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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Goldman apologia

The following appeared as a comment on my previous post discussing Paul Krugman's anti-Goldman and anti-finance column of last week. The commenter is a (very) senior quant with a PhD in physics. His knowledge of these matters is, I would guess, superior to Krugman's and certainly superior to that of any journalist.

Is Goldman entitled to keep its recently announced gigantic profits, given that they were (perhaps) saved by the government's bailout of AIG? Hear it from the horse's mouth :-)

For more background, click the AIG tag below. [If you are going to comment on this post, please read the earlier one first. Your thoughts might be addressed in the comments there!]

...on AIG - you might wanna check out this developing story.

When large derivative dealers trade with each other they typically agree to exchange margin so that on any given day neither owes anything to the other. Sometimes dealers will disagree on the value of their trades. GS has said that AIG owed them $10bio pre-bailout (in GS's opinion), and had given GS $7.5bio (AIG's opinion of the value) against this exposure. GS had purchased insurance from other large dealers for the $2.5bio balance.

AIG deals with the public too, of course, but the public pays premiums to AIG and holds no collateral. This is all "business as usual".

Now, let's look at what would happened if AIG had defaulted. For GS, the $7.5bio of collateral is "bankruptcy remote" and GS keeps it penny for penny. The insurance contracts pay off $2.5bio to GS and the right to pursue the claim against AIG passes to the counterparties. Mom and Pop who have purchased retail insurance from AIG are left with only a bankruptcy claim. So this is all very ugly, but absent further defaults, GS is left whole - no loss. But have no doubt, someone out there will be eating a big loss.

At this point in the discourse, most people have trouble understanding collateral and that it is bankruptcy remote (is this a skill? I guess so!), but let's say we have this one down. The next point people make is that letting AIG go under would have created a financial system meltdown that would have harmed GS such that GS could not collect all its $2.5bio insurance claim. Well, this is possible, but it is equivalent to saying that a large subset of JP Morgan, DeutscheBank, BNP, SocGen, Citibank, etc... all go bankrupt. However, we probably don't believe that even a full $2.5bio hit to GS would be lethal for it, so it is hard to say that a failure by AIG would have directly taken GS down.

The next point you might make is that if all these other banks went under it might have created a large enough set of other problems for GS so as to take it out. However this final claim, which is frequently made, is specific to GS in no way at all. But if you wanna say "maybe the U.S. bailed out AIG so that the entire world banking system didn't collapse", then yes, GS benefits from that just as does anyone in the economy with any exposure at all - like anyone who purchased Auto Insurance underwritten by AIG. So maybe a smart bailout avoids a situation like the depression which followed the Panic of 1837, but the beneficiaries of the bailout are likely not dominantly the banks. This is why administrations as diverse as G.W. Bush and Barry Obama have reached for identical bailout buckets.

The Kruggy regulation question should be "would compensation reforms stop the sort of loss-making trading that went on at AIG?" - and that may be, I don't know. And might it accidentally stop economically productive trading as well? Krugs sure doesn't think so.

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