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AIG’s Joseph Cassano Testifies Before FCIC Today

If Joseph Cassano, the head of AIG’s disastrous Financial Products unit, has granted an interview since the insurance giant melted down, I certainly don’t remember it. That’s what makes today’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearing so interesting. The theme is the derivatives market, and there will be a particular emphasis on AIG and Goldman Sachs, and how their trading played a role in the financial meltdown.

A key focus will be “how the interaction of these two financial giants may or may not have contributed to the causes of the financial crisis,” Phil Angelides, chairman of the commission, said in a call with reporters on Tuesday.

Goldman has long been criticized for benefiting from the U.S. taxpayers’ bailout of AIG. Taxpayers pledged up to $182 billion to address problems at AIG’s financial products division.

U.S. and European banks that had purchased credit protection from AIG were quickly made whole after the U.S. government bailed out AIG. Goldman, as a major trading partner of the insurer, was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the government rescue of AIG.

AIG said in March, 2009, that $93 billion had been paid to banks, including $12.9 billion to Goldman Sachs, which was the most received by any bank.

Today will mark the first time Cassano will have to answer to any of this. He’ll appear on the second panel, along with former AIG CEO Martin Sullivan and Senior VP Robert Lewis. Goldman Sachs COO Gary Cohn speaks before the panel later in the day.

Louise Story and Gretchen Morgensen wet the palate for this hearing with a report on AIG, including this bombshell:

When the government began rescuing it from collapse in the fall of 2008 with what has become a $182 billion lifeline, A.I.G. was required to forfeit its right to sue several banks — including Goldman, Société Générale, Deutsche Bank and Merrill Lynch — over any irregularities with most of the mortgage securities it insured in the precrisis years.

But after the Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil fraud suit filed in April against Goldman for possibly misrepresenting a mortgage deal to investors, A.I.G. executives and shareholders are asking whether A.I.G. may have been misled by Goldman into insuring mortgage deals that the bank and others may have known were flawed […]

“Even if it turns out that it would be a hard suit to win, just the gesture of requiring A.I.G. to scrap its ability to sue is outrageous,” said David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “The defense may be that the banking system was in trouble, and we couldn’t afford to destabilize it anymore, but that just strikes me as really going overboard.”

“This really suggests they had myopia and they were looking at it entirely through the perspective of the banks,” Mr. Skeel said.

It’s pretty hard to make AIG a sympathetic character, but that’s the tone of this article, although it really is a commentary on the failure of the regulators, particularly the NY Federal Reserve Bank. We already knew that the NY Fed refused to give a haircut to the counter-parties owed money by AIG, paying them off instead at par. With Goldman Sachs, in particular, admitting this morning that they had a larger role in the AIG deals, including betting against the housing market on its own account and not on behalf of clients, this hearing should be explosive.

But in a way, that’s the problem. The FCIC has no real purpose, especially with the Dodd-Frank bill poised for passage in a matter of days. Their report won’t be coming out until December 15, and even then it will offer no recommendations, just “a public record of the historic event.” This makes the FCIC seem like a waste of time, despite the impressive roster of witnesses to which it has spoken in public. Today, they’ll add the mercurial Joseph Cassano to the list. I just wish they could do something with all this knowledge besides write a report that nobody will read.

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David Dayen

David Dayen