By Brady Dennis and David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 10, 2009
American International Group is preparing to pay millions of dollars more in bonuses to several dozen top corporate executives after an earlier round of payments four months ago set off a national furor.
The troubled insurance giant has been pressing the federal government to bless the payments in hopes of shielding itself from renewed public outrage.
The request puts the administration's new compensation czar on the spot by seeking his opinion about bonuses that were promised long before he took his post.
AIG doesn't actually need the permission of Kenneth R. Feinberg, who President Obama appointed last month to oversee the compensation of top executives at seven firms that have received large federal bailouts. But officials at AIG, whose federal rescue package stands at $180 billion, have been reluctant to move forward without political cover from the government.
"Anytime we write a check to anybody" it is highly scrutinized, said an AIG official, who declined to speak on the record because the negotiations with Feinberg are ongoing. "We would want to feel comfortable that the government is comfortable with what we are doing."
The payments coming due next week include $2.4 million in bonuses for about 40 high-ranking executives at AIG, according to administration documents from earlier this year. Though the actual sum may have changed since then, the payments are much smaller than those that caused the upheaval in March.
Still, officials at AIG and within the government see them as a land mine.
Feinberg, who previously managed the government's efforts to compensate the families of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, has the power to determine salaries, bonuses and retirement packages for all executive officers and the 100 most highly paid employees at firms such as Citigroup, Bank of America, General Motors and AIG.
AIG's upcoming payments do not fall under Feinberg's official purview, as they involve bonuses delayed from 2008. Feinberg is charged with shaping only current and future compensation. As a result, some Treasury Department officials believe they are under no obligation to offer an advisory opinion in this case, which could leave AIG officials to decide the matter on their own, according to a person familiar with the talks.
In November, AIG's top seven executives, including Chairman Edward M. Liddy, agreed to forgo their bonuses through 2009. Then, in March, facing pressure from Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and other government officials, the company restructured its corporate bonus plans for the remaining top 50 executives. As part of this agreement, the senior executives were to receive half their 2008 bonuses -- which totaled $9.6 million -- in the spring, with another quarter disbursed on July 15 and the rest on Sept. 15. The last two payments would depend on whether the company made progress in revamping its business and paying back bailout money to taxpayers.
The exact range of the payments due this month to AIG executives was unclear in company disclosure filings.
AIG's proxy statement filed last month explains why AIG initially instituted the retention payments. The company stated that after the federal bailout began in September, "we needed to confront the fact that many of our employees, perhaps the majority, knew that their long-term future with us was limited, and our competitors knew that our key producers could perhaps be lured away. . . . Allowing departures to erode the strength of our businesses would have damaged our ability to repay taxpayers for their assistance."
The Treasury declined to comment specifically on the bonuses due this month. In a statement, a department spokesman said, "Companies will need to convince Mr. Feinberg that they have struck the right balance to discourage excessive risk taking and reward performance for their top executives. . . . We are not going to provide a running commentary on that process, but it's clear that Mr. Feinberg has broad authority to make sure that compensation at those firms strikes an appropriate balance."
Feinberg did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
The recent discussions between the company and Feinberg illustrate how politically sensitive the bonuses have become, both for AIG and for the Obama administration. No development in the government's bailout of financial firms has angered lawmakers and ordinary Americans more than the disclosure in mid-March that the global insurer was paying more than $165 million in retention bonuses. They were aimed at retaining 400 employees at AIG Financial Products, the troubled unit whose complex derivative contracts nearly wrecked the global insurance giant.
Ultimately, some of these employees vowed to return more than $50 million -- but not before the resulting firestorm threatened to undermine the government's effort to rescue the financial system. Lawmakers, including key allies of the administration, sponsored bills that would have levied harsh taxes on AIG and other bailout recipients offering bonuses to their executives.
Afraid of such congressional action, firms rushed to pay back federal aid, while others shied away from cooperating with the government in some of its bailout programs. Some initiatives had to be scaled down as a result.
The issue of bonuses, which had earlier been viewed by officials as minor relative to the larger problems in the financial system, began to consume the attention of top officials within the Treasury and Federal Reserve. Geithner attended long meetings to review payments, even those for low-ranking AIG executives.
Separately this week, a Citigroup analyst warned that AIG might be worthless to shareholders if or when it ever pays back the billions it owes the U.S. government.
"Our valuation includes a 70 percent chance that the equity at AIG is zero," Joshua Shanker of Citigroup wrote in a note to investors. He cites the continuing risks posed by the company's exotic derivative contracts, called credit-default swaps, and its sale of assets at low prices. AIG's stock plummeted by more than 25 percent yesterday.