Who's Watching AIG?

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing Wednesday – “AIG: Where is the Taxpayer Money Going?” Questions are being raised about whether the bailout better serves the interests of AIG’s customers and trading partners or the interests of U.S. taxpayers.

The highlight of the Committee’s questioning of Chairman and CEO Edward Liddy came when Chairman Town (D-NY) asked the blunt question: "Why would you give retention bonuses to AIG employees who failed? Plus, the economy is so messed up, where would they go?" On the minds of many committee members were the facts that AIG got $70 billion in TARP money, $50 billion through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Maiden Lane LLC and another $60 billion directly from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (the FRB-NY’s AIG Credit Facility). When compared to the fact that AIG is currently worth just $5 billion, the repeated question became: “How will taxpayers be repaid?” Mr. Liddy pointed to the value of some subsidiaries and other assets that can be sold off, but he had to admit that the timing and possibility of AIG repaying taxpayers really “depends on the economy and the capital markets.”

The Trustees of the AIG Credit Facility Trust testified in the second panel. The Trustees were named by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, under then-President Timothy Geithner, in September 2008. The panel included one non-Trustee – Professor J.W. Verret of George Mason University School of Law. Professor Verret expressed concern over the form of the AIG trust agreement: “I am concerned by the AIG trust because of the precedent it sets. Secretary Geithner has announced his intention to create another trust to manage the Treasury's investment in Citigroup as well as other TARP participants. If the AIG trust, crafted during the Secretary’s tenure as President of the New York Fed, is used as a model for these new entities, the risk to taxpayers will be multiplied many times over. “ Professor Verret raised three specific problems with the agreement: 1) the agreement specifically expects the Trustees to act in the best interest of the U.S. Treasury, not the U.S. taxpayers; 2) the Trustees cannot be held liable for their actions; and 3) the Trustees can invest on information they gain in the course of their duties.

At the end of the hearing, the final question went to Representative Norton (D-D.C.). Too many of the AIG Trustees also serve or have served as directors and officers to other TARP recipients. Ms. Norton noted that all of the witnesses are connected to Wall Street and all know each other. Evidently, one of the Trustees, Jill Considine, is involved with a Bermuda company that provides services to hedge funds. Ms. Considine was uncomfortable naming the hedge funds that benefit from her advice because the Bermuda company is private – it is also foreign. Considine took Norton aside when hearing ended, engaging her in an animated conversation – off the record, of course.

It seems evident that some of the Trustees didn’t recognize the risks AIG was taking when they were in a position to have close contact with not only AIG but their counterparties – those final recipients of the bailout money. If the Trustees missed the AIG risk then, when they were regulators in the self-regulatory industry and serving on Boards at the Federal Reserve Banks, then what can we expect from them now?