Thank you, America: AIG mulls suing for insufficient bailout

Here’s AIG’s entry into the series of suck-up commercials bailed-out entities have had to run in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. On one hand, I appreciate the gesture. On the other, the thank-yous ring a bit hollow, the sorrys are non-existent, and they’re always a little heavy on the triumphant return theme. Somehow the cool cinematography of the Eminem Chrysler comeback commercial just doesn’t do it for me when I know I helped pay his fee.

But I get it. This is about brand rebuilding. There are plenty of people at AIG working to do right by both taxpayers and shareholders, and plenty of areas of this huge company that had nothing to do with the financial collapse in the first place. But at AIG, brand rebuilding is clearly a one step forward, two steps back kind of operation:

Fresh from paying back a $182 billion bailout, the American International Group has been running a nationwide advertising campaign with the tagline “Thank you America.”

Behind the scenes, the restored insurance company is weighing whether to tell the government agencies that rescued it during the financial crisis: thanks, but you cheated our shareholders.

The board of A.I.G. will meet on Wednesday to consider joining a $25 billion shareholder lawsuit against the government, court records show. The lawsuit does not argue that government help was not needed. It contends that the onerous nature of the rescue — the taking of what became a 92 percent stake in the company, the deal’s high interest rates and the funneling of billions to the insurer’s Wall Street clients — deprived shareholders of tens of billions of dollars and violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the taking of private property for “public use, without just compensation.”

As Megan McArdle notes, the board is in a bit of a pickle, here. A major shareholders and former CEO filed the lawsuit in 2011 and is urging the company to join, and their obligation to shareholders may dictate they at least consider it:

Presumably the board, who are not actually morons, know that it is a terrible idea to go forward with this lawsuit. Morally, it’s outrageous. Practically, it would be far more trouble than it is worth: suing would (rightly) inflame its US customers against the company, and wouldn’t do much for its relationship with regulators, either. Insurance is one of the most heavily regulated businesses there is, and no insurer pisses of its supervisors without very good reason.

But along comes Hank Greenberg, AIG’s colorful former chief, pushing them to join his quixotic lawsuit. The board has an obligation to pursue things that are in the shareholders’ best interests. To be sure, it’s hard to see how such a lawsuit could possibly be in the actual best interests of any shareholder; a judge is unlikely to be sympathetic, and a jury would be even less so, so this seems like a bunch of pointless brand damage. Nonetheless, shareholders who disagree with that judgement might sue.

They’re gonna need more commercials.