AIG might sue the US government for bailing it out. Here’s why that’s even more ridiculous than it sounds

January 8, 2013
January 8, 2013

The board of insurance company American International Group (AIG) may join a $25-billion lawsuit against the government for ripping off shareholders, the New York Times reports. This after it only just paid back the $182.3 billion that the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) offered as a stabilizing fund in 2008, netting the government a $22.7 billion profit.

Make that $182 billion with interest. As AIG reminded everyone in its “Thank You, America” ad during a football game on New Year’s Day, the total price tag was $205 billion, “paid to America from AIG.”

And that’s the big sticking point for shareholders bringing the lawsuit, as it happens. They are basically charging the US government with usury in that the suit maintains TARP’s 14% interest rate was “punitive,” according to the Times report. One of its ways of making this argument is the Fifth Amendment—the suit holds that the US government violated the Constitutional ban on the seizure of private property for “public use, without just compensation.”

Setting aside for the moment that, without TARP, there’s wouldn’t be any AIG shares to hold right now, that $205-billion total doesn’t take into account tax breaks offered in the bailout deal, which let AIG count net operating losses against future taxes. This tax break contributed to an estimated $17.7 billion in profits, according to a statement from the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP released last March. “When the government bailed out AIG, it should not have allowed the failed insurance giant to duck taxes for years to come. That kind of bonus wasn’t necessary to protect the economy. It also gives AIG a leg up against its competitors at a time when everyone should have to play by the same rules – especially when it comes to paying taxes,” said former Chair Elizabeth Warren in the statement. If you factor that in, it leaves about $5 billion in profit for the US government on its AIG bailout—hardly an outrageous amount of interest on a $182.3-billion investment.

To be fair to AIG’s board, it must carefully consider shareholder interests, which may mean particpating in a shareholder-instigated lawsuit. AIG former CEO Maurice R. Greenberg brought the suit in 2011 on behalf of AIG shareholders, of which he is a major one. The New York Times indicates that Greenberg could challenge any board choice to stay on the sidelines, and points out that, if it did abstain, a legal victory could prompt lawsuits against the company from other shareholders.

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