Ex-CEO Greenberg Sees Value in AIG Asian Operations

By | November 13, 2008

Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former CEO of American International Group Inc., said he would consider buying AIG’s Asian life insurance operations if the firm were to put this flagship business on the market.

AIG, once the world’s biggest insurer by market value, is readying to sell off parts of its business after it was hit by massive mortgage losses.

The company wants to partner with an outside investor, allowing it to keep a stake in the Asian life business, known as American International Assurance Co Ltd (AIA).

Greenberg, 83, speaking at the Reuters Global Finance Summit in New York on Wednesday, said he would only bid if the whole of AIA was for sale. He said he won’t go into partnership with AIG, especially in its current predicament, and doubts other investors would either.

A government bailout in September saved AIG from bankruptcy after massive losses on complex derivatives known as credit default swaps left it in a severe cash crunch. It is selling off assets to repay a $60 billion federal loan.

Greenberg, who ran AIG for 38 years, said he could buy other AIG assets.

He declined to name specific units he might buy, but said he will not buy AIG’s aircraft leasing arm, International Lease Finance Corp, because it is too expensive. Nor will he buy a consumer finance business, citing depressed market conditions.

Some analysts expect ILFC to fetch as much as $10 billion.

Large purchases would have to be made with other investors, Greenberg added. He did not name any potential investors.

The former CEO now heads C.V. Starr and Starr International Co, two investment companies with business interests around the world. Both firms lost money when AIG’s shares lost most of their value.

“We don’t have the same amount of net worth that we had before AIG collapsed,” said Greenberg.

AIG lost nearly $24.5 billion in the latest quarter, and the company’s stock market value has crumpled to about $6 billion from around $155 billion in January.

The U.S. government took an 80 percent stake in AIG as part of a total $150 billion rescue plan.

Previously, Greenberg held about 11 percent of AIG’s outstanding stock through a personal stake and shares owned by the companies he controls. He said C.V. Starr and Starr International together lost about $12 billion when AIG shares sank.

SHANGHAI’S BUND

Greenberg’s interest in the Asian life operations is easily understood within the context of AIG’s long history in the region.

AIG was founded in 1919 in China, and was the first foreign insurer given the green light to reestablish itself there when the government began to reopen the borders to outside business.

The brand — best known as AIA there — has long been revered in China, but the company’s financial troubles have tarnished its reputation.

Chinese state investment funds would need concrete evidence that AIG’s string of losses were not going to continue before it would consider an investment, Greenberg said.

“Confidence is key to an insurance company,” he said.

Greenberg said he could picture himself back in AIA’s headquarters on Shanghai’s Bund, a historic area of stately buildings that runs along the city’s Huangpu River.

“I have a sentimental attachment to that building,” he said. That was where founder Cornelius Vander Starr first hung out his signpost in Shanghai. AIG was able to re-lease the property on its return to China in the 1990s.

Greenberg succeeded Starr in 1967, and ran the company until 2005 when he stepped down amid an accounting scandal.

Greenberg’s own interest aside, he said AIG should think twice about selling off these operations because of the region’s dramatic growth rate.

“To sell off (business in) the fastest-growing and most profitable part of the world, I would question the logic of that,” he said.

Greenberg generally questions why AIG would sell assets ahead of working to stabilize it financially.

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