Most people know the sorry saga of AIG. The rogue financial giant took enormous risks. It failed to properly manage those risks. When the financial crisis hit in 2008 and AIG teetered, the government quickly stepped in because AIG was deemed too big to fail. The repercussions — AIG was on the verge of paralyzing global credit markets — would have shocked the world economy. So U.S. taxpayers shouldered the burden of a bailout.
AIG requested government help. The terms it received were tough — the government took roughly 80 percent of the company’s equity and charged a 14.5 percent interest rate on the money it initially loaned.
Too tough? Yes, according to former AIG Chief Executive Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who is the driving force behind the lawsuit that seeks to second-guess the terms of the bailout.
Greenberg testified before Congress in 2009 that the government should have bailed out AIG, but on more advantageous terms for shareholders like him. In the world according to Greenberg, the ideal option would have been to let AIG’s financial units go bankrupt, but only after the U.S. Federal Reserve had guaranteed them.
AIG’s financial products were failing because of the company’s mismanagement — which Greenberg does not dispute. AIG had lost the AAA credit rating it needed to support its huge portfolio of credit-default swaps and other complex derivatives. The exposure was so huge that losses on those products could have swiftly mounted into hundreds of billions of dollars.
Instead of the government taking over the company, Greenberg testified, the central bank could have restored its lost liquidity by the simple act of pledging the full faith and credit of the United States: “If the Fed said, ‘We’re going to stand behind AIG financial products,’ it would have essentially put a AAA-stamp on.”
Say for the sake of argument that he’s right. If the Fed had guaranteed AIG, saying it would have made good on every possible loss, then the rest of the bailout might have been unnecessary. Shareholders like Greenberg might have come away with more value than they did.
That issue is at the heart of the lawsuit. The federal loans to AIG have been repaid with interest. The government made a $22 billion profit from its rescue. Greenberg wants that money and then some: The lawsuit seeks $25 billion. Who would be on the hook? Taxpayers.
What’s the saying, marry in haste, repent at leisure? The AIG bailout was concocted in a rush because of the swiftly approaching economic calamity. The AIG board agreed to the terms.
Greed and arrogance played a starring role in the financial crisis. It’s fortunate that the current board of AIG has decided not to join this lawsuit because it reminds all the world that greed and arrogance are alive and well.