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AIG Competition Can't Take Advantage

Still, a leading industry group charges that those seemingly limitless government backstops have allowed AIG to cut better deals for customers. Competitors, whose difficulties do not pose enough systemic risk to warrant extensive aid, say they are hard-pressed to challenge AIG's pricing prowess.

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Leigh Ann Pusey, president and CEO of the American Insurance Association expressed concern that "private market distortion" has accelerated along with government bailout initiatives. The feds extended another $30 billion credit facility to AIG on Monday, and eased up on terms of an existing $150 billion in aid to keep the firm afloat. Members of AIA, who underwrite $123 billion in property-casualty insurance premiums each year, have been complaining of pricing distortions in recent months.

"[I]t appears that such significant government financial support of AIG has facilitated market behavior that is detrimental to other property-casualty insurers and to the taxpayers," Pusey said in her letter. She later adds that the government "has an obligation to those companies and to their customers to provide assurances that AIG does not use federal dollars to weaken market competition or for other improper purposes."

Robert Hartwig, an economist and president of the Insurance Information Insitute notes that commercial insurance is a fiercely competitive market in which pricing had been trending downward since about 2004. Due to added risk from economic pressure and a limited capital base, those prices actually started to firm up toward the end of 2008. The trend makes accusations that AIG is purposefully softening prices questionable, but not unreasonable, given the financial chaos of 2008 and AIG's current position.

"Since AIG's problems emerged six months ago, there's no doubt that AIG has lost business and lost personnel to competitors," says Hartwig. "There are accusations that AIG has been competing very aggressively, perhaps more so than you would see in a competitive market, to hold onto business ... But even before the crisis began there were always accusations of Company A undercutting Company B, who was undercutting company C. And that's because it's a very competitive market."

While AIG's crisis may have seemed like a big opportunity for competitors, so far the only winners may be patrons who have scored attractive deals.
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