AIG: The bailout that won't quit

The world's largest insurer is expected to announce yet another bailout iteration Monday. But some say its options are limited.

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By David Goldman and Tami Luhby, CNNMoney.com staff writers

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Troubled insurer American International Group is looking for more help from the federal government as it struggles to sell off assets and keep its core businesses afloat.

The company, which is blowing through the $152.2 billion bailout it already received from the government, is keeping mum about possible revisions to the rescue package. But it's likely the feds will take a bigger stake and wield more control over the world's largest insurer, according to published reports.

"We continue to work with the U.S. government to evaluate potential new alternatives for addressing AIG's financial challenges," a spokeswoman said. "We will provide a complete update when we report financial results in the near future."

AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) is expected to report a hefty quarterly at 6 a.m. Monday, which reportedly could be as much as $60 billion. A big loss could trigger downgrades from rating agencies, which would force the company to post more collateral. At the same time, the insurer is suffering as rivals pursue clients and talented employees.

Also, with the global economy in recession, AIG has been largely unable to sell off enough assets to unwind the trillion dollar company in an orderly way -- the crux of the original bailout five months ago.

"What's clear is that AIG and the government know that the current plan is not viable," said Donald Light, senior analyst with Celent. "It's a good thing that there's joint recognition that they need a new plan."

AIG is seeking more help just as the federal government is upping its commitment to faltering Citigroup, which will leave it with a 36% stake in the bank. The deal will convert preferred shares that Treasury Department already holds in Citigroup for common shares, a shift that is designed to improve the embattled bank's capital base, which in turn will hopefully allow it to increase its lending.

It's possible the feds will do the same with AIG. Or the insurer may turn over some of its divisions to the government as payment on the loans, according to report. The Obama administration may also opt to pump more cash into the insurer.

Another AIG bailout -- the fourth since the government first stepped in to help the company in September -- would begin another chapter in what has developed into a long, difficult story.

Why AIG got bailed out in the first place

AIG's troubles stem from its financial products unit, which sold credit default swaps - essentially insurance contracts - on collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. The value of the CDOs plummeted in 2008, and AIG was forced to post more collateral to back up the swaps.

The company also took sizeable writedowns on its subprime mortgage-backed securities holdings, which fell in value as the housing crisis wore on.

AIG suffered a loss of more than $18 billion in the nine months prior to its Sept. 16 bailout, and shares of the company tanked, limiting its ability to raise cash. Credit raters then downgraded AIG, requiring it to post more collateral.

Government officials decided they had to act lest the insurance titan file bankruptcy. At the time, AIG had $1.1 trillion in assets and 74 million clients in 130 countries, so the company's collapse would likely roil the global markets.

As a result, the Federal Reserve extended a two-year $85 billion bridge loan to AIG that would help the company stay afloat as it worked to unload its troubled assets. In return, the government took a 79.9% stake and charged a hefty interest rate.

Two more bailout tries

AIG quickly encountered problems with its bailout.

On Oct. 8, just three weeks after its initial loan, the New York Fed extended an additional $37.8 billion life line in the form of a new lending facility from which AIG could borrow to fund its businesses.

But it still wasn't enough. AIG had to borrow more and more from the government just to post collateral on its credit default swap agreements, and the fee for the loans became too punitive.

On Nov. 10, the government completely overhauled AIG's bailout. It reduced the bridge loan to $60 billion and cut the interest rate. The main Fed extended the borrowing period to five years, and the New York Fed created two new lending facilities.

One lending program would try to contain damage from the company's residential mortgage-backed securities; the other would try to purchase investors' CDOs for 50 cents on the dollar and free AIG from its insurance agreements on the CDOs.

The Treasury also made a $40 billion capital investment under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. AIG pays a 10% dividend on the government's preferred shares.

Still, the current weak global economy has proven to be a difficult environment in which to sell assets.

So far, AIG has sold off just a handful of companies, the biggest of which was a stake in a Brazilian bank Unibanco for $820 million to Uniao de Bancos Brasileiros. It also sold its Hartford Steam Boiler unit to Munich Re for $742 million. In all, AIG has been able to sell only $2.3 billion of its assets.

What now?

Experts say the company and the government must do something to solve the problem, but options are limited.

"It's in everyone's interest to keep the insurance units viable and operating, and it's in the financial market's interest to keep the non-insurance derivatives and guarantees above water," said Light. "I'd keep the insurance companies viable and in private hands and let the government handle the toxic stuff, which is not insurance-related."

One option is to have the government take over some of AIG's units by converting its preferred shares into common stock, expert say. That will save AIG from having to pay the large dividend to the Treasury. But some say the best option is just to sell those assets off -- no matter the price.

"Ultimately the government would want to sell the companies it takes over, so why not just sell them now?" said Gary Ransom, an analyst at Fox-Pitt Kelton. "There is a price, right now, today. It may be a disappointing price, but they need to sell."

Still, if the company reports a $60 billion quarterly loss, it may have to seek to restructure in bankruptcy court.

"If this $60 billion loss is correct, it's hard to see how AIG has a future where it stands alone," Ransom said. "You wonder if there's enough for everyone they owe money to. Chapter 11 may be the answer." To top of page

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