A bunch of people wanted to punish the government for bailing out AIG -- here's why they all just got hosed

Maurice hank greenberg AIGHank Greenberg, former CEO of AIG

Sorry, Hank.

We finally have an answer in the case of whether the government was too mean to AIG when it bailed out the insurance giant in the fall of 2008.

Thomas Wheeler, a judge in the United States Court of Federal Claims, said Monday that the terms of the government’s bail out were, in fact, illegally harsh.

However, he awarded no damages to Starr International, the corporation chaired by Hank Greenberg, which was in 2008 one of AIG’s the largest shareholders. Greenberg, remember, was CEO of AIG for several decades leading up to and including 2008.

(Yes, this was basically a case of the former CEO of a company that got a massive bailout from the government coming to the courts and arguing that the government was too mean to him.)

The weird thing is, despite the trial being called a comedy by people who were around in 2008, Greenberg sort of won. The court found that the government violated Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act. Greenberg doesn’t get any money, though.

The court says that the government acted “improperly” by imposing such harsh terms on AIG when it bailed out the company, then imposing less harsh terms on other companies it bailed out later in the crisis.

Unfortunately, the court can’t really stop the government from doing that. Had there been no AIG bailout, there would be no company left, and the shareholders would have gotten $US0 back in 2008. They currently have more than $US0, because of the bailout. Thus, the shareholders get no damages.

This is the key paragraph from the decision:

As the Court noted during closing arguments, a troubling feature of this outcome is that the Government is able to avoid any damages notwithstanding its plain violations of the Federal Reserve Act. Closing Arg., Tr. 69-70. Any time the Government saves a private enterprise from bankruptcy through an emergency loan, as here, it can essentially impose whatever terms it wishes without fear of reprisal. Simply put, the Government often may ignore the conditions and restrictions of Section 13(3) knowing that it will never be ordered to pay damages. With some reluctance, the Court must leave that question for another day. The end point for this case is that, however harshly or improperly the Government acted in nationalizing AIG, it saved AIG from bankruptcy. Therefore, application of the economic loss doctrine results in damages to the shareholders of zero.

The lesson here, as my dad might say, is that beggars can’t be choosers. If you accept a bailout from the government, you’ve got to live with the terms it offers.

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