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The Crash: What Went Wrong?

The Washington Post examines the origins of the economic crisis.

Risk and Regulation  |  The Frenzy  |   Full Report

THE CRASH

The Beautiful Machine

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By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 29, 2008

First of three parts

Howard Sosin and Randy Rackson conceived their financial revolution as they walked along the Manhattan waterfront during lunchtime outings. They refined their ideas at late-night dinners and during breaks in their busy days as traders at the junk-bond firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert.

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Sosin, a 35-year-old reserved finance scholar who had honed his theories at the famed Bell Labs, projected an aura of brilliance and fierce determination. Rackson, a 30-year-old soft-spoken computer wizard and art lover, arrived on Wall Street with a Wharton School pedigree and a desire to create something memorable.

They combined forces with Barry Goldman, a Drexel colleague with a PhD in economics and a genius for constructing complex financial transactions. "Imagine what we could do," Sosin would tell Rackson and Goldman as they brainstormed in the spring of 1986.

The three men had earned plenty of money through short-term deals known as interest-rate swaps, a clever transaction designed to protect banks, corporations and other clients from swings in interest rates that threw uncertainty into the cost of borrowing the money necessary for their business operations.

They believed their revolution could never happen if they stayed at Drexel. Swaps in those days typically lasted no longer than two or three years. The trio envisioned deals lasting decades that would lock in profits and manage risks with unprecedented precision. But the junk-bond firm's inferior credit rating sharply raised its borrowing costs, making it a dubious and risky partner for such long-term deals.

Sosin and his team needed the backing of a company with deep pockets, a burnished reputation and the very top credit rating, a Triple A institution as unlikely to default as the U.S. Treasury itself. One name topped their wish list that fall: American International Group, or AIG, the global insurance conglomerate considered one of the world's safest bets.

They would find a partner for their venture. They would create an elegant and powerful system that earned billions of dollars, operating in the seams and gaps of the market and federal regulation. They and their firm would alter the way Wall Street did business, particularly in the use of derivatives, and eventually test Washington's growing belief that capitalism could safely thrive with little oversight.

Then, they would watch in disbelief as their creation -- by then in the hands of others -- led to the most costly rescue of a private company in U.S. history, triggering a federal investigation into AIG's near-collapse and making AIG synonymous not with safety and security, but with risk and ruin.

Over the past two decades, their enterprise, AIG Financial Products, evolved into an indispensable aid to such investment banks as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, as well as governments, municipalities and corporations around the world. The firm developed innovative solutions for its clients, including new methods to free up cash, get rid of debt and guard against rising interest rates or currency fluctuations.

Financial Products unleashed techniques that others on Wall Street rushed to emulate, creating vast, interlocking deals that bound together financial institutions in ways that no one fully understood and contributed to the demise of its parent company as a private enterprise. In the panic of mid-September's crash, the Bush administration said that AIG had grown too intertwined with the global economy to fail and made the extraordinary decision to take over the reeling giant. The bailout stands at $152 billion and counting -- almost 10 times as large as the rescue for the American auto industry.

Many of the most compelling aspects of the economic cataclysm can be seen through the story of AIG and its Financial Products unit: the failure of credit-rating firms, the absence of meaningful federal regulation, the mistaken belief that private contracts did not pose systemic risk, the veneration of computer models and quantitative analysis.


CONTINUED     1                 >

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