AIG has finally come clean with the public about who was at the other end of its calamitous financial bets. The recipients of billions of taxpayer dollars were … well … pretty much the banks that we expected: Societe General, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank, to name a few. The full list is here .
Unfortunately, the company is not yet in the clear. AIG remains on the hook for up to $11 billion as a result of financial misadventures by its financial products operation in London, according to AIG’s recent annual financial filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
If AIG’s credit rating is downgraded one notch, counterparties will be able to claim about $8 billion, says the filing. If the agencies bring the rating down three notches, the liabilities will jump to $11 billion.
Trouble is, the ratings outlooks for AIG are all negative. If it weren’t for the continued government guarantees, the main rating agencies say they would have downgraded the firm already, unleashing the next round of payments to the counterparties.
In other words, the fact that the U.S. taxpayer is standing behind these exposures is the only thing stopping the additional collateral payments from coming due.
The liabilities come from contracts that resemble insurance policies. AIG guaranteed that banks and other financial institutions would get certain returns on investments in residential mortgage-backed securities. As the value of those instruments sinks, the counterparties are entitled to payments.
AIG also agreed to post more collateral if its rating is downgraded, which is what sparked the government’s original bailout last September.
The company’s problems extend beyond AIG’s financial products arm to its insurance subsidiaries, which are bleeding customers and losing crucial staff. AM Best and Standard & Poor’s, two main insurance rating agencies, have said they are concerned about both those factors and will take them into account in future rating decisions, although, as long as the taxpayer is backstopping all AIG’s liabilities, there is little likelihood they will downgrade the parent company’s credit-rating.
This all means that the taxpayer is, for the time being, married to AIG.
And the extent of the commitment is unknown. In the Senate’s AIG hearing earlier this month, Senator Jim Bunning, R-K.Y., asked reps from the Federal Reserve, the New York Insurance Department and the Office of Thrift Supervision, “Where is the bottom line as far as the American taxpayer is concerned?”
None of them could give Bunning an answer.
Sharona Coutts recently graduated with honors from Columbia Journalism School’s investigative seminar. A law graduate, she clerked for a Justice of the High Court of Australia, before jumping feet first into investigative reporting. She has worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, freelanced for the BBC, written for numerous magazines, and her work has appeared in the New York Times.