The Rise And Fall Of AIG's Financial Products Unit

As we delve into the back-story behind the collapse of AIG, we thought it might be useful to lay out some key factual information about the firm's Financial Products unit, known as AIGFP, whose disastrous credit default swaps brought the company to its knees. How and when did AIG Financial Products get started? Who ran it, and from where? How did it get into credit default swaps, and what exactly are they, anyway? And how did this group of derivatives traders eventually wind up bringing down one of the most admired financial firms in the world?

So here's a rundown of some of the key developments in AIGFP's tumultuous history -- many gleaned from a superb three-part December 2008 Washington Post series on the unit (parts 1, 2, and 3):

From a Humble Start, A Swift Rise

- AIGFP was founded on January 27, 1987, when three Drexel Burnham Lambert traders, led by finance scholar Howard Sosin, convinced AIG CEO Hank Greenberg to branch out from his core insurance business by creating a division focused on complex derivatives trades that took advantage of AIG's AAA credit rating.

- In addition to his two partners, Randy Rackson and Barry Goldman, Sosin brought 10 other staffers from DBL with him -- including future AIGFP CEO Joseph Cassano. The team of 13 set to work in a windowless makeshift room, at first without full-size desks and chairs, in an accounting office on Third Avenue. AIGFP's first significant deal, made in July 1987, was a $1 billion interest-rate swap with the Italian government.

- In its first 6 month of existence, the unit earned more than $60 million. Under the agreement that Greenberg and Sosin had signed, 38 percent of that went immediately to AIGFP, with the remaining 62 percent going to AIG proper. Crucially, the agreement also called for AIGFP received its profits up front, even though its deals generally took years to play out. AIG itself, not AIGFP, would be on the hook down the road if things went wrong. This arrangement would be modified, but only partially, after Sosin left in 1993. - AIGFP soon moved to a swanky Madison Avenue office. A few years later, it would relocate again to Wilton, Conn, which remains the unit's headquarters today.

- By 1990, AIGFP had expanded, opening offices in London, Paris and Tokyo.

- In 1993, Sosin left AIGFP, in part thanks to a strained relationship with Greenberg. (He got a reported $150 million payout). Tom Savage -- a Midwestern math whiz who had joined AIGFP in 1988, after beginning his career at First Boston writing computer models for collateralized mortgage obligations, the very instruments that would later help cause the current crisis -- soon took over as CEO.

- By that year, AIGFP employed 125 people, and was consistently raking in more than $100 million each year.

- By 1998, the unit had a revenue of $500 million. But it still had never made a single credit default swap.

The Seed Of Ruin Is Planted

- That year, JP Morgan approached AIG, proposing that, for a fee, AIG insure JP Morgan's complex corporate debt, in case of default. According to computer models devised by Gary Gorton, a Yale Business Professor and consultant to the unit, there was a 99.85 percent chance that AIGFP would never have to pay out on these deals. Essentially, this would happen only if the economy went into a full-blown depression, in which case, the AIGers believed, the counter-parties would be wiped out, and therefore would hardly be in a position to demand payment anyway. With the backing of Cassano, then the COO, Savage greenlighted the deals. Credit default swaps were born....

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