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New Year’s Day football watchers got a heavy dose of rah, rah from AIG, the big insurance company that was bailed out by federal taxpayers.
An ad called "Thank You, America" featured scenes from Hurricane Sandy, tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., and the World Trade Center — disasters the company insured — with the message: We paid you back.
AIG has repaid "everything, plus a profit of more than $22 billion," an employee in the ad says.
Text on the screen soon flashes: "$205 billion, paid to America from AIG."
You’ll see the ad over the next two weeks as you watch sports, news and the Golden Globes. We thought you might wonder: Is that true? Did the company pay back its loans plus a profit?
Final stock sale
Back in 2008, AIG was in deep trouble. AIG Financial Products had invested heavily in complicated financial instruments called credit default swaps. As financial journalist Michael Lewis put it in his book The Big Short, AIG became, essentially, the world’s biggest owner of subprime mortgage bonds.
When those bonds turned out to be dangerously hollow, the financial world unraveled. Bear Stearns failed, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac collapsed and Lehman Bros. went bankrupt. After markets reacted badly to the Lehman bankruptcy, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department decided to rescue AIG.
Offering $182 billion to stabilize the company, the federal government became its largest stockholder. Two years ago, the Treasury held 92 percent of AIG’s common stock — more than a billion and a half shares.
The company made significant changes, including slashing bad investments made by AIG Financial Products, the division that oversaw the controversial credit default swaps.
The federal government gradually sold its stake. Last month, the Treasury sold the last shares for an overall "positive return" of $22.7 billion. Andrew Ross Sorkin, a New York Times columnist and author of Too Big to Fail, called AIG the "turnaround of the year."
Still, the New York Times editorial board and critics of the bailout point out that amount doesn’t take into account tax breaks the company got as part of the deal. Former members of an oversight panel said in March that a special tax exemption offered by the Treasury in 2008 amounted to a "stealth bailout."
It allowed AIG to count net operating losses against future tax bills, which "some estimate has contributed to $17.7 billion in profits for the company," according to the group of former oversight panelists, including chair Elizabeth Warren, now a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.
So, have the government’s loans been repaid, with a "positive return" of $22 billion for taxpayers? Yes. Was the entire U.S. bailout of AIG, including special tax provisions, that profitable? No.
AIG says it honored its commitment to repay the government, plus a profit of more than $22 billion.
It's true that the government has recouped the $182 billion it loaned AIG, plus $22.7 billion. Still, critics have a point that a special tax provision granted to aid the struggling company substantially offsets that "profit." We rate the company’s claim Mostly True.
AIG, "Thank You America" commercial, Dec. 20, 2012, via YouTube
Treasury.gov, "Investment in American International Group (AIG)," Dec. 18, 2012
Treasury, "Treasury Sells Final Shares of AIG Common Stock, Positive Return on Overall AIG Commitment Reaches $22.7 Billion," Dec. 11, 2012
New York Times, "Editorial: Could A.I.G. Happen Again?" Dec. 23, 2012
Reuters, "AIG ‘profits’ an insult to the concept: James Saft," Dec. 12, 2012
New York Times DealBook, "Hold Your Applause, Please, Until After the Toasts," Dec. 31, 2012
New York Times Dealbook, "Bailout Watchdogs Criticize A.I.G. Tax Breaks," March 12, 2012
Washington Post, "AIG to America: Thanks, guys!" Dec. 31, 20122
Wall Street Journal, "How the Treasury Gets to $22.7 Billion in AIG Profits," Dec. 11, 20122
Michael Lewis, "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," 2010
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