This Hank Greenberg column in the Journal on Tuesday is more shameless than your average WSJ op-ed. And that’s saying something.
Greenberg, whose too-big-to-fail company played a critical role—perhaps the critical role—in goosing the housing bubble by acting as a sort of dump for Wall Street’s mortgage-securities risk, comes to the defense of JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, who’s been getting buried lately under a slew of fines, investigations, and settlements for fraud by his bank. Greenberg thinks Dimon is being persecuted like Eliot Spitzer supposedly persecuted him in the mid-aughts.
And Greenberg has a case of oligarch empathy for Dimon—the kind that allows him to once again, despite all the evidence, claim to have been wrongly martyred (emphasis mine):
Displaying an astonishing lack of knowledge of the insurance industry, Mr. Spitzer, by threatening to criminally indict the company, succeeded in separating the industry’s most accomplished group of executives from a company that insured virtually every business sector across 130 countries. The replacement management took steps that made AIG vulnerable to the world-wide financial collapse of 2008. That provided a set of federal regulators with the opportunity to seize tens of billions of dollars from AIG’s shareholders.
Nearly all of Mr. Spitzer’s original allegations of accounting irregularities have been discarded or quietly dismissed by him and his successors. The remaining claims—on which no damages are sought—involve the accounting for reinsurance transactions that were not material to AIG. The real scandal, of course, is the fact that the attorney general brought this lawsuit and continues to prosecute it even today.
Bust out your hip waders. It’s deep here.
First, by “most accomplished group of executives,” Greenberg really means “me,” which conveniently sets up his blaming of his successors for AIG’s failure. That covers up his central role in making AIG not only vulnerable to the crisis, but the premiere catalyst of the crisis. Read the Washington Post’s fantastic series on AIG from late 2008. Here’s my summary of the WaPo’s findings on Greenberg’s responsibility a few months later:
(Greenberg) created the Financial Products division in 1987 with traders from soon-to-be disgraced Drexel Burnham Lambert, approved its entry into the credit-default swap market in 1998, empowered Joseph Cassano, oversaw FP when it set up “sham” companies that resulted in tens of millions in fines, was an unindicted co-conspirator in a huge fraud at AIG, oversaw the company’s credit downgrade from AAA, was in charge when half of the company’s $80 billion in CDS on subprime CDOs were written. Apparently, Cassano and FP stopped issuing CDS within months of Greenberg’s exit in 2005.
Second, Greenberg really believes the federal gubmint juiced his former company for tens of billions of dollars. You know, the same government that bailed AIG (and its creditors) out to the tune of $180 billion to fend off a complete collapse of the financial system.
Third, Greenberg’s charge that “Nearly all of Mr. Spitzer’s original allegations of accounting irregularities have been discarded or quietly dismissed by him and his successors” is misleading, to say the least. Greenberg was forced out of AIG in 2005 by his board of directors, which then paid $1.6 billion—the largest regulatory settlement in history at the time—to New York and the Bush SEC for securities fraud involving “improper accounting, bid rigging and practices involving workers’ compensation funds” and restated years of inflated profits, reducing them by $4 billion. Several executives from General Reinsurance and AIG were convicted criminally for fraud, though those were later overturned on appeal. The execs then paid fines and “acknowledged that parts of the transaction were fraudulent, that they disregarded red flags suggesting the deal would be ‘improperly accounted for,’ and that they ‘should have attempted to stop it from going forward, but instead continued to participate in it.’” AIG settled for another $1 billion over the fraud in 2010.
Greenberg himself paid $15 million to settle the SEC’s fraud case against him, and he and three other execs paid $115 million to AIG to settle a shareholder lawsuit over the fraud. A New York judge ruled this summer that the civil fraud suit from the New York AG’s office—a case nearly a decade in the making—can go forward.
But poor Hank Greenberg’s clean as a whistle, don’t you know? Just ask his pal Maria Bartiromo, who also can’t stomach the idea that Jamie Dimon’s cash-generating machine is corrupt and that he should be fired, despite its ever-longer list of wrongdoing and alleged wrongdoing.
Greenberg’s deeply deluded. Which, of course, makes him right at home on the WSJ edit page and on CNBC.Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: AIG, fraud, Hank Greenberg, Jamie Dimon, Wall Street Journal editorial page