5 questions: Why AIG matters to you

Customers are wondering if the insurer's woes will affect them. Here's why you should care - even if you aren't a customer.

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By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

aig_chart.jpg

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- American International Group is the nation's largest insurer and at the moment, Wall Street's biggest worry.

On Tuesday night, the federal government announced an $85 billion rescue of the company.

Despite the company's importance, the average American is probably not sure how, or why, its problems will affect them.

Here are five key questions and answers about AIG's current woes and what they mean to you.

I have insurance through AIG. How worried should I be about the problems at the company?

At least in the short term, you probably don't need to be worried at all. The problems are with the AIG holding company, not the individual insurance company subsidiaries that you do business with, according to a source with New York State's insurance regulator.

Even if AIG's holding company is forced to file for bankruptcy court protection, there's a good chance that the subsidiaries will continue to operate normally with no disruption in claims payments. That has happened in the case of other insurance holding companies' bankruptcies in the past, such as Conseco (CNO).

What guarantees that my claims will be paid?

Typically, if an insurance company falls into financial distress and is at risk of having claims that exceed the assets it holds to make those payments, the insurance regulator in its home state will take control of the firm and make payments.

The state regulator will not only use the firm's own assets to make those payments but, if necessary, can also make payments out of a state fund into which all insurers in the state are required to pay.

This guarantee applies not just to traditional insurance policies but also to retirement products that have a promised payout, such as annuities.

But there are limits to the payments that will be made to customers that vary depending on which state a particular AIG subsidiary is based, according to Joseph Belth, professor emeritus of insurance at Indiana University and editor of The Insurance Forum, a newsletter often critical of the industry.

Should I be thinking about changing my policy away from AIG to another insurer?

While credit rating agencies downgraded debt held by AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) on Monday, AIG's ratings are still considered investment grade and the company's insurance subsidiaries are considered to be secure, at least for now.

Belth said changing insurers is not a simple decision.

"A lot depends on what kind of insurance you talk about," he said. "If you're talking about life insurance, you have to think about whether you can qualify with a new insurer, if your health has changed. But it's something you have to consider if the ratings decline into the vulnerable range."

Why should I care about problems at AIG if I'm not a customer?

AIG is by far the world's largest insurer and its stock is found in many mutual funds, including any S&P 500 index fund. It is also a component of the Dow Jones industrial average. All by itself, it's been responsible for dragging the Dow down more than 400 points so far this year.

AIG is also active in the business of credit default swaps, complicated financial instruments used by investors to protect themselves from bond defaults. Lehman Brothers (LEH, Fortune 500) was another major player in that field. If both go away, it would create a tighter credit market for consumers and businesses trying to get loans.

AIG is an insurer, not a lender. Why do I keep hearing about its problems with subprime mortgages?

All insurers take money they collect in premiums and invest them in different forms of assets. The idea is to make money on those investments so that the insurer can keep their premiums low and attract more clients.

But AIG made a bigger investment into securities that were backed by subprime mortgages than most other insurers. As defaults and foreclosures of those loans rose, the value of those securities fell, creating big problems for the firm.

In the past nine months, AIG has reported net losses of more than $18 billion, largely due to its exposure to bad mortgages. To top of page

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