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Treasury to Sell Majority Stake in AIG

Four years after taking over the troubled insurance giant AIG, the US will sell its majority stake in the company in an $18 billion deal that appears to be more symbolic than anything.

The sale will mark a step that seemed hard to imagine four years ago, when the New York insurer was effectively nationalized as part of a controversial financial-industry bailout. The U.S. will move closer to recognizing a profit on its largest rescue, which included as much as $182 billion of committed aid, and AIG will revert to being mostly nongovernment-owned, fulfilling a priority of Chief Executive Robert Benmosche.

U.S. officials four years ago said the rescue of a teetering AIG was necessary because the company was so entangled with other financial firms around the world via complex instruments that its collapse could have unpredictable effects including possibly bringing down many other firms.

But the fury spawned by the rapid series of bailouts, typified in some ways by that of AIG, would eventually run wide. The government’s extraordinary intervention in the economy helped seed the tea-party movement on the right. On the left, it helped spawn the Occupy Wall Street movement, which among other things contended the government propped up bankers but did less for struggling homeowners.

The Treasury Department held as much as 92% of AIG as recently as early 2011. Currently the government holds 53% of AIG stock. Depending on the pricing, this stock sale could leave the Treasury with as little as 20%.

AIG is in line to repurchase as much as $5 billion of the shares. The stock is up 47% for the year, as a series of government interventions have nursed it back to health. A cynic would look at the entities involved in administering the stock sale – Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase – and remark on how all of THOSE financial institutions benefited from a de facto government rescue, as well as counter-party funds from AIG on credit default swaps, at par. This really allowed AIG to go forward as a company more than anything, as the continual need to pay off the counter-parties would have sunk them. By propping up the banks and paying off AIG’s liabilities, it made this less a “success story” than the natural result of throwing gobs of money down the gullet of a failing company.

Treasury and its supporters will say that the US “made money” on the AIG bailout. This is no more than an accounting trick. The entities buying up the stock purchased it with money handed out by government entities. Even the Wall Street Journal couldn’t bring itself to say more than “the government by one measure (emphasis mine) can consider itself to have recouped the funds it extended on the bailout.”

Basically, we’re seeing an alleged return to normalcy in the financial markets, without meaningful reform of the system outside of a few checks from Dodd-Frank which banks are attempting to slowly dismantle in the regulatory process. The country remains vulnerable to crisis from the big banks, which have only gotten bigger, and remain too big to fail.

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David Dayen

David Dayen