Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The unlikely villain turned hero

Painting with a broad brush is not always the right thing to do. In the United States, virtually anybody who's in the finance sector has been branded a villain. They of the billion dollar bailouts and the million dollar bonuses. Near the top of the pecking order of rogues, in the public mind, is AIG - the insurance company that had to be bailed out at the peak of the crisis. But consider what's happened to AIG in the last one year and you may change your mind.

AIG's stock has risen 97% in 2010 - the fourth best performer in the S&P index. AIG was a solid company brought down by the antics of one department. But that didn't detract from the soundness of the rest of its business. When confronted with the crisis, it had a number of valuable assets it could sell. Top of the pile was AIA, its Asian subsidiary, which was a jewel. It has disposed of other businesses as well. It brought in a new CEO - Bob Benmosche, a rather colourful personality, out of retirement. Lots of things have been done well.

The US government holds 92% of the company now thanks to its 182 billion bailout. But it can now start to look forward to exiting. If it could realise $30 per share it could break even as the Wall Street Journal says here. If it could sell at $45 it would make a profit of $20 bn. The share price now is $ 58. Of course the government couldn't unload the stock at this price - it would simply crash; but it increasingly looks likely that in a carefully managed divestment spread over time, the US taxpayer might actually make a profit. Bailout should not be a bad word anymore, if you make a profit, but alas in the intellectually challenged shrillness of US politics, such niceties are unlikely to be observed.

A rather interesting subplot is that of the CEO Bob Benmoshe. When appointed he called Congress, a bunch of crazies. Fortune voted him the most tone deaf CEO of 2009. He demanded a private jet and took a holiday weeks after being appointed. But then, just look at AIG's performance. As a shareholder, you have to be delighted. Sadly, he has been diagnosed with cancer recently and in undergoing chemotherapy, but hopes to oversee the government exit from AIG and turn a profit for the shareholder. Recently, he wistfully wondered if somebody would call him and congratulate him , but then he realised the Ayn Rand's famous quote of " Find your Thank Yous from within" was perhaps more appropriate.

Appearances and name tags are deceptive. Convenient buckets of heroes and villains are not always true in the real world. Reality is often far more messy and not reduceable into a pithy soundbite on Fox News or the New York Times. At the moment, AIG, and its Chief, deserve a tipping of the hat. Why is it that you aren't likely to find many Americans who would agree with that ?