NEW YORK (
American International Group
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shares were rising fast and furious Thursday on little more than swagger.
The distressed insurer's stock surged more than 30% at times, recently trading 18.8%, higher at $31.64. The climb was attributed to newly-installed CEO
Robert Benmosche, who said he intends to sell noncore assets at premium prices, however long it takes, and no matter what the government says.
I have the luxury to say to the government, 'I'm not going to rush to do this,'" Benmosche told employees on Aug. 4, according to
. "I'm appalled at how much pressure has been put on all of you to just sell it no matter what, because the Fed wants out, or the Treasury wants out. If they want out in a hurry, they shouldn't have come in in the first place."
Those and other boastful comments made by Benmosche display leadership qualities that a private AIG would need to survive. But it might be worth noting that the government holds an 80% stake in AIG, and can still call the shots. And that AIG's stock, which underwent a 20-for-1 reverse split at the start of July, is still down more than 90% over the past year.
While Benmosche's expressed confidence in repaying the government was viewed in a positive light, his plan is not new. Driving a hard bargain on pricing is good in one respect, but may also take longer if a premium is placed on price rather than expediency.
AIG has borrowed about $134 billion from the
and Treasury Department, with another $51 billion worth of credit it can tap if it needed, according to
. The firm posted its first profit since the end of 2007 last quarter, but as Benmosche acknowledged, "we owe the U.S. government a lot of money and we are not going to be able to pay it back just by our profits."
Thus, AIG is forging ahead with plans to whittle down its diverse global web of businesses to become a plain-vanilla property and casualty insurer. Since its initial bailout nearly a year ago, the firm has announced dozens of deals, but several crown jewels remain on the chopping block, such as an aircraft-leasing business, and various businesses within its financial products and life insurance arms.
Recently departed CEO Edward Liddy has received criticism for not jumping to sell assets right away, before banks tightened lending further, thereby restricting bidders' ability to spend. Benmosche indicated that patience is his virtue, telling employees, "I don't liquidate things; I build them," and that he won't sell assets until fair value is gained.
Benmosche, who is set to earn a $7 million salary this year, not including other incentives, also struck the lightning-rod issue of employee compensation with a bolt of his own. He told employees he is planning to make sure all are paid "competitively" and that those who perform well ought to get "a big increase" in pay.
"It's time the people in Congress stopped talking about you as the problem, because you're the solution," said Benmosche, whose predecessor was railed by lawmakers for multimillion-dollar compensation packages that set off a public fury. "It's not your fault, it's their fault, it's the regulators' fault."
He went on to tell employees not to be concerned about what the Treasury, Fed or lawyers would think about their business decisions.
Benmosche's bluster may boost downtrodden morale within a firm that has been publicly raked through the coals. But perhaps they should have been saved for the negotiating table with bidders and regulators.
has garnered a reputation for being cozy with regulators and government officials, many of whom jump ship from 85 Broad to agencies in Washington. The firm also has a reputation for being savvy in the markets, profiting from both ends of the housing bubble and recovering quickly from the market meltdown.
Goldman has already repurchased the government's preferred stock and extinguished related warrants, at the price the Treasury Department requested. For a little over $1.1 billion, Goldman made it through the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and didn't start any tiffs with regulators. It was also made whole on its counterparty derivative contracts with AIG.
Financial companies that have made waves with the government, however, have not been so lucky. Take
, which has a contentious relationship with regulators, evidenced by Chairman Richard Kovacevich calling the government stress tests "asinine," for example.
Despite Wells proving its stated earnings and revenue power several times over, and handily raising the $13.7 billion required by the stress test, it is still stuck under a $25 billion Treasury investment with repayment nowhere in sight.
Bank of America
, whose CEO Ken Lewis tussled with regulators over the
acquisition, is now not only stuck with Merrill, but an additional $20 billion in taxpayer support, and a revamped board and management at regulators' behest.
Benmosche, who also ran
for eight years, certainly represents a sign of change for AIG. He recently removed the for-sale sign from an AIG investment-advisory business that was on the auction block, and is taking a few weeks to review the rest of the firm's assets.
But making haughty comments hostile to the government at a sensitive time could come at quite a cost.
Had Benmosche said nothing and succeeded in his efforts to turn AIG around, it would have been an upside surprise when assets sold for big prices, as the company hurtled toward independence. But now, if he fails due to pushback from AIG's owners -- taxpayers and their representatives -- the downside could be steep.
-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York