AIG: Earnings Preview

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Investors can expect another pile of muddled results from American International Group ( AIG) on Friday, when the bailed-out insurance giant releases its fourth-quarter numbers.

AIG is in the midst of a massive restructuring process, which includes unwinding a $1 trillion portfolio of derivatives, selling off major businesses, and extinguishing $70 billion worth of taxpayer debt -- all while trying to keep its core businesses alive and thriving. As a result, quarterly performance can be unpredictable and hard to gauge.

Three analysts still cover AIG's stock, and expect the firm to post a quarterly loss of $3.94 per share, on average.

AIG stunned some investors in the third quarter by swinging to a profit of $92 million, or 68 cents per share, attributable to common stockholders. Still, much of gain resulted from positive valuation adjustments to toxic assets as the credit and equity markets improved markedly. Changes to accounting standards also helped mitigate losses.

The markets continued to gain ground through the fourth quarter, which may help boost AIG's bottom line once again. In fact, the markets have done such a 180-degree turnaround that the head of AIG's financial-products unit recently said the company will retain about $500 million worth of derivatives that were once labeled as toxic.

AIG also moved forward with its daunting restructuring plan during the fourth quarter, agreeing to sell its Nan Shan Life Insurance subsidiary for $2.15 billion, as well as a portion of its investment advisory and asset management business for roughly $500 million. Another deal to sell a major foreign life-insurance division to MetLife ( MET) for $15 billion is reportedly in the works, but may be stymied by a tax issue.

It's unclear how or whether those agreements will impact results. But the firm does face a one-time charge of $5.7 billion for its issuance of preferred stakes in two life-insurance subsidiaries to pay down AIG's federal tab.

Besides special items related to asset sales and spin-offs, compensation will probably dominate headlines related to AIG's report. CEO Robert Benmosche has locked horns with the Obama administration's pay czar Kenneth Feinberg for months over what should be considered fair pay for himself and the rest of the firm's employees. Former General Counsel Anastasia Kelly became the latest casualty of the dispute, recently tendering her resignation over what she considered paltry pay.

AIG responded to the criticism by overhauling its compensation system, moving more toward a model pioneered by General Electric ( GE). The firm now plans to rank employees on a scale of 1 to 4, by comparing their performance with colleagues, and distribute bonus awards accordingly.

For the time being, though, AIG's pay is likely to be held back. Public outrage over large executive compensation packages continues to mount, leading big banks like Goldman Sachs ( GS), Morgan Stanley ( MS), Bank of America ( BAC), Citigroup ( C) and Wells Fargo ( WFC) to overhaul their compensation structures.

Although those banks are free from the pay-czar's influence, taxpayers still effectively own 80% of AIG. Until its loans are repaid, top AIG employees are likely to earn less than they'd like, or feel they deserve.

This week's announcement on Tuesday by International Lease Finance Corp., AIG's aircraft leasing unit, that it plans to seek a senior secured term loan of up to $750 million will also likely be a topic of discussion around the report. AIG had sought to sell the unit over the summer without success. Standard & Poor's then cut its corporate credit rating on ILFC on Monday, so it will be interesting to see if the unit can indeed obtain financing, and analysts will likely want some color on what the parent company's strategy for the business is from here.

In any case, AIG shares haven't been pricing in any type of positivity over the past several months. During the final three months of 2009, the stock declined 32%, and it was off another 6.6% year-to-date, based on Wednesday's close at $27.99. Over the past 52 weeks, AIG stock has run a volatile course, from a low of $6.60 in March 2009 to a high of $55.90 in August. Shares were tacking on 3 cents to $28.02 in recent trades.

-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York.

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