Friday, January 7, 2011

Bet Again on AIG? Count Me In.

I lost $2.5 million on AIG stock in 2008. But I still want to be among the first to purchase new shares of the company in the next couple of weeks. That’s when the U.S. Treasury is aiming to sell at least $15 billion of its AIG holdings in the beginning of a series of stock offerings.

Am I crazy? I don’t think so. I believe in AIG because I spent years working with the legendary former CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg. I know the strength of the company including its longstanding ties to international markets. Despite all that AIG has gone through, I still think the company has a solid foundation.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s recent congressional testimony indicates he also sees value in AIG. “The restructuring,” Geithner told the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP, “will accelerate the government’s exit on terms that are likely to lead to an overall profit on the government’s support for AIG, including the value of Treasury’s interests in AIG held outside of TARP.”

That’s right, Geithner said the U.S. taxpayer will likely make a profit from the AIG bailout.

On the other hand, the Congressional Budget Office still estimates that the AIG bailout under TARP will cost the Treasury about $14 billion. Still, this is down about 50 percent from its earlier estimates.

It is a far cry from the headlines of the past years. AIG is “Wall Street's biggest basket case,” was typical. The federal bailout eventually reached $185 billion. But that’s still peanuts compared to the damage that AIG’s failure could have been caused on both Wall Street and Main Street. It had excelled at insuring corporate risks, conducting complex financial transactions, and investing in stocks, bonds and industries around the world while at the same time providing consumers with life and car insurance as well as investment products.

Yet most financial experts disagreed with the bailout. For example, The Wall Street Journal, fueling the tea partiers and conspiracy-thinkers, wrote in March 2009: “AIG now stands as a monument to the folly of regulatory panic.”

But the Journal recently offered an update, reporting that AIG was “one of the market’s top performers in 2010.” It had a “nearly 97 percent gain” last year.”

Before I get too carried away gloating about this turnaround, let me unequivocally state that no one wants or should ever expect a federal government bailout. Greenberg even said that his baby should go bankrupt because that could have offered a clearer path to recovery.

But the bailout was the right thing to do at the time—and I said so then.

I even insisted that the controversial bonuses were worth it. They helped retain the expertise needed to unwind the complex financial products that got AIG into such dire trouble. While other financial experts could have been found, by the time they familiarized themselves with the specific deals, billions more could have been lost. These bonuses were also contractual obligations, and lawsuits could have resulted if they were not paid.

Right now, I have faith in AIG. I know its history of creating unique insurance products for people and institutions that no one else wanted to insure. It started with the founder Cornelius Vander Starr, when he established an insurance agency in China. Starr was the first and only Westerner to sell insurance to the Chinese. AIG had this market to itself until the Communists took power in 1949.

Greenberg re-opened China for AIG in the ‘70s. In addition, he pushed the company to specialize in products like offering kidnapping insurance in unstable countries.

Today, AIG has a good strategy. It has restructured, with two core businesses—Chartis, its property and casualty arm, and SunAmerica, the domestic life company also supplying retirement products. Chartis remains the largest property/casualty insurer in the world.

The markets recognize this turnaround. In November, AIG held its first bond offering since the crisis and raised $2 billion. More recently, a consortium of banks granted AIG a $3 billion credit line, replacing the government credit line.

So when the AIG shares go on the block, I will be there. Even with the pain of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars still fresh in my mind.

As originally appeared on