did.
Cassano began his fateful tenure at AIG in 2000 and reigned as the president of AIG’s financial products division until late 2008. Reportedly, Cassano is said to have told management that he, Cassano would run his shop and they, management would run their shop and that neither should ever involve itself with the other. In effect, Cassano had a virtual free hand in running his division for eight years and he apparently made good use of that freedom.
Cassano’s division has its roots dating back to 1987 when a handful of traders from Drexel Burnham Lambert, the same firm that spawned disgraced junk bomb trader Michael Milliken, eventually migrated over to AIG and successfully won Greenberg over to their high-flying ways of doing business.
Credit Cassano with taking former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s former firm’s (Goldman Sachs) practice of purchasing insurance on the investments they made and applying that same technique upon assuming control of the financial products division at AIG. During his eight-year tenure, Cassano’s department sold huge amounts of insurance – credit-default swaps (CDS’s)to prospective investors anxious to cover their losses on the risky investment instruments they held known as collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s). Investors had every reason to be nervous about these CDO’s as they were merely bundles of different types of loans – some good – some horrible – all wrapped up together in one investment instrument.
Unfortunately for AIG and the rest of the planet, Cassano’s division gladly took in the hefty monthly premiums they charged for insuring these risky CDO’s but in reality AIG provided no real insurance for these companies as the assets kept on hand by AIG for such purpose were only a mere fraction of the total amount of assets at risk.
Cassano’s division packaged these CDO’s in layers of loans with the top layer being the most credit-worthy. These were then shopped around to the credit rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poors and based upon just the top layer’s credit-worthiness – a AAA-rating was literally assigned to the ENTIRE CDO – the bad layers notwithstanding.
To complete the economic catastrophe this entire operation was managed by the little known federal agency Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) that was nowhere equipped to play such a role. In fact a GAO report noted that the entire OTS had only one insurance specialist on staff — and this despite the fact that it was the primary regulator for the world’s largest insurer!
These CDO’s turned out to be very profitable for AIG as it in turn extended a steady stream of credit-default swaps insurance to provide the supposed insurance to safeguard these CDO’s. By 2005 AIG’s profit from this line of financial products had risen to $3.2 billion, up from $773 million in 1999.
However, in February 2008 AIG posted a $11.5 billion annual loss and Cassano resigned shortly afterwards. In spite of this, he was able to keep $34 million in bonuses and in addition he continued to collect $1 million a month in consultant fees until the end of September 2008. During his eight years at AIG, Cassano earned $280 million. Over the past seven years, his unit’s employees were paid a total of $3.5 billion. Yes, that’s a “b” for billion!
The unit itself was a very small part of AIG, comprised of no more than 400 employees. Needless to say there was no oversight or supervision of any kind. The looseness of financial control was such that just a few weeks before the bailout in 2008 when senior executives at AIG were questioned by outside consultants about how much exposure AIG had to the residential-mortgage these very same executives were unable to supply that information.
Joseph J. Cassano is my nomination for Schmuck of the Century. He had help along the way but he, more than any other single individual, put in place the scenario for our current financial cesspool.