AIG considers suing government for bailing it out, world implodes in on itself

January 8, 2013

Fresh from launching a branding campaign to try to rechristen itself as a paragon of patriotism, the giant insurer American International Group is reportedly weighing a step that would remind America just why everyone got so darn mad in the first place.

The board of AIG, according to the New York Times, is weighing whether to join a $25 billion lawsuit against the U.S. government for forcing unacceptably high losses on shareholders in its bailout. The argument is that this violated the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on the government seizing private property without just compensation.

To anyone who closely followed the events of September 2008, when AIG was bailed out, this theory seems patently ridiculous. Here’s a refresher on what happened. The company’s financial products division had been, in effect, selling guarantees against losses on highly rated securities tied to mortgages. When those securities plummeted in value, the losses in that division were so great that it brought one of the world’s biggest financial firms to the brink of bankruptcy. When AIG executives turned to the government for help on Sept. 16, 2008, the day after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, they had no other options; no private entity would lend them money.

It is true that AIG executives wanted a sweeter deal than they got. They envisioned getting access to emergency Fed lending at some reasonably low interest rate, a privilege granted to banks (and also one of the reasons banks are intensively regulated). New York Fed president Tim Geithner and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had other ideas. If the government was going to bail the company out, they were going to insist on more punitive terms. The initial bailout was a loan of up $85 billion at an interest rate of Libor (the short-term bank lending rate) plus 8.5 percentage points. And in exchange for getting the lending facility at all, the New York Fed took on 79.9 percent of the company’s stock. The bailout would eventually expand to $182 billion and a 92 percent government stake in AIG.

The message the government was sending with the onerous terms was clear: If you run a company into the ground, and have to come to Uncle Sam for help, we will help you only reluctantly and at a high cost. If you don’t like it, well, you can join Lehman Brothers in bankruptcy court.

According to the Times report, the AIG board will hear presentations Wednesday from Starr International, the company leading the lawsuit led by former AIG chief executive Hank Greenberg, arguing that AIG should join the suit, then from lawyers for the Treasury and New York Fed. Presumably the government lawyers will offer more precise, legalistic answers to Greenberg’s claims than the head-smacking sense of disbelief that has accompanied public disclosure of the news.

It would be a particularly interesting time to be a fly on the wall in the office of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. The AIG bailout was one of the few things that seemed to rile the preternaturally calm academic. “Of all the events and all of the things we've done in the last 18 months,” he told “60 Minutes” in March 2009, “the single one that makes me the angriest, that gives me the most angst, is the intervention with AIG. Here was a company that made all kinds of unconscionable bets. Then, when those bets went wrong,  we had a situation where the failure of that company would have brought down the financial system. . . . . It makes me angry. I slammed the phone more than a few times on discussing AIG. It's-- it's just absolutely-- I understand why the American people are angry. It's absolutely unfair that taxpayer dollars are going to prop up a company that made these terrible bets--that was operating out of the sight of regulators, but which we have no choice but to stabilize, or else risk enormous impact, not just in the financial system, but on the whole U.S. economy.”

If AIG goes forward with joining the suit against the government, it’s easy to imagine that Bernanke’s blood pressure will rise all the more. His won't be the only one.

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Ezra Klein | January 8, 2013