AIG: Now that you own it, learn about it!

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First of all—what is AIG?

AIG is American International Group, the largest insurance company in the world. It's not just an insurance company, however; its business is divided into four divisions: general insurance, life insurance and retirement services, financial services, and asset management. It was started in 1919 in Shanghai.

How did it (almost) collapse?

Like many other banks, AIG lost a lot on its mortgages, including $18.5 billion in the past three quarters—all part of the subprime collapse. Its share price has dropped 79% this year. But bad became worse this Monday when AIG received a downgrading of its credit rating. What's a credit rating? All securities are given a rating that tells you how much risk is associated with your investment into that security. Depending on the rating, the company must have a certain percentage of money on hand. The ratings, given by agencies like S&P and Moody's, are a lot like school grades "“ A's are good (need less money on hand), B's are okay/bad (need more money on hand), and C's are junk (need even more money on hand). So S&P & Moody's downgraded AIG, which meant it needed to post $14.5 billion in collateral to support its trading contracts. AIG couldn't sell its assets off quickly enough to get that money. Seeing its impending doom, AIG tried to rally the rest of the banks (JPMorgan & Goldman) to lend them the money.

That didn't work, so the Fed had to step in order to keep it from total collapse. The Fed has promised to lend up to $85 billion to AIG.

But I thought the Fed wasn't going to bail anyone out anymore.

Well, yes, that's what they said. And they definitely stuck to their word when they let Lehman slide to its demise this weekend. However, AIG is more than just an investment firm. It's such a huge insurer (the largest in the world in terms of assets), and was such a huge player in the Credit Default Swaps (CDS) market, selling off risk to other financial players around the globe. If it collapsed, it would have shaken the global financial world.

What are Credit Default Swaps?

Okay, say I invest $10M into a bond for General Motors, but I'm now afraid that GM may see financial trouble. Instead of just selling my bond off, I can enter into a sort of insurance policy with a big bank, say AIG. I pay AIG a small premium every quarter. If GM remains fine, then AIG does nothing. If GM does see financial trouble and I lose money on my bond, AIG will pay me what I lost on my bond. Likely, this will be a lot of money, relative to the small premiums I pay. Once this happens, the contract of the "swap" terminates. This is all fine and great, except for the fact that the CDS market isn't regulated—thus I could enter into a contract with a bank that doesn't have the resources to cover the loss of my GM bond. The CDS market totals $62 trillion, in which AIG plays a central role. Since just about every bank, insurer, and institutional money manager has some sort of exposure to CDS, they all have some sort of exposure to AIG. Hence, the necessary bailout.

How does the bailout work?

Well the Fed doesn't just hand over the money when they do these bailouts. It has promised a two-year loan for up to $85B. In return, it gets a 79.9% equity stake in the company in the form of warrants (a warrant is basically a call option issued by the corporation—allowing the Fed the option of buying common stock in AIG at a specific price) called equity participant notes. Interest on their loan is at Libor (the London Interbank Offered Rate—it's basically the London equivalent of the US Federal funds interest rate, and is often used as a benchmark for short-term lending) + 8.5 percentage points. That's about 12% (now), which is very high interest.

So AIG has to make good on the loan in the two-years either through general operations (not likely) or through sale of its various assets or branches of business. AIG has about $1.1 trillion worth of assets, and the Fed plans to sell them off in an orderly manner.

Why so much money?

Though AIG only needed $14.5 billion after the credit downgrade this week, the $85B loan was designed so AIG would be left with little debt and it could take on whatever the next few quarters has in store.

Does this matter to me?

Yes—now you own part of AIG! Well, kind of. That $85 billion is comprised of your tax dollars. Yep, your tax money is now going to protect bad investments. Investments that packaged up your debt into various securities, and sold it off to another party, who sold it off to another party, who sold it off all over the world.

However, since the Fed is LENDING the $85B to the corporation (unlike the Fannie & Freddie deal) the government could make some serious money off the high interest rate. That is if, by some sort of divine intervention, the market, and thus AIG, rebounds. The Fed is making it clear that the taxpayer will only see positive effects of the bailout.

But will the taxpayer be affected?

Who knows. It may be true "“ the Fed and the Treasury may make some money off AIG due to the high interest rate, but will I ever see that money? . It's certainly a good way to assuage the public's fears.

Will the bailout work?

It should. See, certain branches of AIG are doing just fine. Its aircraft leasing business, for example, is the second largest in the world and is estimated to bring in between $7 and $10 billion.

And who's to blame?

That's for next time.

Be sure to read more of what Diana learned today here.

September 19, 2008 - 8:01am
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