By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008
American International Group plans to pay out $503 million in deferred compensation to some of its top employees, saying it must tap the funds to keep valuable workers from exiting the troubled insurance giant.
News of the payments to top AIG talent comes as the federal government has just put more money into saving the company from bankruptcy, beefing up the total public commitment to $152 billion. Meanwhile, members of Congress are questioning the company's expenditures -- including lavish business trips to resorts -- during a time when taxpayers are on the hook for the bailout.
AIG's troubles stem from bad bets it made guaranteeing and buying risky mortgage investments. On Monday, the U.S. government announced that it would have to expand its rescue of the company to nearly double the $85 billion loan it first provided in September when AIG was unable to pay billions of dollars in claims.
Treasury officials said earlier this week that they had imposed some of the most stringent limits ever on AIG executives' bonuses and compensation in exchange for the broader bailout.
AIG's plans to crack open its deferred compensation bank for payments early next year is conveyed in a two-sentence paragraph buried inside a quarterly financial report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday. But some compensation experts and AIG stakeholders yesterday said they considered the exodus of $503 million in AIG money dubious at a time when the company is drenched in red ink. The company reported losses this week that brought total losses to $37.63 billion for the first nine months of the year.
AIG spokesman Nicholas Ashooh said yesterday that the company is desperately trying to keep top talent from leaving, and that giving them deferred compensation works as a carrot to keep them on board. He said more than 6,000 employees are covered by AIG deferred compensation plans, but declined to name any employees or the number of top executives who will receive the early payouts.
Companies over the past 20 years have increasingly use deferred compensation as a way to attract and retain highly paid executives. Under these plans, top talent can postpone taking some of their large annual salaries for years -- often until a set date -- and can put off being taxed on it. Some wait to take the funds until they retire, when they would presumably be in a lower tax bracket.
Most deferred compensation plans are arranged to encourage employees to stay at a company by holding money back, not paying it out early. Ashooh acknowledged that the company takes a significant risk that employees will leave immediately after they receive their deferred earnings in the first quarter of 2009. But he stressed that the funds are not from the government.
"This is not taxpayers' money they are going to run away with," Ashooh said. "We are trying to take the incentive away for people to leave now, until we have time to get the company running right again."
The issue of taking deferred compensation ahead of schedule arose during the Enron scandal, when top company executives who had reason to know the company was financially ailing quietly demanded that their staff pay them their deferred earnings ahead of schedule.
"If this involves putting the same responsible parties first in line [for AIG money], that is clearly not appropriate," said Lee Wolosky, an attorney for Starr International, the largest shareholder of AIG stock. "Half a billion dollars could clearly be better spent paying back the American taxpayer, rather than rewarding the same executives responsible for AIG's current condition."
Congress has also been complaining about how AIG's top executives are running the company and spending AIG money while taxpayers are bearing the brunt of keeping it afloat. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been investigating how AIG has spent taxpayer money and demanded documents specifically on its bonus and compensation plans.