Ex-AIG CEO Greenberg Sees Hope for Overhaul of Bailout

By | January 14, 2010

Former AIG CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg said the rising tide of questions about the government’s 2008 rescue of the insurer could be the catalyst for a dramatic overhaul of the bailout.

“I believe that for the first time there is attention being paid and a spotlight being put on what went on,” Greenberg, AIG’s largest private investor, said in an interview in his Park Avenue office on Tuesday.

“They (government and the media) suspect and smell that something was not right. It takes time, but bit by bit information comes out, and a picture is emerging that isn’t pretty.”

American International Group Inc. received a $180 billion bailout from the government and funneled billions of dollars of those funds to banks to settle collateral demands from derivatives contracts.

“The back-door bailout gave $62 billion to a number of U.S. and foreign banks,” said Greenberg. “It wasn’t debt on their balance sheets, they didn’t have to borrow it, they didn’t have to pay interest on it. Christmas came early. But AIG was saddled with it. I think that was unfair.”

Banks that received the funds included Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Societe Generale and Deutsche Bank .

As Greenberg spoke, his lawyer Lee Wolosky broke in to say the head of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee had subpoenaed the New York Federal Reserve for information surrounding the AIG payments to the banks.

The subpoena followed the discovery of old emails between AIG and the New York Fed that raise questions about the payments, and a decision by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that details of a redacted AIG filing would be kept confidential until 2018.

WISH LIST

For months, Greenberg, 84, has been vocal in calling for the government to drastically ease the terms of its assistance to AIG to give the company more breathing room to repay its debts. But he really wants much more.

First, he wants the government to slash taxpayers’ 79.9 percent stake in AIG. A reduction to between 15 percent and 20 percent would restore confidence in the company’s future and attract private investors to AIG, he said.

Greenberg hired advisory firm Perella Weinberg to do a valuation study, which lays out the reasons why the government stake could be worth much more if it was cut.

He also said the taxpayer funds AIG funneled to banks should be repaid to the government by the banks, not AIG.

“I believe that $62 billion, and the question of who owes that, is something the Fed and the counterparties should work out among themselves,” he said.

He is adamant that AIG, which sought a government lifeline to keep it from collapsing under mounting collateral demands tied to guarantees on residential mortgage debt, should not be responsible for repaying the billions of dollars it received.

It is a radical idea, and not even the ever-confident Greenberg is sure he will pull it off. But as AIG’s biggest private investor, he stands to gain handsomely if he succeeds.

Greenberg, who was once worth an estimated $1.9 billion, said his plan has merit for broad economic reasons that go far beyond what he has at stake personally.

The executive, who today runs two private insurance and investment firms, said he has not used recent visits to the White House to further his cause. Otherwise, he is mum about who he is talking to on Capitol Hill.

Greenberg built AIG into the world’s largest insurer over nearly four decades, and is also well known in political circles for his decades-long involvement in international affairs.

While his clout may have fallen somewhat since his departure from AIG in 2005, which coincided with a probe of the insurer’s accounting practices, his influence now seems to be on the rise, helped by an agreement to end disputes with his former employer.

After clinching victory against AIG in a high-profile lawsuit last year, Greenberg and the company agreed in November to settle other legal matters, and agreed not to speak ill of each other.

Greenberg is also seeking to have civil charges against him dropped by the New York state attorney general’s office. AIG paid more than $1 billion to settle allegations from the same office in 2006.

Greenberg’s agreement with AIG could handicap the attorney general’s case against him. Presumably, the company would be unable to give testimony in court that cast him or his actions in a negative light.

Because of his pact with AIG, Greenberg in the interview declined to answer questions directly related to the company, including its asset sales and the performance of its operations.

He is however sympathetic to some of the issues that current AIG CEO Robert Benmosche, with whom he is in regular contact, has to grapple with, including Washington-imposed restraints on pay.

“How can you run a company when you have to check compensation with someone who has no responsibility in running the company?” he asked. “You have to have terms conducive to rebuilding the company, rather than terms that make the company so saddled it cannot survive.”

Greenberg, who says he feels much younger than his 84 years thanks to daily workouts and a largely vegetarian diet, ultimately wishes to see AIG’s world-class reputation as an insurer restored. “I would love for that to occur,” he said.

(Reporting by Lilla Zuill; editing by John Wallace.)

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