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The shame of AIG

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POSTED: April 1, 2009 12:52 p.m.
Now, that’s cost efficiency. It took a mere $165 million to discredit the entire $11.6 trillion edifice of bailouts, capital infusions and guarantees that have accompanied the financial meltdown.
The bonuses AIG wants to pay its employees are a pittance compared with the $170 billion it has received in government bailouts, a trifling .097 percent. But nothing so angers the gods of populism as the word “bonus” (surely some genius is formulating a suitable euphemism even as we speak). President Barack Obama wants to try to block the bonuses, and other administration officials talk of making AIG pay back the government for the amount of the bonuses. Fine, but where do we go to get the other $169.835 billion back?
AIG has been the bailout from hell, dysfunctional and opaque. The government has had to restructure its rescue over and over, throwing billions more into its maw. Only now have we learned the identity of the true recipients of the bailout, the so-called counterparties to AIG’s credit default swaps, financial firms strewn around Wall Street and the globe, from Goldman Sachs to Deutsche Bank and France’s Societe Generale.
AIG first got bailed in the days after Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy put the financial system on the brink and policymakers didn’t have the nerve to let another financial giant go down. It was the right call at the time, but the lesson of the AIG fiasco is obvious: Government needs to disentangle itself from the financial sector as rapidly as it responsibly can.
There is nothing about bonuses that’s inherently blameworthy. Wall Street has a compensation system that tends to pay lower salaries and higher bonuses — so what? But that doesn’t account for political sensitivities, inflamed by the association of bonuses with Wall Street excess.
AIG’s top seven executives are forgoing bonuses this year, a nice gesture but an insufficient one when $165 million is going to employees in the financial-products unit whose recklessness brought AIG, otherwise a profitable insurance company, to its knees. The political provocation would only be worse if AIG decided to spend $165 million to take executives of its German and French counterparties on a lavish golf junket in a fleet of Gulfstream jets.
AIG is caught in a public-private nether world. The government owns nearly 80 percent of it, and government officials handpicked the current CEO, Edward Liddy. The government nonetheless dares not directly run the company, since dealing with complex financial instruments is beyond government’s core competence (and apparently beyond even the core competence of many Wall Street firms). Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is hard-pressed just to run his Cabinet department.
Republicans and Democrats are now stumbling over one another to give AIG a good populist beat-down, and no one should pity AIG. But what everyone in Washington wants to ignore is that the banking system, festooned with $1 trillion or $2 trillion worth of bad assets, may still need more government attention rather than less. Obama has been taking a pass on cleaning up banks in favor of passing Great Society II because the issue of the banks is too politically difficult.
Guess what? It just got harder.

Lowry is editor of the National Review.
 

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