A watchdog panel says it's still unclear whether U.S. taxpayers will ever fully recoup the $182 billion they plowed into American International Group Inc., and the government should have used up all its options before bailing out the crippled insurance titan.
The government could have acted sooner and more aggressively to engineer a privately funded rescue of AIG in September 2008, the Congressional Oversight Panel says in a new report released Thursday.
The bailout had a "poisonous" effect, the report says, because now the markets believe the government will commit taxpayer money to prevent the collapse of big financial institutions and to repay their trading partners.
AIG executives and the Treasury Department have given "optimistic" assessments of the company's value, the report says, noting that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that taxpayers will lose $36 billion. A large part of the money needed to repay the government will come from the sale of assets.
"The uncertainty lies in whether AIG's remaining business units will generate sufficient new business to create the necessary shareholder value to repay taxpayers in full," the report says.
The oversight panel was created by Congress to oversee the Treasury Department's $700 billion financial bailout program that came in at the height of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008. AIG was the largest of the government rescues.
"We want a profit" on taxpayers' behalf, panel chair Elizabeth Warren said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "We are holding Treasury's feet to the fire."
Responding to the report's criticisms, Treasury spokesman Andrew Williams said, "In retrospect, it is easy to speculate about how things might have been done differently had there been more time."
The alternative options for saving AIG suggested by the report "overlook the basic fact that the global economy was on the brink of collapse and there were only hours in which to make critical decisions," Williams said. "At that perilous moment, we took the actions that were most likely to protect American families and businesses from a catastrophic failure of another financial firm and an accelerating panic."
As for Treasury and the Federal Reserve securing a privately funded rescue, Williams said AIG and the New York Fed had reached out to the private sector but couldn't find any companies willing to lend it the tens of billions needed to avoid bankruptcy.
The Federal Reserve also said it disagreed with the view that there were better alternatives at the time.
"It is clear that the nation urgently needs a regulatory framework and resolution regime that would give policy-makers much better tools for dealing with such situations in the future," the Fed said in a statement.
After the subprime mortgage bubble burst in 2007, the instruments called credit default swaps - that insured against default of the securities tied to the mortgages - collapsed. That brought the downfall of Wall Street banking house Lehman Brothers and pushed AIG to the brink. New York-based AIG got the initial $85 billion infusion from the government on Sept. 16, 2008.
The aid to AIG ultimately mounted to $182 billion. Much of the rescue money went to meet the company's obligations to its Wall Street trading partners on credit default swaps.
The bailout "distorted the marketplace by transforming highly risky ... bets into fully guaranteed payment obligations," the report says.
Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the AIG rescue money also received federal bailout infusions themselves: Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which got $12.9 billion in AIG money; Bank of America Corp., $5.2 billion; Merrill Lynch, $6.8 billion; and Citigroup Inc., $2.3 billion. Other big beneficiaries included French banks Societe Generale, $11.9 billion, and BNP Paribas, $4.9 billion; Germany's Deutsche Bank, $11.8 billion; and Britain's Barclays, $7.9 billion, and HSBC, $3.5 billion.
"U.S. taxpayers were called on to bear the full cost of the rescue, including repayment of some of the most sophisticated companies in the world," Warren said.
If the New York Fed had tried to force concessions from AIG's trading partners, that could have brought a further downgrade of the insurer's credit ratings - a negative development the government was aiming to avoid, Treasury's Williams said in his response. A downgrade of AIG's ratings could have stoked its collapse and endangered the government's efforts to restore confidence in the financial system, costing taxpayers much more in the long run, he said.
At the time of the bailout, the New York Fed was led by Timothy Geithner, now the Treasury secretary.
After the recent collapse of an AIG deal to sell off a subsidiary, Geithner said the company has other options for repaying the bailout money. British company Prudential PLC backed out of a deal to buy AIG's American International Assurance, after Prudential shareholders balked at the $35.5 billion price. AIG refused to accept less.
Private analysts questioned whether AIG did the right thing. But Geithner praised the company's decision, saying AIG "is now free to pursue a bunch of other options to help maximize the return, reduce any risk of loss to the taxpayer."
Geithner didn't address how much taxpayers may ultimately recoup.