A New CEO at AIG

Before I start this evening, I just want to say to new readers who are reading me because my piece, Ten Notes on Crude Oil: The Fixation made an unexpected splash, that my blog is a hodgepodge. I write about a wide variety of topics, but mostly it boils down to macroeconomics, stocks, bonds, portfolio management, value investing, insurance, speculation, real estate and mortgages, and structured products and derivatives. When I wrote more actively for RealMoney, I realized that I was probably the columnist with the widest field, including Cramer. I like to think that I am a good generalist, but I try not to push my expertise beyond its limits. Writing about energy fits into many of my posts, but it is not what I write about most of the time.

On to AIG. I write about AIG this evening, because businessweek.com cites my blog post as the source of “buzz” for breaking up AIG. (I like what I do in blogging, but my voice isn’t that big.)

Well, the dissident shareholders won. Martin Sullivan is out, Robert Willumstad is in. Whether having been part of Citigroup when it grew into a behemoth is an advantage here is questionable. He is clearly a bright guy, but so is Martin Sullivan. One thing is certain, and I wrote about it when Greenberg was shown the door in 2005, no one can replace Greenberg. He built AIG, and he is a bright guy who had his fingers on the pulse of a very complex operation. No one else can match his institutional knowledge, or the culture of fear that he ran.

This brings me to my controversial point for the evening: what if AIG did so well for so long by shading/shaving their reserves? A new CEO coming in to clean up would find a continual stream of assets marked too high, and liabilities markets too low. Martin Sullivan found that out the hard way. What then for Robert Willumstad?

If there are large holes on the balance sheet, the old mantra about eating elephants applies. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Much as the credit rating has fallen, AIG would not want to see it fall further. If I were in Mr Willumstad’s shoes, I would do a thorough scrubbing of every asset and liability on the balance sheet, and then do the following exercise:

  • If the restatement is small, take it all at once, declare victory, and make a splash to the media.
  • If the restatement is moderate, such that it would wipe out a year of earnings or so, take some writeoffs quarter by quarter, until the hole is filled.
  • If the restatement is large, such that it would wipe out 3-5 years of earnings, or wipe out a large amount of book value, I would create a plan for a turnaround, and then sit down with the rating agencies and the regulators. That would minimize the ultimate damage. The stock price would get killed when the problems are revealed, though.

I have a few other thoughts if the loss is larger still, but I will leave those to the side, because they would be too sensational. Now as to breaking up AIG, this WSJ article suggests that some units could be sold. That’s a good idea; as companies get huge, diseconomies of scale set in. It becomes more and more difficult to manage behemoth firms.

Perhaps AIG can get back to areas where they had a true sustainable competitive advantage: serving foreign markets where there is little/less competition. Maybe ILFC [International Lease Finance Corp]. Beyond that, what is truly distinctive about AIG? In my opinion, not that much.