American International Group Inc, the insurer rescued by the U.S. government in 2008 with a bailout that ultimately totaled $182 billion, may now join a lawsuit against the government alleging the terms of the deal were unfair, the company said on Tuesday.
The news prompted a swift reaction from one of AIG's saviors, with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York saying the insurer could have just as well chosen bankruptcy four years ago and wiped shareholders out entirely.
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The move would be something of a shock, given that AIG just launched a high-profile television ad campaign called "Thank you, America," in which it offers the public its gratitude for the bailout.
"If AIG enters this suit it would be the equivalent of a patient suing their doctor for saving their life," said Mark Williams, a former Federal Reserve bank examiner who teaches in the finance department at Boston University.
"AIG needs to look at only itself as a company that recklessly engaged in excessive risk taking. Government action gave AIG a second life," Williams said.
AIG confirmed on Tuesday that its board would meet Wednesday to discuss joining a lawsuit filed against the government by the insurer's former chief executive, Maurice "Hank" Greenberg.
Greenberg, whose Starr International owned 12 percent of AIG before its near-collapse, has accused the New York Fed of using the rescue to bail out Wall Street banks at the expense of shareholders, and of being a "loan shark" by charging exorbitant interest on the initial loan.
A federal judge in Manhattan dismissed Greenberg's suit in November; it is being appealed. A separate suit under different legal theories is still pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
In his ruling, dated November 19, Judge Paul Engelmayer said AIG had notified the court it would hold a board meeting January 9 to discussing joining one of the suits, with a decision expected by the end of the month.
An AIG spokesman declined to comment beyond confirming that the board would meet as planned. The deliberations were first reported by the New York Times.
The New York Fed said Tuesday there was no merit to any allegations that the bank harmed AIG.
"AIG's board of directors had an alternative choice to borrowing from the Federal Reserve and that choice was bankruptcy. Bankruptcy would have left all AIG shareholders with worthless stock," a representative of the bank said Tuesday.
The U.S. Treasury declined to comment. It completed its final sale of AIG stock in mid-December, concluding the bailout with what Treasury called a positive return of $22.7 billion.
AIG shares fell 1.6 percent to $35.35 in morning trade. After losing half its value in 2011, the stock rose more than 52 percent in 2012, tripling the gains of the broader S&P insurance index.