From today's WSJ article on the AIG nationalization:
AIG's cash squeeze is driven in large part by losses in a unit separate from its traditional insurance businesses. That financial-products unit, which has been a part of AIG for years, sold the credit-default swap contracts designed to protect investors against default in an array of assets, including subprime mortgages.It sounds like David Corn was on the mark with this recent article on Phil Gramm:
But as the housing market has crumbled, the value of those contracts has dropped sharply, driving $18 billion in losses over the past three quarters and forcing AIG to put up billions of dollars in collateral. AIG raised $20 billion earlier this year. But the ongoing demands are straining the holding company's resources.
Who's to blame for the biggest financial catastrophe of our time? There are plenty of culprits, but one candidate for lead perp is former Sen. Phil Gramm. Eight years ago, as part of a decades-long anti-regulatory crusade, Gramm pulled a sly legislative maneuver that greased the way to the multibillion-dollar subprime meltdown.
The [Commodity Futures Modernization Act], he declared, would ensure that neither the sec nor the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (cftc) got into the business of regulating newfangled financial products called swaps—and would thus "protect financial institutions from overregulation" and "position our financial services industries to be world leaders into the new century."
Because of the swap-related provisions of Gramm's bill ... a $62 trillion market (nearly four times the size of the entire US stock market) remained utterly unregulated, meaning no one made sure the banks and hedge funds had the assets to cover the losses they guaranteed.
Banks and hedge funds, notes Michael Greenberger, who directed the cftc's division of trading and markets in the late 1990s, "were betting the subprimes would pay off and they would not need the capital to support their bets. "These unregulated swaps have been at "the heart of the subprime meltdown," says Greenberger.
Gramm's record as a reckless deregulator has not affected his rating as a Republican economic expert. Sen. John McCain has relied on him for policy advice, especially, according to the campaign, on housing matters. Media accounts have identified Gramm as a contender for the top slot at the Treasury Department if McCain reaches the White House. "If McCain gets in," frets Lynn Turner, a former chief sec accountant, "we'll have more of the same deregulatory mess. I like John McCain, but given what I know about Phil Gramm, I wouldn't vote for McCain."