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Greenberg’s book: The staff saved AIG

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If you’re among the US taxpayers who watched in horror as $182 billion of your money made its way to the collapsing insurance giant American International Group during the financial crisis, it might come as a surprise to learn that your forced munificence didn’t make much of a difference.

In his new book, “The AIG Story”, former chief executive Maurice “Hank” Greenberg offers his take on what kept the company alive: “It was saved only by the loyalty and tenacity of its valiant workforce,” he says.

That is just one of many parallel-universe moments in this part-vanity, part-vendetta work, which Greenberg co-authored with law professor Lawrence A Cunningham. It’s written in the third person but “is very much Greenberg’s story and a personal one at that,” we are told in the preface.

In an earlier affront to taxpayers, Greenberg sued the US government in November 2011, seeking $25 billion based on allegations that the government, among other things, illegally seized stock from AIG in 2008 — stock he had a big interest in as CEO of Starr International Co, AIG’s biggest shareholder.

Greenberg pushed to get AIG to join the suit, but on January 9, AIG’s board said it was taking a pass.

Greenberg was forced out of AIG in March 2005 amid regulatory probes that targeted him and the company. The version of the story he tells in his book is pretty much what he’s been saying since the meltdown: He was a brilliant businessman, an alert risk-taker and a victim of over-zealous regulators and ungrateful former colleagues. All the bad things that happened at AIG began after he was shown the door.

It’s a shame we couldn’t have learned more from this very smart business leader who, through acquisitions and an ability to spot opportunities where his competition didn’t, built AIG into the biggest insurance company in the world.

Surely, after a high-flying career befriending heads of state and moving AIG from an insurance runt to a world-wide behemoth, a man of 87 would have constructive insights about the near-collapse of the global economy. And, with a little luck, maybe even a bit of introspection about lessons he’s learned?

Instead, we get 328 pages of finger-pointing and self-congratulation.

Former New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is “a preening scion of outsized ambition” who triggered AIG’s near-destruction, the authors say. The Enron scandal was an unfortunate turn of events that caused law-enforcement authorities to become “emboldened” in their pursuit of public companies. The movement to improve corporate governance saddled AIG with board members who had the audacity to “challenge insiders” and “upset the unity” of the board.

Greenberg, in the meantime, is “innovative,” “independent” and “pioneering”. He is also very important. “My schedule is packed,” he tells us in a Chairman’s Note at the start of the book.

Greenberg wound up in nasty back-and-forth litigation with AIG after he was ousted, and much of the book seeks to show that AIG’s new management both wronged him and took on risks that he never would have taken.

It was AIG’s Financial Products (FP) subsidiary that concocted the derivatives that were nearly the firm’s undoing. The authors assert that once Greenberg was gone, the FP group took on ever-greater risks with inadequate supervision.

It is not clear, though, that AIG’s derivatives operation was ever a sound idea. When a Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc executive pitched Greenberg on the idea of setting up a derivatives business in 1986, the book says Greenberg brought in AIG director Dean Phypers, “who had additional expertise in financial instruments” to hear what the Drexel guy had to say.

Phypers’s feedback: It was an “exotic” business, and part of the presentation was “complex and confusing”. They launched the operation anyway, with Phypers saying the unit would work “if kept on a tight leash”.

Until then, Greenberg’s AIG had stuck to businesses whose risks it understood intimately. He can parse the company’s every misstep since that 2005 ouster all he wants. But Greenberg can’t escape the fact that he’s the guy who gave the OK to set up the operation that, without a taxpayer bailout, could have brought the financial system down.

“The AIG Story” is published by Wiley in the US (328 pages, $29.95).

Susan Antilla writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.

Inside story: Maurice Greenberg’s version of events at AIG, written with the help of Lawrence Cunningham
Maurice “Hank” Greenberg

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Published January 29, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated January 28, 2013 at 7:12 pm)

Greenberg’s book: The staff saved AIG

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