Michael Lewis does a great job telling the story of A.I.G. and how it failed, bringing down the global economy. It’s fascinating, especially how much the tumble evidently depended on the failings of one guy, Joe Cassano.
The people still left inside A.I.G. F.P. like to list just how many things had to go wrong for their business to implode. Any one of a number of things might have sufficed to avert their catastrophe: our political leaders might have decided against the Wall Street argument not to regulate credit-default swaps; the ratings agencies might have resisted the Wall Street argument to rate subprime bonds AAA; Wall Street banks, in 2006 and 2007, might have declined to replace A.I.G. F.P. in the role of subprime risktaker of last resort; and on and on. Their list is mostly a catalogue of large, impersonal forces. But impersonal forces require people to conspire with them. Joe Cassano was the perfect man for these times—as responsible for a series of disastrous trades as a person in a big company can be. He discouraged the dissent of subordinates who understood them better than he did. He acted with the approval of A.I.G., but he also must have known that A.I.G. wasn’t able to evaluate his trades. Once he was persuaded to stop insuring subprime-mortgage bonds, the logical course of action was to reverse the deals he had already done. In 2006 he might have found a way to do this, if he had been willing to accept the costs involved, but he wasn’t. Had he been, the machine he helped to create would have kept running—by then it had a life of its own—and the losses would have simply wound up more concentrated inside the big banks. But he’d have saved his company.