AIG sells off asbestos risk to Berkshire Hathaway

NEW YORK (Reuters) - American International Group <AIG.N> will transfer its troublesome asbestos risk to Berkshire Hathaway <BRKa.N><BRKb.N>, relieving it of a book of business that has cost it billions of dollars, the bailed-out insurer said on Wednesday.

AIG took a charge of more than $4 billion in the fourth quarter because its exposure to years-old asbestos claims in its Chartis property and casualty insurance business was much higher than it expected.

Laying off that risk to Berkshire's National Indemnity unit lets AIG trade a large one-time fee for the safety of knowing it will not face more huge charges, a plus as the U.S. government tries to convince investors to take its 92 percent stake in the company.

AIG is paying $1.65 billion to Berkshire to take on the U.S.-based risk in exchange for a coverage limit of $3.5 billion. Any further exposure beyond that limit would come back to AIG.

As the fee is less than the reserve for asbestos exposure AIG is still carrying on its books, the company will recognize a deferred gain over time on the difference.

National Indemnity has become a partner of choice for insurers looking to limit their asbestos exposure in exchange for hefty up-front fees. Last July CNA Financial <CNA.N> did a similar deal for a $2 billion payment. National Indemnity also did a similar but larger deal with a Lloyd's of London affiliate in 2006.

Berkshire Class B shares were up 1 percent at $81.30 in trading before the market opened, while AIG gained 0.9 percent to $32.40.

AIG shares closed Tuesday at $32.12, their lowest point in nearly seven months. Adjusting for a dividend of warrants in early January, the stock had lost a third of its value this year, sharply underperforming a roughly flat S&P insurance index <.GSPINSC>.

The shares were also falling closer to the government's break-even point, which is $28.72 per share. At Tuesday's closing price the government's potential profit stands at just over $5.6 billion.

(Reporting by Ben Berkowitz; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)