THE U.S. GOVERNMENT still owns 92 percent of AIG, the troubled insurance giant whose dangerous derivatives business blew up in 2008, necessitating a federal bailout. The government also retains about one-quarter of the common stock of General Motors, which it took as part of the $50 billion bankruptcy-cum-bailout that salvaged that automaker in 2009.

Alas, both firms’ share prices have been tumbling lately, which means that taxpayers stand to recover billions of dollars less than they would make otherwise. Does that mean that the Obama administration should shelve its plans to divest these stakes possibly as early as May?

Probably not. No one can be happy that a 25 percent drop in AIG’s stock price since the start of 2011 has reduced the Treasury Department’s paper profit on the bailout from $24 billion to about $6 billion. Nor is it cause for celebration that reborn GM’s stock has fallen from about $33 at the time of its initial public offering in November to about $30 today — which translates into an $11 billion net loss for the government on the GM bailout if Uncle Sam were to sell out today.

But federal profit maximization was not the main purpose of the AIG or GM rescues — nor of the broader bank rescue under the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). Rather, the Bush and Obama administrations undertook the bailouts to avoid what could have been catastrophic damage to the wider economy if the companies had suddenly gone under amid the general financial panic of late 2008 and early 2009. And while Treasury actually expects a $20 billion profit on the TARP bank bailout, there has never been much prospect of a similar outcome for GM. Indeed, the government won’t make money on GM unless and until its stock hits $54 a share, which could take years. Even though GM has returned to profitability, its current woes include high gas prices, stagnant U.S. market share and costly pension obligations.

All the more reason for the Treasury Department to exit as rapidly as possible — short of actually dumping stock at a discount. The mere fact of government ownership is a drag on GM’s profit potential. Consumers bridle at doing business with “Government Motors,” as do potential new management hires. GM can’t address either problem until the government gets out. Yes, the sale of the government’s last shares in the auto behemoth will crystallize its losses — while no one can ever quantify the averted disaster with the same precision.

We have had our problems with the terms President Obama’s team negotiated in bailing out GM (and smaller Chrysler). It could have driven a harder bargain. But voters will have to ultimately decide whether they got their money’s worth. That’s why selling GM, now or later, creates political risk for the Obama administration — and why Treasury might as well get on with it.