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The Beautiful Machine

As in the Italian deal, the transactions were hedged and, if necessary, hedged again. The hedges involved precisely calibrated transactions, including the purchase of Treasury bonds or other swaps, that brought a cash flow in almost direct proportion to the money going out.

But with success came tension. Greenberg's love of his joint venture's revenue could not overcome his desire for greater control. He chafed at the deal, worrying that he had given Sosin too much freedom.

One detail in particular nagged at Greenberg. Under the joint-venture agreement, Financial Products received its profits upfront, even if the transactions took 30 years to play out. AIG would be on the hook if something went wrong down the road, not Sosin and his team, who took their pay immediately.

Greenberg's uneasiness grew into distrust, and not just about the numbers. Greenberg was a wink-and-handshake guy, while Sosin relied on the written agreement as his Bible. If Greenberg asked for something that wasn't stipulated, Sosin wouldn't comply.

"We ran our company very openly," Greenberg said. "Our word was our bond."

For his part, Sosin said the agreement gave both sides a clear understanding of the arrangement.

Early in 1990, Greenberg summoned Sosin to his office. Drexel had just imploded amid allegations of fraud and insider trading, and Greenberg had recruited several executives to start an AIG unit specializing in currency trading. That was a problem: Sosin interpreted the joint agreement as giving his firm exclusive rights to that business. Greenberg disagreed, and hoped to finesse the conflict.

"Howard, I'm sure you won't mind," Greenberg said.

"Mr. Greenberg, I mind very much," Sosin said.

"Howard, that isn't wise," Greenberg responded.

Days later, on March 13, 1990, Matthews sent Sosin a letter on Greenberg's behalf announcing their intention to terminate the agreement. "We regret to inform you. . . " the letter began.

Under the agreement, Sosin could take a duplicate of his computer system and his team with him. He began looking for backing from another AAA company. Greenberg heard about Sosin's efforts and got cold feet. After a series of meetings, including one at Greenberg's Florida retreat in Ocean Reef, they patched it back together, reasoning that there was too much money still to be made.

Greenberg's next letter had a different tone. "It is with great pleasure that, with this letter, we revoke any and all of our prior notices of termination," he wrote on May 31, 1990.

The peace wouldn't last.

5: 'Cave or Terminate'

In late 1992, Greenberg once again summoned Sosin to AIG headquarters. He was livid over two recent Financial Products deals with entities controlled by the Edper Group, a giant Canadian holding company owned by billionaires Edward and Peter Bronfman.

The first involved the purchase of bonds, which amounted to a loan to one of the Edper entities. The firm occasionally ventured into such credit deals as part of larger transactions, but only with highly rated companies and with provisions that opened an exit ramp if the bonds started to default. "We want to be the first rat to leave the sinking ship," Sosin told his troops, reflecting his unease with credit deals, which their system couldn't tame.

When this particular ship sank, Financial Products sold out as quickly as it could, but not before it lost $100 million. The second deal, involving a swap with extra layers of complexity, was going fine. But the $100 million loss in the first deal and the intricate machinations in the other had spooked Greenberg.

Sitting in an anteroom to his office, in a favorite red leather chair, Greenberg demanded that Sosin stop doing some of the deals that had made Financial Products a Wall Street darling.

Greenberg handed Sosin a document that would change the terms of their joint venture. Greenberg was daring Sosin to flinch. Instead, Sosin walked out.

He visited his lawyer, Ronald Rolfe, at Cravath Swaine & Moore in New York.

"I said, 'What can I do?' And he said, "Cave or terminate.' "

6: No Reconciliation Possible

Under the agreement, either man had the right to terminate the joint venture. Sosin notified Greenberg that he wanted out.

Greenberg knew that Sosin's departure could cost him and AIG millions. But that wasn't his main concern. He didn't have a thorough understanding of how Sosin's system worked, and he wasn't going to let him get away without finding out.

In March 1993, as the two sides commenced a bitter arbitration battle, Greenberg formed what came to be known as a "shadow group." It verged on a covert operation. The group included AIG's auditors, now known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, which set up an office near Financial Products -- now in Connecticut -- and built a parallel computer system to track the firm's trades. Greenberg also held surreptitious conversations with some of Sosin's colleagues, recruiting them to stay.

Years later, Greenberg and Matthews still chafe visibly at the mention of Sosin. "One of the most difficult individuals I have ever dealt with in my entire life. Hands down," Matthews said. "Howard was in it for Howard."

Sosin, too, remains sensitive about what happened. "Greenberg took this very personally," he said. "He likes to be able to step in at any point and change things at his whim."

In Sosin's view, Greenberg and Matthews were envious of the profits that he and his colleagues were keeping for themselves. "It was peculiar to have something go so well," Sosin said, "and for him to have such suspicion."

In August 1993, with no reconciliation possible this time, the AIG board of directors installed a new leadership team. Sosin and Rackson took some employees with them to start another firm. Sosin later settled with AIG for a reported payout of more than $150 million; Rackson later received a share of the settlement.

Greenberg and AIG gained control of Financial Products and the beautiful machine. In the coming years, the firm would accelerate its profit-making ability, while forging into uncharted -- and ever riskier -- financial territory.

7: 'Honor the Trust'

Tom Savage stood before a room of anxious colleagues at the Four Seasons resort in Dallas, eager to reassure them that Greenberg was not going to pull the plug on their money-making machine.

Savage, a 44-year-old Midwestern math whiz, had just been named the new president of Financial Products. With the honor came explicit expectations, which Greenberg made clear: "You guys up at FP ever do anything to my Triple A rating, and I'm coming after you with a pitchfork."

It was spring 1994 and, on the surface, nothing much had changed since Sosin left the previous summer. Financial Products had come a long way from the days of sitting on cardboard boxes. The Dallas meeting was opulent in a way that had become customary for the firm: Lavish meals, open bars, luxurious rooms and rounds of golf, which was Savage's particular passion. Dallas's international airport allowed dozens of associates to fly direct from the firm's far-flung outposts.

The employees couldn't understand why there was any doubt about the firm's future. In just seven years, it had grown into a 125-person operation with annual profits comfortably above $100 million.

Like his predecessors, Savage knew the enterprise could not thrive without AIG's AAA rating, which continued to provide the leverage it needed to stay ahead.

"AIG has given us the license to work," Savage told his colleagues that day. "We have to honor the trust they have given us."

The catch? Financial Products would have to take more direction than ever from Greenberg.

8: 24 Hours A Day

Greenberg called Savage most days that first year. "I'd be changing a diaper at home," Savage recalled. "He'd say, 'What are you doing?' I'd say, 'Changing the diaper.' He'd say, 'Well, I don't think I can help you with that.' But he would say, 'What are you thinking about? What's going on?' He was always taking my temperature."

Savage knew that Greenberg hadn't been 100 percent sure about his ability to run Financial Products. Greenberg had told him as much when they sealed the deal at a Vermont ski resort that AIG owned in Stowe. "I don't know if you have all the buttons for this job," the AIG chairman had said. Greenberg managed the company by both charming and intimidating his subordinates. He said of himself recently, "I suffer fools very badly."

Greenberg also had no patience for anyone who didn't share his relentless work ethic. "You don't build a company like AIG from nine to five, five days a week. It just doesn't happen," Greenberg said recently. "And you've got to surround yourself with a group of people who share the same values, the same aspirations that you do. When I traveled, I could call somebody, I don't care what time it was, maybe two, three in the morning. As far as I'm concerned, I'm working 24 hours, they're working 24 hours."

Savage understood that, but he came at the job with a mathematician's love of the numbers and how they worked. He was among a growing number of "quants" -- short for quantitative thinkers -- who had worked their way into the heart of Wall Street. With a PhD from Claremont Graduate University in California, Savage had started his career at First Boston in 1983, where he wrote computer models for a then-arcane type of security called a collateralized mortgage obligation, or CMO. It is the kind of asset-backed security at the core of the current meltdown.

Savage respected Sosin, but saw no reason to follow Sosin and Rackson out the door. "I think what was clear was that, however things should work out, there was a business at AIG Financial Products and Sosin didn't need to be there for it to be successful," Savage said.

Immediately after Sosin's ouster, Savage and three others -- soon dubbed the Gang of Four -- ran Financial Products on an interim basis, with Matthews assigned to keep tabs on them. Savage remained committed to running the place under the same rigorous, risk-reducing code that Sosin's group had cultivated.

But not everything stayed the same. Under a new operating agreement imposed by Greenberg, AIG owned Financial Products as a subsidiary, and the parent company received 70 percent of the profits, up from 62 percent.

Greenberg also wanted to change the way Financial Products' employees divvied up its share of the profits. Under the previous arrangement, Sosin and his crew had the right to book immediate profits on the long-term deals. Greenberg thought there was a powerful incentive to go after millions of dollars in short-term gains while leaving AIG and its shareholders responsible for potential losses for years to come.

Savage agreed with Greenberg that Financial Products employees should defer half of their compensation for several years, depending on the length of the deals being done -- an arrangement that would still yield hefty paychecks as the firm's profits soared in the coming years.

Savage said he welcomed Greenberg's input. "I would give Greenberg a lot of deference," Savage said. "Hank Greenberg's a great man. And I'm willing, when I talk to him, to say, you know, I'm in the presence of a great man and that's worth something."

9: 'We're Not Hiding Anything'

Financial Products found its profit margins shrinking on some transactions as competitors succeeded in duplicating its services. Like Sosin, Savage urged his talented team to devise ever more complicated transactions, often in untapped areas.

Financial Products was becoming a chameleon, taking on the coloration of whatever problem it was solving for its diverse clients. The firm pushed further into structured investments, hedge fund deals and guaranteed investment contracts, or GICs. The GIC deals involved loans from municipalities that had temporary surpluses of cash. Financial Products reckoned that it could borrow that cash, pay state and local governments more than they could make otherwise and then use the money for lucrative deals for itself, somewhat like a bank.

The firm also began applying its complex formulas to the movement of single stocks. Using such structured finance enabled clients, such as Microsoft, to better manage their stock prices. It also helped Financial Products to more than double its profits in three years -- to $323 million in 1998, from $140 million in 1995.

A new unit, called the Transaction Development Group, did its part by taking advantage of gaps between securities regulation and tax laws in the United States as well as in other countries. Financial Products associates noticed, for instance, they could make money by exploiting differences between the U.S. and British definitions of stocks and bonds. A security that met the definition of stock in Britain could pay tax-free dividends to shareholders. The same security in the United States was regarded as a bond that provided tax-deductible payments. A Financial Products client would get both tax breaks. The firm used the capital raised from that line of business, in part, to finance other operations.

"We're the guys there who are going to try to exploit that," Savage said. "We dot our i's, we cross our t's, we tell everybody what we're doing. We're not hiding anything. . . . However, we're getting different treatments in different jurisdictions and we're making money as a result."

But even as Financial Products experimented, Savage said, he continued to stress the need to minimize risk. "That was one of the things that really marked this company, was the rigor with which it looked at the business of trading. . . . There was an academic rigor to it that very few companies match," he said.

"It was Howard Sosin who said, 'You know, we're not going to do trades that we can't correctly model, value, provide hedges for and account for.' "

Though the language of caution was the same, the firm's drive toward novel and ever more lucrative deals led down the path of greater risk. The beautiful machine was about to crack.

Tuesday: The dangerous fork in the road

Staff writer Bob Woodward contributed to this report.

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