This is a guest contribution by Michael Lewis*.
Last September the U.S. government began to dole out the first of $173 billion to American International Group. A big chunk of it passed right through to banks that had bought insurance from AIG against mortgage and corporate defaults — foreign banks such as Deutsche Bank and Societe Generale but also some domestic ones, such as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America.
U.S. government officials then went to great lengths to disguise from the public exactly what they had done, and why, going so far as to declare the ultimate list of recipients of taxpayer funds off limits to the taxpayer. To its immense credit, the media – or, rather, a handful of diligent reporters, the New York Times’ Gretchen Morgenson chief among them – prevented the public officials from getting their way.
This incredible act triggered hardly any political backlash. In effect, the U.S. taxpayer had paid off AIG’s gambling debts. The end recipient of the money was not AIG, but Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and the others.
Some large portion of the billions obviously wound up, in one form or another, in the pockets of their employees and shareholders. A few people on Capitol Hill moan and groan but there is popular agreement on the wisdom of this transfer of ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY THREE BILLION dollars from the taxpayer to the financiers.
But when AIG itself pays out $165 million in bonuses – money it is contractually obliged to pay – the entire political system goes insane. President Barack Obama says he’s going to find a way to abrogate the contracts and take the money back. A U.S. senator says that AIG employees should kill themselves.
Every recriminatory bone in the political body is aroused; the one thing you can do right now in Washington without getting an argument is to rail against the ethics of AIG’s bonus payment.
Apart from Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times, it occurs to no one to say that a) the vast majority of the employees at AIG had as little as you or I to do with its quasi- criminal risk taking and catastrophic losses; b) that the most- valuable of those employees can easily find work at AIG’s competitors; and c) that if the government insists on punishing those valuable employees they will understandably leave, and leave behind a company even less viable than it is, and less likely to give the taxpayer back his money.
And also – oh, yes – that if the government can arbitrarily break contracts made by firms in which it has taken a stake no one in his right mind will ever again make a contract with one of those firms. And so all of the banks in which the government has investment will be damaged.
From this episode we can observe several general truths about the financial crisis, and the attempt to end it:
1) To the political process all big numbers look alike; above a certain number the money becomes purely symbolic. The general public has no ability to feel the relative weight of 173 billion and 165 million. You can generate as much political action and public anger over millions as you can over billions. Maybe more: the larger the number the more abstract it becomes and, therefore, the easier to ignore. (The trillions we owe foreigners, for example.)
2) As the financial crisis has evolved its moral has been simplified, grotesquely. In the beginning this crisis was messy. Wall Street financiers behaved horribly but so did ordinary Americans. Millions of people borrowed money they shouldn’t have borrowed and, not, typically, because they were duped or defrauded but because they were covetous and greedy: they wanted to own stuff they hadn’t earned the right to buy.
On the Line
But now that taxpayer money is on the line the story has changed: innocent taxpayers are now being exploited by horrible Wall Street financiers. The guy who defaulted on mortgages on his six spec houses in the Nevada desert has turned himself into the citizen enraged by the bonuses paid to the AIG employees trying to sort out the mess caused by his defaults.
3) The complexity of the issues at the heart of the crisis paralyzes the political processes’ ability to deal with them intelligently. I have no doubt that, by the time this saga ends, we will all know what happened to every penny of that $165 million in bonuses and each have our opinion of the morality of it.
I doubt seriously we will ever understand the morality of the $173 billion payment that is the far more serious issue. For instance, Goldman Sachs, which received about 8 percent of the pile, or $13 billion, has claimed publicly that the money was, to them, a matter of indifference, as Goldman had hedged itself against a possible collapse of AIG – by making bets against AIG.
This suggests that it was clear to at least one market player, before the collapse, that AAA-rated AIG was behaving in ways that might lead to its demise – which is to say that there was really no responsible place to lay off these bets. (So why bail out those who made them?)
It also suggests that it is a matter of indifference to Goldman Sachs whether AIG lived or died, as either way it was protected. (So why bail it out?)
Since the beginning of the crisis I’ve wondered why the government has found neither the will nor the way to attack the root of the problem – the people who borrowed money to buy homes they shouldn’t have bought.
Now I think I understand. It would be too simple. People would understand a lot of small payments to the guy down the street who doesn’t deserve them, and become outraged. Far better to throw trillions at opaque corporations, the inner workings of which no one still really understands.
*Michael Lewis is the author of “Liar’s Poker,” “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side” and a columnist for Bloomberg News.
Source: Bloomberg, March 20, 2009.