By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009
In the six months since the government's bailout of insurance giant American International Group, a rescue that has become increasingly costly and contentious, one question has loomed above all others: Where did the money go?
The answer became a little clearer yesterday when AIG unexpectedly released the names of dozens of trading partners it has paid using billions in taxpayer dollars. The disclosure, which the company said was made after consulting the Federal Reserve, revealed that AIG paid more than $75 billion in the final months of 2008 to numerous domestic and foreign banks, as well as to various U.S. municipalities.
The funds were paid from the government's initial $85 billion emergency loan in September and included major firms such as Goldman Sachs, Societe Generale, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Barclays.
The payments were made between Sept. 16 -- the date that government assistance began -- and Dec. 31.
More than $34 billion of the money went to trading partners of AIG Financial Products, the small subsidiary whose exotic derivatives brought AIG to the edge of collapse. In recent years, the firm had written massive numbers of credit-default swaps, insurance-like contracts that other companies bought as protection against the default of mortgage-backed securities. When the housing boom began to go bust, banks that had purchased the swaps demanded collateral from AIG, burying the company under a tidal wave of debt. Federal officials, wanting to keep the company from failing because they feared it was too intertwined with the global economy, stepped in to help.
In the last months of 2008, AIG Financial Products paid more than $22 billion in taxpayer money to satisfy debts caused by its swap contracts. Another $12 billion went to pay off municipalities in dozens of states for whom the firm had created complex investment agreements.
Nearly $44 billion went to pay debts that AIG incurred under its "securities lending" program, according to the company. In those instances, various companies borrowed securities from AIG in exchange for cash. In turn, AIG invested much of the money in mortgage-backed assets that plummeted in value, leaving the insurer on the hook for billions.
Yesterday's disclosure was an about-face for AIG and the Fed. In recent weeks, public outrage and pressure from lawmakers demanding to know who benefited from the AIG bailout has reached a crescendo. But until yesterday, AIG executives and federal officials had repeatedly refused to release such details, arguing that trading partners had a right to privacy and that any disclosure could harm their businesses.
"These are extraordinary times," AIG spokeswoman Christina Pretto said yesterday in explaining the company's decision. "And we and our partners at the Fed thought this was right thing to do."
Fed spokeswoman Michelle Smith agreed, saying, "We commend the company for finding a balance between its concerns with confidentiality and the concerns of the public interest."
AIG's disclosure came on the same day that President Obama's top economic adviser berated the firm for its plans to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in employee bonuses and retention pay, despite posting a record $62 billion loss in the fourth quarter of 2008.
"There are a lot of terrible things that have happened in the last 18 months, but what's happened at AIG is the most outrageous," Lawrence H. Summers, chairman of the White House National Economic Council, said yesterday during an appearance on ABC's "This Week." "What that company did, the way it was not regulated, the way no one was watching, what's proved necessary, it is outrageous."
Summers was but one in a chorus of administration officials and lawmakers who took to the airwaves yesterday to excoriate AIG, whose rescue package from the federal government stands at an estimated $170 billion.
"This is an example of people at the commanding heights of the economy misbehaving, abusing the system," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
Their anger stemmed in large part from AIG's decision to move forward with retention bonuses for executives at the troubled Financial Products unit. In early 2008, before the government rescue, the firm's employees had been promised more than $400 million in retention pay this year and next. Lawyers for the government and AIG have agreed that most of those payments, however unsavory, are legally binding.
"We are a country of laws. There are contracts," Summers said yesterday. "The government cannot just abrogate contracts. Every legal step possible to limit those bonuses is being taken by Secretary Geithner and by the Federal Reserve system."
In addition, AIG is in the process of paying $121 million in previously scheduled corporate bonuses and hundreds of millions more in retention payments to more than 6,000 employees throughout the company's global insurance units.
The bonuses and other payments have infuriated the public and government officials. After a contentious call on Wednesday between Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and AIG chairman Edward M. Liddy, first reported by The Washington Post, Liddy agreed to alter the terms of some executive bonuses and make future payments contingent on the company's progress with its restructuring and paying back taxpayers.
But in a letter that followed, Liddy said he had "grave concerns" about the impact on the firm's ability to retain talented staff "if employees believe that their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury."
Speaking on CBS's "60 Minutes" last night, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke once again expressed frustration with the bad will that AIG has wrought.
"I understand why the American people are angry," he said. "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."
Staff writer Neil Irwin contributed to this report.