Time to get tough with AIG

August 28, 2009

It’s time for someone in the Obama administration to read the riot act to Robert Benmosche, American International Group’s new $7 million chief executive.

Since getting the job, Benmosche has spent more time at his lavish Croatian villa on the Adriatic coast than at the troubled insurer’s corporate offices in New York.

And in the short term, Benmosche’s vacation strategy appears to be paying dividends.

This week, AIG’s shares surged 44 percent, to nearly $50, after Benmosche said that he intended to move slower than his predecessor in selling off AIG’s still viable divisions.

Maybe Benmosche should consider relocating AIG’s headquarters to Dubrovnik.

But the big run-up in AIG shares is merely a sideshow for momentum players, speculators and Hank Greenberg, the former AIG chieftain who controls about 11 percent of the company’s outstanding shares.

The reality is that AIG exists today only because of the $180 billion lifeline the insurer has received from the federal government. Even Benmosche acknowledges that, telling The Wall Street Journal: “If the U.S. government doesn’t continue to support AIG, we will fail.”

The trouble is that the government continues to act as if its support of AIG is unconditional, which is why Benmosche can feel free to set his own leisurely timetable for selling AIG’s assets. The former MetLife chief executive knows no one from the government is about to tell him what to do, even though American taxpayers effectively own 80 percent of the company.

But Treasury and the Federal Reserve need to be taking their cue from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp in how to handle AIG.

Behind the scenes, Sheila Bair, the FDIC chairman, has been exerting a lot of pressure on her agency’s biggest ward–Citigroup–to make changes to its management and business strategies.┬áTreasury and the Fed should do much the same with AIG.

There’s no reason for the federal government to be acting as a mere bystander in all this. After all, the government bailed out AIG chiefly to prevent a run on U.S. and European banks that had purchased hundreds of billions of dollars in guarantees on risky securities. In those scary days immediately following Lehman Brothers’ collapse, AIG was too big to fail.

But nearly a year later, that is no longer the case. If AIG were to fail now it would be painful but more manageable because of the steps the Fed has taken either to guarantee or remove the most troubling assets from its balance sheet.

Yet the government’s kowtowing to AIG leaves some scratching their heads.

“The controlling party here should be the government,” says Brad Golding, a hedge fund manager with Christofferson, Robb & Co, who frequently shorts financial stocks, including shares of AIG in the past. “When he was made CEO, (government officials) should have called him and said: ‘You are occupying this role at our whim.'”

There’s talk about the Obama administration using the one-year anniversary of the demise of Lehman Brothers to give new life to its flagging financial regulatory reform package.

That’s a fine idea and one that’s no doubt necessary in light of the way many on Wall Street are returning to business as usual.

But here’s something else Team Obama should do: Use the anniversary of the AIG bailout to set a hard-and-fast deadline for dismantling the insurer and getting the taxpayers’ money back.


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