Every day, insurance companies sell policies to homeowners to cover the cost of damage in the case of fire. Why would those companies agree to pay out in full to a policyholder even if a fire had not occurred?
That is the type of question being asked about the federal government’s bailout of American International Group in which the insurance company funneled $49.5 billion in taxpayer funds to financial institutions, including Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. The payments, which amount to almost 30 percent of the $170 billion in taxpayer commitments provided to A.I.G. since its near collapse last September, were disclosed by the company on Sunday.
The company had resisted identifying the recipients of the taxpayers’ money for months, citing confidentiality agreements.
But instead of quieting the controversy, the disclosure of the amounts paid to A.I.G.’s customers has created still more questions and unease over the insurer’s rescue, arranged by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the United States Treasury.
Critics argue that the government’s decision to pay buyers of A.I.G. credit insurance in full and across the board was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money. In addition, these people say, options not pursued by the government could have allowed taxpayers to benefit from future gains or at least have done a better job of limiting the potential for losses.
The criticism surrounds the action taken by the government on credit insurance that A.I.G. had written and sold to large and sophisticated investors, mostly financial institutions. The banks that did business with A.I.G. bought credit insurance to protect against possible defaults on debt securities they held or had underwritten.
But when A.I.G.’s credit rating was cut last year, the company was required to post collateral on these insurance contracts. The need to quickly deliver cash that it did not have created the downward spiral that brought it to the brink.
What upsets some people is that the government paid the counterparties in full even though the underlying securities had not experienced widespread, or perhaps even any, defaults.
“It is inappropriate to be giving money to A.I.G. for them to give it out to their counterparties equally,” said Robert Arvanitis, chief executive of Risk Finance Advisors in Westport, Conn., and an expert in insurance. “If we decide that another bank will be in trouble because A.I.G. fails, then we should decide explicitly that the bank should be supported. We should not simply give everybody 100 cents on the dollar.”