The reason AIG is in so much trouble is that it sold insurance against a global financial meltdown and then couldn’t pay up. Felix Salmon says:
The scandal here is not the size of the losses from the global financial meltdown — those are losses which sooner or later, in one form or another, would have had to be borne by the government anyway. Rather, the scandal is that AIG could have earned billions of dollars by selling insurance against a meltdown, even as it was wholly incapable of paying out on those policies. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hank Greenberg was still a billionaire, even as the policies his company wrote have cost the average American household some $1,600. It’s time for his wealth to be confiscated: it might be only a drop in the bucket compared to AIG’s total losses, but it would feel very right.
And baum at Ethel the Blog says “Confiscate, Imprison, Draw, Quarter, Etc.”,:
Where the hell are the psychotic “tuff on crime” fetishists now that we’re threatened by something slightly more dangerous than a pothead selling bongs?
UPDATE: From Louise Story and Eric Dash at NYT –
One Merrill Lynch trader apparently gambled away more than $120 million in the currency markets. Others seemingly lost hundreds of millions on tricky credit derivatives.
But somehow all this red ink did not spill into plain view until after Merrill earmarked billions for bonuses and staggered into the arms of Bank of America.
Inside Bank of America headquarters here, executives are asking why. The bank is investigating how Merrill accounted for wayward trades in the final, frantic months of 2008 — and why at least one big loss was slow to appear on Merrill’s books.
Of particular concern are the activities of a Merrill currency trader in London, Alexis Stenfors, whose trading has come under scrutiny by British regulators, according to people briefed on the investigation. The loss Mr. Stenfors is believed to have incurred so alarmed Bank of America that this week the bank examined the books of other traders who were on vacation.
Bank of America’s embattled chief executive, Kenneth D. Lewis, is trying to bridle Merrill’s traders, whose rush into risky investments nearly brought down the brokerage firm. But questions over the Merrill losses — in particular, who knew about them, and when — keep swirling. Merrill hemorrhaged $13.8 billion during the final three months of 2008 alone.
Bank of America’s shareholders did not learn of that gaping hole until after they approved the merger of the two companies on Dec. 5. Nor was the extent of the loss fully known when Merrill paid out $3.6 billion in bonuses, which were based on estimates of the firm’s performance as of Dec. 8. When the problems became clear, Bank of America was forced to seek a second, multibillion-dollar rescue from Washington. [emphasis mine]
The epicenter of the trouble is Merrill’s markets operation, headed by Thomas K. Montag. Mr. Montag, a former Goldman Sachs trader who was brought in by John A. Thain, Merrill’s fallen chief executive, has become a divisive figure inside Bank of America. He is trying to retain his top producers amid the furor over Merrill’s bonuses. He flew to Charlotte this week to strategize with deputies from around the world.
“There is a massive cultural disconnect in the trading area,” said Brad Hintz, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. “You have Bank of America, where it would seem foreign to ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet, and at Merrill, the legacy is still there, from the C.D.O.’s and the risks they took on.”
For Mr. Stenfors, 38, 2008 looked like a very good year. He recorded a trading profit of about $120 million, and his reward was a handsome bonus …