By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009
WILTON, Conn., March 18 -- A solitary flat-screen television hangs on the back wall of the trading floor inside the headquarters of AIG Financial Products here. Wednesday afternoon, the most-talked-about employees in America huddled around it to find out just how despised they have become.
They watched quietly as members of Congress referred to them as greedy and incompetent. They heard more than one demand that their names be released to the seething American public. They heard the chairman of American International Group, Edward M. Liddy, tell lawmakers that people, in e-mails sent to AIG-FP, suggested that the firm's leaders "should be executed with piano wire around their necks."
The evening before, the firm's chief operating officer, Gerry Pasciucco -- whom Liddy recruited in November from Morgan Stanley to shut down Financial Products before it could do more harm to the economy -- had gathered them together in the same spot.
Pasciucco urged them to keep their heads down, to act professionally and to continue working to extricate Financial Products from its more than $1.6 trillion in outstanding derivative contracts. He acknowledged that the past few days have been like being "inside the piñata."
In reply, they told him that they worried mostly about getting shot, despite the guards now patrolling the parking lot, the front door and some of their homes.
A sense of fear hung in the room -- the palpable, unsettling kind that flashes across people's eyes. But there was anger, too. No one would express it publicly, of course. Who wants to hear a wealthy financier complain? And yet, within those walls off Danbury Road lies a deep sense of betrayal -- first by their former colleagues, now by their elected leaders.
The handful of souls who championed the firm's now-infamous credit-default swaps are, by nearly every account, long since departed. Those left behind to clean up the mess, the majority of whom never lost a dime for AIG, now feel they have been sold out by their Congress and their president.
"They've chosen to throw us under the bus," said a Financial Products executive, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. "They have vilified us."
They say what is missing from this week's hysteria is perspective. The very handsome retention payments they received over the past week were set in motion early last year when the firm's former president, Joe Cassano, was on his way out the door. Financial Products was already running into trouble on its risky credit bets, and the year ahead looked grim. People were weighing offers from other firms, and AIG executives feared that too many departures could lead to disaster.
So AIG stepped in with an offer to employees of Financial Products. Work through all of 2008, and you'd get a lump payment in March 2009. Stick around through 2009, and you'll get paid through 2010. Almost all other forms of compensation -- bonuses, deferred payments and the like -- have vanished.
"People are trying to do the right thing," the same Financial Products executive said. "Guys have worked their [tails] off to try to get value for the taxpayer. This isn't money that's being advanced to us. People have performed the work and done it exactly as we asked them to do."
Pasciucco cringed at the notion, articulated by many lawmakers and even President Obama, that Financial Products is a firm of nearly 400 reckless and greedy derivatives traders.
In actuality, he said, nearly all the troublesome sectors of the business -- namely, the risky credit derivatives written on mortgage-backed securities -- are now out of the equation, as are the people who worked on them. That leaves a small number of employees to untangle the remaining trades in four main areas: commodities, interest rates, currency and equities -- most of which were fully hedged and have caused little problem. The effort also requires a sizable number of "back office" staff, such as systems, computing, accounting, human resources and legal teams.
"Everybody, including my secretary and including the guy down the hall that serves lunch, gets a payment," said Pasciucco, who added that he received no retention payment and has no contract.
But what about the argument made by top AIG officials that the people receiving retention bonuses have unique skills and knowledge that make them indispensable?
"They are replaceable," Pasciucco acknowledges. "If we were running a long-term business, we could probably replace them over time, not all at the same time."
But it would be impractical at best, dangerous at worst, to get rid of everyone at Financial Products, according to AIG officials. If everyone leaves, Pasciucco said, "you don't have people that really, truly understand the book [of business]. We're still big enough that that matters."
If they did walk out the door, who would volunteer to work at the Chernobyl of the financial world? And what would become of the mammoth portfolio that remains?
"It would become the biggest naked position on Wall Street," one longtime Financial Products executive said, "and everybody would exploit it."
Before he waded into the circus on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Liddy e-mailed a letter to the employees of Financial Products, asking them to "step up and do the right thing." He asked that anyone who received more than $100,000 in retention payments return at least 50 percent.
The Financial Products staff met twice Wednesday inside one of the firm's large, glass-walled conference rooms to discuss the boss's letter. Numerous employees indicated that they would be willing to return the money, but most wanted nothing more to do with the firm. It was a preview of the possible exodus to come, one that concerns Liddy himself.
"My fear is that the damage is done," he told a congressional subcommittee. "That they will return [the money], but that they will return it with their resignations."
There is little doubt within Financial Products that he's right about that.
"Nobody is going to give it back and then stay," said one of the firm's employees. "If they give back the money, then they will walk. And they will walk into the arms of AIG's counterparties."
In the meantime, the e-mails from the public have continued to roll in, including death threats and calls to blow up the firm's Wilton headquarters. Reporters and photographers have camped out in front of the offices in London and Connecticut. They have staked out employees' houses. The New York Post identified one executive and labeled him "Jackpot Jimmy." Another employee had to relocate his family after a London tabloid printed his address. A protest group is organizing an "AIG magical mystery tour" Saturday, loading up a 47-seat bus to stop at Financial Products and at the homes of some of its executives.
"People are really upset. Everybody's calling them," one Financial Products employee said. "College roommates are calling. In-laws, relatives, cousins nobody has heard from. Because people are reading this around the world and saying: 'Oh, my God, you work for that place?' "