Break Up AIG!

Recently at RM, I wrote:

David Merkel
Buy Other Insurers off of the Bad AIG News
2/12/2008 2:54 AM EST

Sometimes I think there are too many investors trading baskets of stocks, and too few doing real investing work. I have rarely been bullish on AIG… I think the last time I owned it was slightly before they added it to the DJIA, and I sold it on the day it was added. Why bearish on AIG? Isn’t it cheap? It might be; who can tell? There’s a lot buried on AIG’s balance sheet. Who can truly tell whether AIG Financial Products has its values set right? International Lease Finance? American General Finance? The long-tail casualty reserves? The value of its mortgage insurer? I’m not saying anything is wrong here, but it is a complex company, and complexity always deserves a discount.

You can read my articles from 2-3 years ago where I went through this exercise when the accounting went bad the last time, and Greenberg was shown the door. (And, judging from the scuttlebutt I hear, it has been a good thing for him. But not for AIG.)

AIG deserves to be broken up into simpler component parts that can be more easily understood and valued. Perhaps Greenberg could manage the behemoth (though I have my doubts), no one man can. There are too many disparate moving parts.

So, what would I do off of the news? Buy other insurers that have gotten hit due to senseless collateral damage (no pun intended). As I recently wrote at my blog:

If Prudential drops much further, I am buying some. With an estimated 2009 PE below 8, it would be hard to go wrong on such a high quality company. I am also hoping that Assurant drops below $53, where I will buy more. The industry fundamentals are generally favorable. Honestly, I could get juiced about Stancorp below $50, Principal, Protective, Lincoln National, Delphi Financial, Metlife… There are quality companies going on sale, and my only limit is how much I am willing to overweight the industry. Going into the energy wave in 2002, I was quadruple-weight energy. Insurance stocks are 16% of my portfolio now, which is quadruple-weight or so. This is a defensive group, with reasonable upside. I’ll keep you apprised as I make moves here.

What can I say? I like the industry’s fundamentals. These companies do not have the balance sheet issues that AIG does. I will be a buyer of some of these names on weakness.

Position: long LNC HIG AIZ

Look, back when AIG had a AAA rating, there was a reason to hold the whole thing together, because of cheap financing.  Today, AIG suffers from a conglomerate discount, because no one can understand the balance sheet.  (Can anyone inside AIG understand all the exposures that they face?)

Simpler is better.  Simple companies get better valuations, and the managers are sharper at financial controls, because they don’t have to cover as much ground.  They can focus.  So it should be for AIG, if they want to unlock value.  (Perhaps AIG is the Citigroup of the insurance industry…)

Full disclosure:  long LNC HIG AIZ