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From BCCI to AIG...

If AIG was a hedge fund, missing the BCCI scandal was its regulatory model...

POLITICAL RHETORIC is now taking a turn to the ludicrous, writes Dr. Joseph Mason Hermann Moyse Jr. – professor of banking at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at the Wharton School, as well as a partner at Empiris – for Eric Fry's Rude Awakening.

In fact, I feel like real life is approaching the stories reported in The Onion.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke is suddenly "angry" at the AIG bailout. Because "AIG exploited a huge gap in the regulatory system, there was no oversight of the financial- products division, this was a hedge fund basically that was attached to a large and stable insurance company."

Really? You don't say...

"[The company] made huge numbers of irresponsible bets, took huge losses, there was no regulatory oversight because there was a gap in the system."

No! That's amazing...

Suddenly we are shocked to learn that the first $150 billion of tax-funded aid – granted with virtually no controls over an insolvent firm – was inadequate to turn the firm around. Even more shockingly, AIG officials were reluctant to sell off portions of the firm, which would have substantially reduced the value of their holdings and put them out of their jobs.

Shocking! Financial managers acting in their own self- interest – absolutely shocking!

When AIG modeled its operations after hedge funds, it leveraged its off-balance sheet operations to create massive unfunded counterparty exposures that made the firm "systemically important". Reports suggest that there remain some $300 billion in net notional exposures that must be resolved. Hence, I think the magic number for government infusions here is $300 billion, because the bleeding won't stop until Treasury commits at least that much, if they want to "reduce the systemic importance".

But more than $300 billion will be required if any direct investors are to be rescued. At the end of the road, there are few tangible assets to support any substantial going concern value. Critics, including former AIG chief executive officer Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, say the strategy of breaking apart the insurer and selling units wouldn't reap enough to repay AIG loans.

The political fallacy, however, lies in acting as if the result is somehow unprecedented. We have seen this all before. So did policymakers and the regulators.

AIG's business was spread across 130 countries and 400 regulators. None of those regulators apparently caught the hedge fund play and resolved the "systemic importance" issue. But remember the BCCI scandal? Before BCCI failed in 1991, it built up a corporate structure so complex that it could operate virtually unregulated all over the world. BCCI used more than 400 shell companies, offshore banks, branches, and subsidiaries, and unregulated accounts in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere to hide crooked operations with fictitious transactions.

Like AIG, BCCI based its operations in countries where regulation was weakest. If BCCI encountered a legal impediment, it would often be able to circumvent the problem by creating a new affiliate or acting through one of its myriad existing entities. [For further reading, see the December 1992 Report to the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations...]

The international context of AIG makes BCCI look puny. But in the meantime, the public policy rhetoric is attempting to sell taxpayers a bill that is not theirs to pay. Ben Bernanke says the revised bailout gives taxpayers "the best chance" of eventually recovering "most or all of the investments" the public has made. Such specious statements are translatable as "AIG has us up against the wall, so we have to throw good money after bad."

Otherwise, the threat is that AIG won't be able to support its counterparty relationships with "the banks".

Which banks, in particular? Apparently it is those banks that...well, also modeled their operations after hedge funds and are also, therefore, "systemically important" by the Federal Reserve's and Treasury's accounts.

Banks' total assets as of December 31, 2008 were just over $13.9 trillion, with total industry equity capital of $1.3 trillion. But bank notional derivatives exposures were $201 trillion, sitting on top of another $7.2 trillion in commitments to lend, $2 trillion in securitized assets, and $1 trillion in standby letters of credit and foreign office guarantees.

That gives a total exposure of $225.1 trillion, or a leverage ratio of about 173:1 on total industry capital.

Today's situation is primarily focused on large banks, of course. So looking only at the 86 US banks with assets larger than $10 billion, there were notional derivatives exposures as of December 31, 2008 of $201 trillion, sitting on top of another $5.6 trillion in commitments to lend, $2 trillion in securitized assets, and nearly $1 trillion in standby letters of credit and foreign office guarantees, for a total exposure of $219.4 trillion.

For the too-big-to-fail crowd, therefore, the leverage ratio stands at more than 241:1 on large-bank capital of $909 billion.

According to new US Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, "AIG is a huge, complex, global insurance company attached to a very complicated investment bank/hedge fund that was allowed to build up without any adult supervision." Now the adults think they're back in charge, they not only supervise the play, however, but also help choose good playmates. The question begs to be asked, therefore, who allowed the large banks to enter counterparty relationships with AIG in the first place?

That would be the bank regulators – the same ones now threatened with the large banks' leverage of 241:1.

I disagree with Geithner's assertion that because of "the risks AIG poses to the economy...the most effective thing to do is to make sure the firm can be restructured over time." There is no core at AIG to restructure. With a failed business model and all the assets hypothecated elsewhere, the only asset of value is the copy machine toner. Providing more capital and liquidity to others in the industry won't help, either, since many other firm assets are also hypothecated to cover similar off-balance sheet commitments.

The way out of this situation, therefore, is not further support for the unstable and opaque counterparty relationships that are causing the "systemic importance", but revealing those relationships and unwinding the exposures. It is a large task, but one that is not optional.

But will policymakers continue to fiddle while our financial markets and economies burn?

Eric J.Fry has been a specialist in international equities since the early 1980s. A professional portfolio manager for more than 10 years, he wrote the first comprehensive guide to American Depositary Receipts, International Investing with ADRs. Today he reports on Wall Street from California for the renowned Daily Reckoning email service.

See full archive of Eric Fry articles

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