The Real AIG Outrage
Wall Street Journal Opinion
March 17, 2009
President Obama joined yesterday in the clamor of outrage at AIG for paying some $165 million in contractually obligated employee bonuses. He and the rest of the political class thus neatly deflected attention from the larger outrage, which is the five-month Beltway cover-up over who benefited most from the AIG bailout.
Taxpayers have already put up $173 billion, or more than a thousand times the amount of those bonuses, to fund the government's AIG "rescue." This federal takeover, never approved by AIG shareholders, uses the firm as a conduit to bail out other institutions. After months of government stonewalling, on Sunday night AIG officially acknowledged where most of the taxpayer funds have been going.
Since September 16, AIG has sent $120 billion in cash, collateral and other payouts to banks, municipal governments and other derivative counterparties around the world. This includes at least $20 billion to European banks. The list also includes American charity cases like Goldman Sachs, which received at least $13 billion. This comes after months of claims by Goldman that all of its AIG bets were adequately hedged and that it needed no "bailout." Why take $13 billion then? This needless cover-up is one reason Americans are getting angrier as they wonder if Washington is lying to them about these bailouts.
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Given that the government has never defined "systemic risk," we're also starting to wonder exactly which system American taxpayers are paying to protect. It's not capitalism, in which risk-takers suffer the consequences of bad decisions. And in some cases it's not even American. The U.S. government is now in the business of distributing foreign aid to offshore financiers, laundered through a once-great American company.
The politicians also prefer to talk about AIG's latest bonus payments because they deflect attention from Washington's failure to supervise AIG. The Beltway crowd has been selling the story that AIG failed because it operated in a shadowy unregulated world and cleverly exploited gaps among Washington overseers. Said President Obama yesterday, "This is a corporation that finds itself in financial distress due to recklessness and greed." That's true, but Washington doesn't want you to know that various arms of government approved, enabled and encouraged AIG's disastrous bet on the U.S. housing market.
Scott Polakoff, acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, told the Senate Banking Committee this month that, contrary to media myth, AIG's infamous Financial Products unit did not slip through the regulatory cracks. Mr. Polakoff said that the whole of AIG, including this unit, was regulated by his agency and by a "college" of global bureaucrats.
But what about that supposedly rogue AIG operation in London? Wasn't that outside the reach of federal regulators? Mr. Polakoff called it "a false statement" to say that his agency couldn't regulate the London office.
And his agency wasn't the only federal regulator. AIG's Financial Products unit has been overseen for years by an SEC-approved monitor. And AIG didn't just make disastrous bets on housing using those infamous credit default swaps. AIG made the same stupid bets on housing using money in its securities lending program, which was heavily regulated at the state level. State, foreign and various U.S. federal regulators were all looking over AIG's shoulder and approving the bad housing bets. Americans always pay their mortgages, right? Mr. Polakoff said his agency "should have taken an entirely different approach" in regulating the contracts written by AIG's Financial Products unit.
That's for sure, especially after March of 2005. The housing trouble began -- as most of AIG's troubles did -- when the company's board buckled under pressure from then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer when it fired longtime CEO Hank Greenberg. Almost immediately, Fitch took away the company's triple-A credit rating, which allowed it to borrow at cheaper rates. AIG subsequently announced an earnings restatement. The restatement addressed alleged accounting sins that Mr. Spitzer trumpeted initially but later dropped from his civil complaint.
Other elements of the restatement were later reversed by AIG itself. But the damage had been done. The restatement triggered more credit ratings downgrades. Mr. Greenberg's successors seemed to understand that the game had changed, warning in a 2005 SEC filing that a lower credit rating meant the firm would likely have to post more collateral to trading counterparties. But rather than managing risks even more carefully, they went in the opposite direction. Tragically, they did what Mr. Greenberg's AIG never did -- bet big on housing.
Current AIG CEO Ed Liddy was picked by the government in 2008 and didn't create the mess, and he shouldn't be blamed for honoring the firm's lawful bonus contracts. However, it is on Mr. Liddy's watch that AIG has lately been conducting a campaign to stoke fears of "systemic risk." To mute Congressional objections to taxpayer cash infusions, AIG's lobbying materials suggest that taxpayers need to continue subsidizing the insurance giant to avoid economic ruin.
Among the more dubious claims is that AIG policyholders won't be able to purchase the coverage they need. The sweeteners AIG has been offering to retain customers tell a different story. Moreover, getting back to those infamous bonuses, AIG can argue that it needs to pay top dollar to survive in an ultra-competitive business, or it can argue that it offers services not otherwise available in the market, but not both.
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The Washington crowd wants to focus on bonuses because it aims public anger on private actors, not the political class. But our politicians and regulators should direct some of their anger back on themselves -- for kicking off AIG's demise by ousting Mr. Greenberg, for failing to supervise its bets, and then for blowing a mountain of taxpayer cash on their AIG nationalization.
Whether or not these funds ever come back to the Treasury, regulators should now focus on getting AIG back into private hands as soon as possible. And if Treasury and the Fed want to continue bailing out foreign banks, let them make that case, honestly and directly, to American taxpayers.
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